Understanding the Holy Spirit: Why the Church Must Get Comfortable with Mystery

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There are times when it is best to be honest right up front, and I’d like to begin this article with a moment of confession:

I don’t understand the Holy Spirit.

In writing the book, Receive the Holy Spirit, I took a 70-day writing pilgrimage through the entire season of Pentecost, walking with thousands of others as we followed the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures.

Why?

Because I don’t understand the Holy Spirit—and I never want to.

I think I’m in good company.

A Long Journey with the Holy Spirit

The writing journey was the culmination of four decades of my life invested in learning to love like the Holy Spirit, learning to listen to the Holy Spirit, learning to respond to guidance and impressions and words from the Holy Spirit, learning to hear the melody of Jesus’ voice through the cultural white noise, and learning to pray for those (thousands by a rough count) who were sick or in need.

Over those four decades, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit move in communities, transforming lives in breathtaking and often inexplicable ways. I’ve been in hundreds of times of worship when the Spirit’s presence was palpable in the room. I’ve read books on the Holy Spirit, walked alongside people who were seeing the Spirit move in signs and wonders, and experienced the Father drawing the fruits of the Holy Spirit from my own life and the lives of yielded Christians.

I’ve been in the Vineyard family of churches for over 30 years, drinking deep from the well of thousands of Spirit-powered stories of transformation and deliverance because people, loved by God, decided to join him in his work to rescue human hearts in their neighborhoods.

I’ve stood on cliff faces in Northern Ireland, singing the Doxology, overlooking the sea as it splashed against the rocks below. Like you, I’ve felt the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit holding all things together in the macro and micro world we call home (Col. 1:16).

And, through all of the above, this honest confession remains and becomes more true with every experience:

I don’t understand the Holy Spirit.

I hope you don’t either.

Getting Comfortable with Mystery

God seems to be comfortable using the media of mystery to communicate with us on the path to Christlikeness.

Mystery is what drives explorers, discoverers, and adventurers of the heart to seek treasures they may never find, discovering wonders along the way for which they weren’t even looking.

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Prov. 25:2).

Could it be that a primary evidence of the Holy Spirit at work is our spiritual curiosity? Could it be that the Spirit keeps us engaged in the exploring, discovering, and adventuring process—by revealing the mysteries of God bit by bit as we go?

Because we are kings and queens, a royal priesthood, is it in our bones to search out the unknowns of God, with God, and the Holy Spirit is our Guide who gives us tastes of the Kingdom to keep us searching along the way?

I’m not talking cat-and-mouse, carrot-in-front-of-the-donkey, hide-and-seek theology here.

I’m talking kind and knowing leadership. The Spirit leads us through our deep, spiritual curiosity, and keeps it stirred up within us.

Following the Wind

When Jesus and Nicodemus had their famous mystery meeting, the one in which Nicodemus could be honest with the freedom of a curious child rather than being impressive as an expert teacher of the Law, Jesus said these words about the Holy Spirit:

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

The Spirit is like the wind. The Greek word for the Spirit is pneuma, which means “wind.” It finds its roots in the Hebrew word for the Spirit, ruakh, which means the “breath” of God. I can’t think of a more mysterious metaphor from the physical world about the moving of the Holy Spirit than this one from Jesus. Wind is invisible. We can’t even assign it a color without using our imagination.

If I said I could see the wind, know it well, understand it, grasp it, and then predict what it does, why it does it, and what it will do next—wouldn’t that sound like a stretch? But if I said I could feel the wind, experience it, know it as one knows the touch of a loved one—wouldn’t that sound more believable?

The unpredictable, surprising God seems to be content with this approach to explaining the Holy Spirit. Like the wind, we learn to recognize the experience of the Spirit, the touch of the Spirit, because we are born of the Spirit (v. 8).

Recognizing those invisible impressions, and practicing following them with trust and faith, we begin to learn to follow the Wind rather than demanding that the Wind follow us.

To follow the Holy Spirit means we are willing to not always understand, not always get the empirical data we need to take a risk, not always get to be in control of what God does in us and through us.

To follow, means to surrender. And surrender means that we yield to the God who invites us into the unknown.

That’s what saints do—surrender to the mysterious work of God.

Yielding will always be more important than understanding in the Kingdom Jesus’ preached.

Receive the Holy Spirit

As a follower of Jesus for over 40 years, like many of us reading this, I’ve sought to receive the Spirit (John 20:22), be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), keep in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:16,25), bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), be used in the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:1-11), and live in the freedom of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17).

While incredible things have happened along the way, I feel as though I still have so much yet to learn.

But we grow by experience, don’t we? We don’t just read about gardening; we learn by gardening ourselves, hands deep in the soil, planting and watering seeds that seem to grow by a miracle of creation.

When it comes to growing in our experience of the Holy Spirit, it is similar.

When we read that the work of the Holy Spirit is to bring beauty, order, meaning, and glory from chaos (Gen. 1), we can walk with the Spirit through our own lives and the lives of others with the confidence that the Spirit will use us to bring that same beauty, order, meaning, and glory into the situations we face.

We begin to accumulate Scriptures and stories about the Holy Spirit that go hand-in-hand, giving us confidence to participate with the Spirit in bringing the Father’s New Creation life into the world as we know it.

In the book, Receive the Holy Spirit, I share just a few of my own stories, and the stories of others—stories of experiencing the Holy Spirit in every day life—and joining the Spirit in the work of bringing wholeness into the chaos around us.

When we receive the Holy Spirit, as the early disciples did, we receive God’s fruits and gifts for ourselves, and for serving others as our Lord did (Matt. 20:28).

The Surprising Spirit Is Waiting

It’s my prayer that as we continue to learn about the Holy Spirit, you and I will learn to love the surprising, unpredictable, faithful, creative, and loving work that only the Holy Spirit can do.

I don’t understand the Holy Spirit.

I hope you don’t either.

Let the next adventure begin.

P.S. Join me on a 70-day journey through the Scriptures in my new book, Receive the Holy Spirit. May we discover together the Person and work of the Holy Spirit in a fresh, beautiful, and life-changing way.

My hope is that you will:

  • Be invited to receive the Spirit of God into your very being
  • Learn what the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit, the second person of the Trinity
  • Experience the difference of living filled with the creative and sustaining power of God’s Spirit

The study has questions and prayers for use as a personal study, with a group, or with your entire church. You can get it here.

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Dan Wilt is a member of the Seedbed farm team. He has decades experience as a pastor, worship leader, teacher, and leader of creatives across the globe.

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