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?
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.
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.
Jack Levison is professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University. The author of many books and articles, including Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (Paraclete Press), Levison is the recipient of numerous national and international awards for his scholarship. He has a B.A. from Wheaton College, an M.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from Duke University. He lives near Seattle.