All Christians believe in the reality of the Holy Spirit, the ‘third person’ of the Trinity, who together with the Father and the Son comprises the One True God. How that “three-in-one” thing works is, of course, completely incomprehensible to human reason – but within the profound mystery that is the Trinity, the nature of the Holy Spirit is even more mysterious. It’s not that we lack information – references to Him (or is it ‘IT’?) are found throughout the Bible, appearing in its very first verses as a participant in creation (Genesis 1:2) and building to a crescendo of over 380 mentions in the New Testament. Yet, who or what exactly is the Holy Spirit?
One of the things that makes it difficult for us to get a handle on the Holy Spirit is that He is a spirit — that is, a non-material being (which is why we sometimes use the Old English term ‘ghost.’) We find it easier to picture Jesus since He was incarnated as a human like us, and just the name ‘Father’ connects us to God the Father. But the Holy Spirit is invisible, silent, and mysterious – always present, always active, yet never really in focus as an entity that we can recognize. The closest we get to a tangible manifestation of the Holy Spirit is the dove that came down at Jesus’ baptism or the tongues of flame that alighted on the disciples at Pentecost, but these representations only deepen, rather than clarify the mystery of His nature (we don’t really think the Holy Spirit is a bird, after all!).
If we look to the Apostle’s Creed for help we notice that the Father is described by His work of creation, the Son by the events of His human life, and the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
At first glance, it seems that the ‘third article’ is changing the subject – talking about important aspects of the Christian life while telling us nothing at all about the Holy Spirit. But that’s precisely the point: the Holy Spirit is all about life in Christ. Luther explains His work this way: “the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” There’s much more, but you get the idea: the Holy Spirit keeps me alive and growing in my relationship to God.
The Greek word used in the New Testament for ‘spirit’ is pneuma. You may recognize that as the basis for our words pneumatic and pneumonia, because pneuma means ‘air’ or ‘breath.’ That makes perfect sense because the Holy Spirit is to the soul as breath is to the body – when present there is life, and when absent there is death. The presence of the Holy Spirit is so critical that Jesus is quoted in three of the Gospels as saying that whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (e.g., Mark 3:28-29). Now that statement is a deep theological discussion in itself, but we can at least approximate its meaning by noting that it is analogous to saying that if you disdain breathing you can forget living!
Sometimes Christians wonder: “So how do I know whether the Holy Spirit is really in me?” That’s kind of like asking, “How do I know I’m breathing?” Well, are you alive? If so, then you’re breathing! If you are spiritually alive enough to be concerned about the presence of the Holy Spirit, then He most certainly IS working in you!
Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not, for most of us at least, a matter of spiritual fireworks and ecstatic experience. It’s more of a daily “breathing in and breathing out” that quietly sustains our spiritual life, usually without our notice. Just as it’s not necessary (or even healthy) to obsess about our breathing, Christians live confidently in the promise that the Holy Spirit is on the job, doing His work of renewal and life. That’s not the same as saying we can neglect or abuse our spiritual life, any more than it’s healthy to do that with our bodies. Routine ‘exercise’ in prayer, meditation, and opening our hearts to the Word of God are the disciplines that keep the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit pumping vigorously. (And periodically it helps to remember to just stop what we’re doing and ‘breathe deeply’!)