In my last post, I suggested that conversational intimacy – two or more persons disclosing themselves to one another in close proximity – is a significant part of with relationships. Because of this, we often long for it to be a part of our relationship with the Holy Spirit. But to have this kind of intimacy with the Spirit would actually place a limit on our relationship with him. Instead, Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit will be in them. There is a deeper relationship in view, and the good news is that Christians – by God’s grace at work within them – are already experiencing this relationship. The task remains for us to learn how to recognize the Spirit’s leadership and grow in our relationship with him.
Jesus’s words in John 15 are crucial in understanding the nature of this relationship. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5 NIV). Now the vine and the branches are distinct – a branch can be removed from a vine without diminishing the vine. And yet it would be inappropriate to speak of the life of the branch as somehow different than the life of the vine. Instead, we see that the vitality of the plant flows up from the roots through the vine and comes to expression in the individual branch. This must be something close to the relationship that we have with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit expresses his personal qualities (will, desire, thought, etc.) in us. You might even say – to borrow an expression from Lutheranism – that his personal qualities are expressed “in, with, and under” our personal qualities. He interpenetrates our being in such a way that he thinks through our thoughts, feels through our emotions, and senses things through our intuition. To say this all with a Pauline slant – “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). So we must work, and even as we are working God is working in us to bring about his purposes.
We might adapt from C. S. Lewis an analogy from music (he used it to discuss the moral law and our impulses in Mere Christianity). Imagine that all of our personal attributes (will, emotions, habits, and the like) are the keys of a piano. Now think of the Spirit as a master performer. He comes along and engages the right keys in the right tempo to bring about a beautiful peace of music. We are bringing forth the sounds – these are truly our thoughts and emotions and intuitions – and yet they are sounding out because of the personal intentions of the Spirit. He is leading us. If we grieve him with our ongoing sin, then we find that he permits us to try and play the music on our own. We might with great effort ape his performance for a time, but eventually we will begin missing notes and falling out of tune. To ignore the Spirit’s work is to play discordant music. Hence there is a contrast between the acts of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Now it is true that sometimes the thoughts or the intuitions we have will be so startling and so seemingly other than the normal course of our experience that it will feel like the with relationships we know so well. In thinking of my own call to ministry, I remember experiencing in a time of prayer a thought that entered my mind with such force that it seemed audible. I understood this to be the Lord calling me to serve His church. Or we might experience the sudden urge to pray for someone, only to find out later that they were experiencing a significant event at that very time. But more often, I think, we will think and feel and sense things in perfectly ordinary ways. We will be doing some type of inductive Bible study, and grasp hold of the meaning of a passage. We will hear a prayer request spoken out loud and simply pray for the person because we were asked. How do we know this is the work of the Spirit? Because the fruit of our lives will be love, joy, peace, and the other things identified in Scripture as the signs of God’s work. Our life will have a sense of integrity and rightness that is deeper than circumstances and passing moods. But if things start to go out of tune, if discord and impatience and strife mark our path, then maybe we need to take the time to personally disclose ourselves again to the Spirit who lives within us. Remember – “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). So the “full” life which Jesus promises is a sign that our personal qualities are being guided by the Spirit. The loss and devastation of life (which is different, in this case, than external suffering) is a sign that we are not cooperating with the Spirit in his work.
Therefore, be free of the burden of pursuing the elusive with relationship with the Spirit. Instead, work out your salvation (which you did not or could not earn) and trust that God is at work within you. Study Scripture. Pray. Do acts of mercy. Worship with God’s covenant people. The Spirit is leading you in these things, and he will continue to do so. As we consider the matter of being led by the Spirit, there are at least two more issues that need to be taken up. We will consider them in the next post.