Even though I was not aware of the need for oxygen it was there for me. God did not withhold it until I was aware of what it was and what it could do for me. God in his mercy gave me oxygen even before that day I had the wind knocked out of me and learned how essential it was to my survival.
This has also been my experience with the Holy Spirit. I had studied the Holy Spirit with a view to what the Spirit does not do. I had disagreements with people over the work, nature and value of the Holy Spirit. Even now I’m not sure I can do justice in explaining just how valuable or crucial the Holy Spirit is to our lives. But I’ve had the "spiritual wind" knocked out of me a few times, and I’ve come to realize that a spiritual life without the Holy Spirit is about as fruitful and pleasant as a physical life without oxygen.
What is the Holy Spirit doing today?
What is the Holy Spirit doing in our lives right now? I will suggest four things the Holy Spirit is wanting to do in your life. More could be said, but prayerfully this is a start that God will bless.
Paul is writing to Christians. He is concerned that even though they are Christians who may regularly pray, worship, fellowship and do good works, they are satisfied with their spiritual lives. They are not growing closer to God and they do not understand the hope they have in Jesus. Instead of a vibrant spiritual life they are stagnated. Paul challenges that with his prayer. He prays that the Holy Spirit will enlighten them to the depth of spiritual blessings God has for them.
Christians are not the only ones who are the recipients of the Spirit’s enlightening work. Jesus said the wind (or Spirit) blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8), and it pleases the Spirit to work on Christians and even on those who are not. Consider the story in Acts 16:13-15. Paul and his companions are in Philippi. On the Sabbath he searched for a place to pray. He found a place but it was being used by some women, one of them named Lydia. Paul invited himself to join the group and began teaching them. Verse fourteen says that "The Lord opened her (Lydia’s) heart to respond to Paul’s message."
This is a bit threatening if we are prone to limit the Holy Spirit. The story challenges notions about who the Holy Spirit will work upon and how he will do it. Lydia, a woman not yet a Christian, has become the target of God’s work through the Spirit.
The word for open is διανοίγω. It is used for opening things physically, such as ears. Jesus commanded the ears of a deaf man to "be opened" (Mark 7:34) so he could hear. This word can also be used figuratively. Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened (Gen. 3:5,7), not in the sense that they had been literally closed, but in the sense that they could understand things now that they didn’t before. Also, the eyes of the disciples in Luke 24:31 were opened so they could understand that the "stranger" they had been visiting and eating with was Jesus. Jesus also opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the scriptures (V.45).
The idea of God or the Spirit opening our eyes, hearts or minds means that God makes it possible for people to better understand the meaning of his word and better grasp the richness of the blessings he has for us. For Lydia, that meant that she would be able to grasp the meaning of Paul’s teaching and have the opportunity to accept that message and respond to it. The Lord opening her mind did not mean that Lydia was without responsibility to that message: she still had to respond to it. She did, and verse fifteen says she was baptized.
There is a second work the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives, and that is saving us. Part of the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit is to make us realize our need for God to do his work in us. People can become blind to their circumstances. Many people in poor health refuse proper treatment because they don’t want to face the seriousness of their disease.
Are we much different spiritually? How many people would know that lying, adultery, gossip, envy, greed and arguing are wrong if it wasn’t for the prompting of the Holy Spirit? The Spirit of God creates a sense of discontent within us and a longing for something better. Titus 3:3 describes life without the Holy Spirit: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another."
What a horrible existence. Being "enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures" means we live by our gut instincts, by our animal drives and cravings. A man or woman who lives by their passions doesn’t practice loyalty to their spouses but seeks pleasure elsewhere. A disobedient person lives in malice, hating others and being hated by them. His life is consumed by unholy attitudes.
An old fashioned way of training coon dogs to hunt was to throw a pup into a 55-gallon drum. Inside that drum was racoon. As soon as the dog hit the bottom of the drum the fight was on. There was barking, growling, whining, biting, and clawing. Finally, the drum would grow silent except for the whining of the one animal still alive and now in pain. If the dog won, he’ll hate coons! Put him on the trail of a coon and he’ll track it down to kill it! If the coon won, well, go get another dog to drop in the barrel. There is always room for another fight.
That is what life is like without the Holy Spirit. Without God’s presence the quality of human lives can deteriorate to that of a dog and a coon in the bottom of a barrel - we can fight, claw, scratch and bite with great vigor and excitement. Paul says we are full of hate. People who live this way devour and destroy each other by their constant biting (Galatians 5:15).
Then one day God descended into the barrel. "But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Titus 3:4-6).
"Washing" is likely a reference to baptism.1 At baptism we experience the washing of sin from our lives (Acts 22:16). But even more happens at our baptism: we experience renewal and rebirth. The layers of foolishness and disobedience that shrouded our existence before is peeled away. The hate and envy that penetrated our hearts is purged. We are renewed. We are new.
Because of the work of the Holy Spirit renewing and rebirthing us through baptism, we are no longer the clawing, fighting, hateful creatures thrown into a barrel to produce greater strife. Instead, we experience the reshaping and reframing of our inner lives to produce love, joy, peace, kindness and other wholesome, godly qualities (Gal. 5:19-20).
As renewed and reborn people we are now heirs of eternal life. We are no longer foolish, disobedient people who live without the Holy Spirit. God has saved us from that! The quality of our new lives reflect that change. In Titus 3:8 Paul says we are now "careful to devote (ourselves) to doing what is good."
God’s Spirit enlightens us and saves us from the miserable existence we are consigned to in this earthly existence and in the one to come for all those who do not know God as Father, Jesus as Savior, and the Holy Spirit as the empowerment of God.
Does our awareness of the Holy Spirit make any difference for our lives? We can frustrate the Spirit. But the Spirit wants to encourage us to know that God is working daily in our lives.
Sometimes we get hammered in the solar plexus. It takes our breath away. It may be finances, a fight with a child, a disappointment at church. Are we struggling with this all alone? We don’t have to. If we will humble ourselves to the Spirit’s work, God strengthens us and develops us to handle anything that thrusts itself into our lives.
A third great work the Holy Spirit is doing is transforming the lives of God’s people. The word in the Bible for "transform" is μεταμορφόω. Our English word metamorphosis comes from this term. We use this word to describe the dramatic change in a caterpillar when it goes from being a crawly thing to a beautiful butterfly.
There is no less of a dramatic change that takes place in human beings when they come under the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit. A bold statement about this is made in 2 Corinthians 3:18: "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."
This statement from Paul looks back into the Old Testament where Moses went up onto the mountain to commune with God. When Moses would come down from the mountain his face would shine radiantly from having been in God’s presence. The people were afraid to draw near to Moses so he would put a veil over his face to dim the brilliance of God’s reflection (Exodus 34:29-35).
Today, through Christ and because of the Holy Spirit, we all have the privilege of looking upon God’s glory. "With unveiled faces (we) all reflect the Lord’s glory." Reflect can mean two things. One, it can mean that God’s radiance is seen in our faces or character. When we act like God, we reflect God’s character, much like a mirror reflects the sun. Second, this word can also mean to "look at."2 We can look at God’s glory and not be intimidated like the ancient Israelites were. The Holy Spirit gives us boldness in our access to God (2 Cor. 3:12).
Something happens in our lives and to our character as we gaze steadily upon God: "We are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory." The effect of continuous gazing upon God and approaching his greatness rubs off on us. We become more like the one we are concentrating upon.
This verse indicts me. Think of all the time in church we have spent studying, discussing and even arguing over lesser-issues. Think of all the church splits over opinions that are unimportant. How many brothers have parted ways because of a disagreement over how to evangelize, run a program, or which version to read? How many splits were really due to personality differences?
How these disputes must tear at the heart of God. If we were gazing upon God as Paul encourages us to, would we have the time or desire to dispute over some of these issues? If we are gazing upon God, we are becoming more like him. Two are things happening:
One, attention is off of ourselves. As we look at God in all of his eternal glory and splendor, his power and majesty, his love and wrath, how can we keep ourselves at the center? Our personal opinions and drives pale into insignificance before the majesty of God.
Two, attention is upon God, where it needs to be. We are gazing upon the Eternal One. His very nature demands our attention and concentration and we are drawn into his personality and nature.
At Wyoming Bible Camp in Lander, Wyoming a mountain in front of the camp known as "Candy Rock" beckons campers and staff to climb it. There are relatively easy routes up the mountain but there are challenging routes as well. There is one section of a path that you can not manage alone. When you are climbing down this section you can not see where to place your feet. You have to lie on your stomach, place your feet over the edge of the rock and slide down. Someone below you has to take your foot and place in on a ledge under the rock you are lying on.
The first time I was on this section I said, "No way I am doing that!" But everyone else in the group did, so I was not going to be the only chicken. It really works out quite smoothly if you listen to the leader of the group. He’ll stand below you and say, "Listen to me, do what I say, and you will make it." He is right.
I think that is what Paul is saying in 2 Cor. 3:18. "Listen to God. Pay attention to God. Gaze upon him. If you will, the Holy Spirit will work in your life. The Spirit may not change your situation, but he will transform you. You will become more like the one you are looking at."
God enlightens us by his Spirit, he works to save us by his Spirit, and once saved, he continues to work in us with his Spirit to transform us. We are no longer clawing animals in the bottom of a barrel. We are saved and are being transformed to be like the one who saved us. In the act of transformation, God is lifting us up to be more like him in character. Over time, we see our hateful inclinations change to loving ones, our selfish motives change to graciousness, our immoral drives change to purity and chastity, our argumentative spirit to one that is tolerant and compassionate.
As God changes us we become less individualistic, less self-centered, less anti-social. We become more group-oriented. We think of others more and we are developing the character and disposition to be able to live peaceably in community with them. When that happens, we are being prepared by God to be more than just the recipients of the blessings of the Holy Spirit ... we now work in and with the Holy Spirit to help dispense those blessings to others. This is the fourth thing the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives:
The Holy Spirit is gifting us for life in the body. There is another passage in the Bible that compares life with and without the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:15-21 presents life apart from God’s enlightening, saving, transforming and gifting work. The opening verse of this section reads: "If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other" (V.15).
Paul is writing this to Christians! It is sad to think that brothers and sisters in Christ can forget that they wear the name of God, and that the blood flowing through their spiritual veins is the Spirit of Christ. Brothers and sisters can bite and devour each other, like the racoon and dog. Their fighting destroys the life that God breathed into them at their conversion.
If people live without the Spirit of God they are living by the flesh, v.16. Some versions say, "sinful nature." "Flesh" or "sinful nature" is: "...The supreme enemy in the warfare in the soul ... To live in the flesh is the precise opposite of being a Christian ... To live in the flesh is the exact opposite of to live in the Spirit ... to be in the flesh is to be under sin (Rom. 7:14). To be dominated by the flesh and to be the slave of sin are one and the same thing."3
Life in the Flesh
Those living in the flesh are living like children in the terrible twos. During the terrible twos the kids decide they are going to rule the house. They decide on their bedtime, when to get up, when to will eat, if they will use the potty and if they want to be nice. It is the job of mom and dad to override the two year olds and repel their take over or else chaos will reign in the home.
People who live by their sinful nature are still in the terrible twos. They still think they are running their little world. They give in to their gut instincts and live by their sensual desires. They can’t say "no" to anything, even if they want to. Sin has invaded their lives and has set off an intense internal conflict. Sin is destroying their lives and they are helpless to do anything about it. Paul says: "For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." Gal. 5:17-21
The comparison of the terrible twos conveys some of the idea here, but it is rather weak when you consider that sin is utterly destroying a person’s life. Every one of these descriptions by Paul about the sinful nature is a destructive attribute. How can you live in peace with someone who is selfishly ambitious? Who throws fits of rage? Who is jealous? You can’t. They are disruptive of every relationship. There is no peace with a terrible two who is not controlled, whether he is two years old or forty-two years old.
Sadly, the people whose lives are controlled and destroyed by the sinful nature can’t do anything about it. Some may want out, but by their own power they can do nothing. They are helplessly trapped in this internal conflict, and they are losing. Their only hope is that the Spirit of God begins his re-creative work.
A family simply can not live with this kind of sinful behavior, and the Father of the family knows that. What does he do? The same Spirit who enlightens us, saves us and transforms us continues to work in us. The Spirit applies sandpaper to us. The Spirit, over time, works on those rough edges, sanding them and smoothing them out. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other" (Gal. 5:22-25).
We can live with this person at home, work or in church. This kind of personality does not just happen. It develops over time by the sanding of the Holy Spirit of our rough edges. It is even more than that. The Spirit doesn’t just work on our rough exterior: he penetrates to the inside and reworks our hearts.
When we live in the flesh we are at war. We are warriors for the evil one, at war with ourselves and everyone around us. Hatred, strife, fits of rage, arguing, factions, immorality, idolatry, witchcraft ... these are the terms of warfare for the evil one. All of these vices share a common trait: they are punctuated by selfishness. The sinful nature is "our attempt to think and live apart from God, thinking that what we have stems from ourselves alone ..."4 The fleshly person is incredibly selfish, thinking of only his own appetites and drives. He cares not how he destroys another’s life. The fleshly person robs those who try to live in peaceful community. They ruin their own families and the family of God.
Life in the Spirit
But the Holy Spirit creates another kind of person. On our own we can not defeat the evil one. We need God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit for that. When we obey Jesus and the Spirit enters our lives, we have the assurance of victory. Led by the Spirit, we find the strength to resist the unholy spirit of hate, envy, arguing, rage. We move toward the attitudes that foster peaceful community: love, joy peace, kindness and patience.
The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be redeemed people and to live in relationship with other redeemed people. On our own we can not function well in community. We remember too many past hurts and grievances. We harbor ill-will toward others. But the Spirit of God invades our hearts and convicts us of our own sin. He presents our selfishness to us in all of its ugly truth. He breaks our heart and moves us to continually repent. With this kind of Spirit, life in community becomes possible. You can forgive me and love me. I can forgive you and love you.
The Holy Spirit does not work in us against our will. We must make a conscious choice to "live by the Spirit," or "walk in the Spirit" (5:16). "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" (5:25). So daily we pray, "Father, thank you for saving us from the destructive lifestyle of the flesh. Thank you for enlightening us, saving us, transforming us and gifting us for life in the community. Thank you for your church and allowing a sinful person like me to enter it. Keep me humble. Help me to forgive the rough edges of other people as they continue to forgive me. Thank you."
Warren Baldwin March 27, 2007