5 Misunderstandings About the Holy Spirit

Some friends from my days at Wheaton College recently spent some time with my wife and me in Seattle. We haven’t seen much of them since graduation, but know that they have committed their lives to the Holy Spirit’s leading—which, in their case, led them to opening a medical clinic for Quechuans in the backwoods of Bolivia. The native Quechua are small and dark, while the descendants of Spaniards are tall and white. My friends long ago threw in their lot with the small and dark people.

You’d think answering God’s call to the nations would be enough submission to the Spirit for any Christian couple. But as the evening wound down, our friends asked us if they should speak in tongues. An acquaintance gave them the name of her pastor to help them. “Should we call him?” they asked.

I was stunned. What could prompt two committed Christians—with deep devotional lives and radical work among the world’s forgotten—to yearn for a further work of the Holy Spirit?

Of course, Christians should want to delve deeper into the Holy Spirit—an integral part of the Trinity, which is core to the Christian faith. But do all Christians need to experience this “special” manifestation of the Spirit’s gifts?

instead of waiting for the divine moment when the Spirit will fall, develop your disciplines, and do it in community.

This assumption, I think, is rooted in serious misconceptions about the Holy Spirit that can keep us from a full understanding of this mysterious Person of the Trinity. Let’s look at some of the most common misconceptions.

1) The Spirit Comes in Spurts

This is simply not true. Every breath we take is a gulp of God’s Spirit. Think about Job for a minute—scratching himself with broken pots and croaking, “As long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, my lips will not speak falsehood” (Job 27:3-4, emphasis mine). From the beginning when God breathed life into Adam, breath is nothing less than Spirit.

We couldn’t survive if we breathed in spurts. We shouldn’t seek God’s Spirit in spurts.

Instead, learn to cherish each breath you take as a gift of the Spirit of God. Breathe often. Breathe deeply. Experience God’s inspiration—God’s inbreathing—moment by moment.

2) The Spirit’s Work is Spectacular

Think about Daniel of the lion’s den fame. For decades, foreign rulers were drawn to the extraordinary spirit of God in Daniel. Why? Because he ate simply, rejected ambition and studied hard. Daniel refused to climb the ladder of success by knotting himself to the handsome, hunky elite Israelites whom the Babylonians trained to help rule run-of-the-mill refugees.

So don’t go for the quick fix—the flashy experience. Live instead for the long haul because the Spirit pulses in people who opt for simplicity and humility rather than ambition and acquisition—people who choose simple veggies over lavish lifestyles.

Don’t expect the Holy Spirit to coddle you—not if you want to grow spiritually.

3) The Spirit is Spontaneous

On the contrary, the Bible often shows it is diligent preparation that paves the way for the Holy Spirit.

Take for example the church in Antioch—where Christian mission took root 2,000 years ago.

What made these early Christians responsive to what the Holy Spirit said, as Luke puts it in the book of Acts, a word that inaugurated full-fledged, highly effective outreach?

For starters, they spent an entire year studying Scripture under Paul and Barnabas. They were generous too, and donated to famine victims before the tragedy even occurred. They fasted and worshiped—which is what they were doing when they heard the word of the Holy Spirit. The ingredients of a healthy church were squarely in place at Antioch.

So instead of waiting for the divine moment when the Spirit will fall, develop your disciplines, and do it in community. Study, pray, fast and give with an eye toward that moment when all that you have done will come together, and you will hear a single, significant word of the Holy Spirit that changes everything.

4) The Spirit is Commanding and Authoritative

In Isaiah 42, you’ll meet an inspired servant—God’s delight on whom God’s spirit rests. This servant “will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he won’t break, a dimly burning wick he won’t quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

This servant won’t succeed by screaming, ranting or raving. And just how successful is this inspired servant? “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching” (Isaiah 42:1-2).

So hush. Teach quietly, patiently, without fanfare—until justice fills the earth and people on the margins get wind of God.

5) The Spirit is Safe and Gentle

After His baptism, the Holy Spirit entered Jesus gently, deftly, exquisitely—with the soft movements of a descending dove. But what did the Spirit do next?

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” Mark 1:12 says. The Holy Spirit drove out Jesus just like Jesus drove out demons, drove out leprosy, drove out the money changers from the temple.

The gentleness of a dove following Jesus’ baptism was left in the dust by the violent force of the Spirit.

So don’t expect the Holy Spirit to coddle you—not if you want to grow spiritually. The Holy Spirit understands that we learn best against the odds, in hardship, in the hostile desert rather than along the peaceful banks of the Jordan River.

If you think the Holy Spirit’s work moves suddenly and spontaneously, that it always appears in glamorous and authoritative displays—think again. The Spirit of God is steady—always present, and always at work whether in spectacular or simple ways.

33 Comments

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Keansalzer commented…

While I love metaphors, symbols, types and shadows I wonder how accurate it would be, or how offensive one might find it, if any person(a) were called a flame. Is Jesus a light? Yes. But we fall in love with Him because He manifested as a person and lived in grace.
Trying to nail down a complex person(a) as any one thing is boring. Every one is all sorts of things...a wide range of possibilities based on the need at hand.
Jesus referred to the Spirit as He.

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SurvivorGirl commented…

I'm grateful for your balanced perspective. I've had uncomfortable issues regarding tongues ever since a small group participant came to the group (of 4 women) one day after she read a "how-to" book, given to her by another group member, and said it enabled her to speak in tongues during her prayer time. My visceral responses were: 1. Why was the book shared only with you and no one else in our group? (and a HOW-TO book? Really?) 2. Didn't Paul teach that tongues are for the edification of others? How are you edifying others during a private prayer time? And 3. Why do I get the feeling you're bragging about your experience? The rest of us feel left out of this whole deal. (And that's definitely NOT edifying!) I guess this is my way of being a bit cynical about tongues, believing that the gift has been abused, although I don't doubt for a minute that they are very effective where God intends them to be.

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DavidT commented…

a how to "book of tongues"...Hmmm you aren't alone in your experiences.

It's an odd notion to write a "how to book" on tongues to say the least.

Grace is a funny word.......What does it mean to be graceful?

If we understood tongues, no book on it would ever ever need to exist to explain it. we would simply understand it.
Since we do have a book to explain it, we clearly do not understand it. The mere existence of how to speak in tongues proves itempirically.

It's aGreekparadox doneintentionally, not accidentally, much like aBuddhistkoine but better!!!! It's like reverseempiricismtoo funny.

Grace full of grace........

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Anonymous commented…

Thanks, SurvivorGirl. Last week, I taught for a few minutes in my Introduction to Bible about speaking in tongues. What I find interesting--and I hope you do, too--is that Paul, no matter how crude and misguided the Corinthians were, never threw out the baby with the bath. The Corinthians made a hierarchy of spiritual gifts, with speaking in tongues at the top; Paul made his own list of spiritual giftswith knowledge, wisdom, and faith at the top--and speaking in tongues at the bottom (1 Corinthians 12). Yet Paul did not get rid of tongues altogether. He put speaking in tongues in their place, far below knowledge, wisdom, and faith.
Your friend's mistake--and she is not alone--lies in giving priority to speaking in tongues. Wouldn't it be just as good, or even better, to say, "Here's a book about wisdom!" or"Here's a book about knowledge!" That's not nearly as flashy--wisdom comes through mistakes, pain, sustained prayer, and study--but it is thefirst of the spiritual gifts in Paul's list.
In Fresh Air: the Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (the last chapter, "Peter's Praise") Idiscuss precisely this: how to give ecstasy its place alongside intellect, how to appreciate speaking in tongues alongside knowledge. Maintaining our balance is key. Maintaining our balance, I would say more strongly, is biblical!
Again, thanks for your thoughts. Thanks especially for your questions. As I say to my students, good questions are an indication of a great brain.

John-Marc Hazucha

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John-Marc Hazucha commented…

I personally really enjoy this article: http://deeperstory.com/tongue-talker/

I think it has a well-balanced view about tongues. And I think the Spirit is more varied than we give Him credit. At the same time, the will of the Spirit is always to glorify God, not to show off or otherwise do things for the heck of it.

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