Since I was unable to complete the Henri Nouwen series last month, I am going to use this final post on Nouwen as a transition to July’s Wisdom Wednesdays series: the elusive Holy Spirit. Personally, the question of who/what is the Holy Spirit is something that has unnerved me in the past, since I come from a background that was not centered on that. For the next few weeks, I will work through who the Holy Spirit is and why he’s so important to the spiritual life of a Christian. It is my hope that this series will help bring a little more clarity to the often forgotten third person of the Trinity (or Forgotten God, as Francis Chan would say). As always, push back or questions are appreciated!
Holy Spirit as oxygen for the spiritual life
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
The Doxology is a beautiful declaration of the Christian faith and it helps differentiate the faith from the other religions of the world. It’s pretty easy to relate to the Father and Son in the song and Scripture, because we conceptually understand those two roles. It’s the third person that is a little trickier though. Let’s be honest, what is this Holy Ghost?
Something that helps me understand the Holy Spirit is by thinking of him as the wind or oxygen for the spiritual life.
It is important to realize that when I speak about the spiritual life here though, it does not mean that it is cut off from every other part of our lives. Instead, it means that we are breathing fresh air, the type you get at the ocean or in the mountains. It means that we have (re)claimed a new identity, an identity that is planted in becoming a child of God. A spiritual life deals with the whole of who you and I are, it’s not just one part of a multi-faceted you. Just as taking a huge breath of air helps the various systems within the human body, so does drawing in the Spirit of God into our “lungs” help clarify our lives.
Let me adjust my nerd glasses here and remind you that spirit in the ancient languages means “breath.” Interestingly, Henri Nouwen draws the connection between this Holy Spirit (breath of God) with our breathing patterns. While athletes regulate their breath in training and singers are conscious of it when performing on the stage, most of the time, we are completely unaware of our lungs expanding and contracting. It’s so integral to our life that we only think about it only when something goes wrong with it.
Holy Spirit as the breath of life
The Spirit of God is a lot like that.
Often we don’t notice that it’s moving in us, but without this breath it would be impossible to live a “spiritual life.” Nouwen would write that it is the Holy Spirit who will “pray in us, offer gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.” And ultimately, “it is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.” There is a beautiful passage in Romans that comfortingly states that it is the Holy Spirit that will speak on our behalf when we don’t quite know what or how to pray. He will intercede for us, even when all we can do is groan in anguish.
Recall that a trapeze artist needs to throw her hands up and rely on their partner to catch them mid-flight. Her life is dependent on the sure hands of a partner. Similarly for someone who have trouble breathing, they need to have fresh air pushed into their lungs. They need an intercession by another to help restore the flow of oxygen into their system and ensure life.
I think this is one of the great challenges of accepting the Gospel. For at its core, we have to accept a gift and cannot give anything in return. We receive the breath of the living God through this good news. The gift that Nouwen describes is this breath of life. And it is in a place of prayerfulness that followers of Jesus receive the breath of God and let their lives be renewed and expanded.
What are some other ways to capture who the Holy Spirit is?