Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit
by Francis Chan
I've Got Jesus. Why Do I Need the Spirit?
We may as well face it: the whole level of spirituality among us is low. We have measured ourselves by ourselves until the incentive to seek higher plateaus in the things of the Spirit is all but gone…. [We] have imitated the world, sought popular favor, manufactured delights to substitute for the joy of the Lord and produced a cheap and synthetic power to substitute for the power of the Holy Ghost.
I am convinced that there is a desperate need in the church for the Holy Spirit of God to be given room to have His way. I think we can agree that there is a problem in our churches, that something is wrong. But I don’t think we can reach an agreement on what to do about it. Most people do not connect what is missing or wrong to a particular need for the Holy Spirit.
A while back, our lack of openness to examining ourselves--especially in the area of the Holy Spirit--really hit me. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my door and initiated conversation. I had a lot to do, so I prepared to send them on their way. But as they began their spiel, I decided to take a few minutes and engage them. I gently told them that I found their teachings about Jesus offensive because they taught that Jesus was the same person as Michael the archangel. I told them that I believe He is much more than one among many angels; that I believe He is God. My visitors replied, “No, Jesus/Michael is the only archangel. There are no other archangels.” So I asked them to open their Bibles to Daniel 10:13, which reads, “But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me.” I pointed out that this passage is clear: Michael is only “one of” the chief princes (or archangels).
This caught them off guard. They told me they’d never heard or read this before. Now that I had their attention, I said, “There’s no way you can look me in the eyes and tell me that you sat down one day seeking to find God, read the Bible, and came to the conclusion that Jesus is the same person as Michael the archangel. No one could come to that conclusion. You only believe it because that’s what you were told, and I don’t want to stand here and spoon-feed you something else.” With that, I challenged them to read the Bible for themselves, rather than simply accept what they’ve been told about it. They went away that day and said they would consider doing that.
I left that conversation feeling a bit proud of myself because I stumped them and got them to question their beliefs. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was fair to them. Had I ever sat down with the Bible and sought after its self-evident truth? Or had I passively ingested what I heard from other people, much like my front-door visitors?
It was then that I began reading the Scriptures as though I had never read them before. I asked the Spirit to make them “living and active” to me, though I’d been reading them for years. I asked God to “penetrate” the wrong and ill-conceived notions I’d collected along the way (Heb. 4:12). It’s a great exercise for those of us who have been immersed in church culture for years.
There are, of course, dangers in this, since the Bible is meant to be interpreted within the context and accountability of faithful community. Yet even with that qualification, there is still a need for those of us nestled deep within the Christian bubble to look beyond the status quo and critically assess the degree to which we are really living biblically.
Most of us assume that what we believe is right (of course we do--it is why we believe what we believe) but have never really studied for ourselves. We were simply told, “This is the way it is,” and didn’t question. The problem is, much of what we believe is often based more on comfort or our culture’s tradition than on the Bible.
I believe we need to reexamine our faith just as much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door need to reconsider theirs. Remember, the Bereans were lifted up as good examples because they questioned the things they were taught. They made sure that even the apostles’ teachings were in line with what was written: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11 NIV).
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One of the areas we desperately need to examine is how we think about and relate to the Holy Spirit. As I said previously, if you or I had never been to a church and had read only the Old and New Testaments, we would have significant expectations of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Think about it. Upon foretelling His death, Jesus comforts the disciples by telling them that “another Counselor” is coming (John 14:16 NIV). In John 16:7, He goes so far as to say it is to their advantage that He leave so the Counselor can come. And in Acts 1:4–5, after His death and resurrection, He tells His disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. (The disciples obey because that’s what people do when someone rises from the dead and gives instructions.) Jesus’ disciples had no idea what or whom they were waiting for, or what it would be like. But they were expectant and trusting because Jesus had instructed them to wait for this good gift.
Then in Acts 2, we see the fulfillment of this promise in a way that must have shocked the disciples. The Holy Spirit’s power is unleashed like no one had ever seen or experienced before, and Peter shares the amazing promise that this Holy Spirit is available to anyone who believes. The Epistles tell us of the Holy Spirit’s amazing power at work in us, our Spirit-enabled ability to put our sin to death through Him, and the supernatural gifts He gives us.
If we read and believed these accounts, we would expect a great deal of the Holy Spirit. He would not be a mostly forgotten member of the Godhead whom we occasionally give a nod of recognition to, which is what He has become in most American churches. We would expect our new life with the Holy Spirit to look radically different from our old life without Him.
Yet this is not the way it is for most people. We don’t live this way. For some reason, we don’t think we need the Holy Spirit. We don’t expect the Holy Spirit to act. Or if we do, our expectations are often misguided or self-serving. Given our talent set, experience, and education, many of us are fairly capable of living rather successfully (according to the world’s standards) without any strength from the Holy Spirit.
Even our church growth can happen without Him. Let’s be honest: If you combine a charismatic speaker, a talented worship band, and some hip, creative events, people will attend your church. Yet this does not mean that the Holy Spirit of God is actively working and moving in the lives of the people who are coming. It simply means that you have created a space that is appealing enough to draw people in for an hour or two on Sunday.
It certainly does not mean that people walk out the doors moved to worship and in awe of God. People are more likely to describe the quality of the music or the appeal of the sermon than the One who is the reason people gather for “church” in the first place.
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I think the worst part is when you get outside the church’s walls and interact with believers and nonbelievers in the same sphere. Can you really tell a difference? If you didn’t recognize their faces from church, would you know from their actions and lifestyle that they were followers of Jesus? Honestly, sometimes I am embarrassed by some of my “Christian” neighbors because my unbelieving neighbors seem more joyful, welcoming, and at peace. Why does this happen? And how is it even possible?
Romans 8:9 says, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” According to this verse, if I am a believer the Spirit of God dwells in me. Paul reiterates that truth in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (NIV). Our bodies are the Spirit’s temple. Later we will delve more into what that means for us; but essentially, it’s that the Holy Spirit makes His home in our bodies. We are His place of dwelling.
And this is the question I just can’t get around: If it’s true that the Spirit of God dwells in us and that our bodies are the Holy Spirit’s temple, then shouldn’t there be a huge difference between the person who has the Spirit of God living inside of him or her and the person who does not?
This may be a silly illustration, but if I told you I had an encounter with God where He entered my body and gave me a supernatural ability to play basketball, wouldn’t you expect to see an amazing improvement in my jump shot, my defense, and my speed on the court? After all, this is God we’re talking about. And if you saw no change in my athleticism, wouldn’t you question the validity of my “encounter”?
Churchgoers all across the nation say the Holy Spirit has entered them. They claim that God has given them a supernatural ability to follow Christ, put their sin to death, and serve the church. Christians talk about being born again and say that they were dead but now have come to life. We have become hardened to those words, but they are powerful words that have significant meaning. Yet when those outside the church see no difference in our lives, they begin to question our integrity, our sanity, or even worse, our God. And can you blame them?
It reminds me of James’s frustration when he writes about freshwater springs producing saltwater. You can almost hear his incredulity as he writes, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (James 3:11). What he’s saying is that so-called Christians were doing something that should’ve been impossible--and this kind of doing the impossible is not a good thing!
He laments, “My brothers, these things ought to not be so” (James 3:10). I echo James’ exhortation to those of us in the church today, My brothers and sisters who have received the Holy Spirit, we often lack love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and etc., even while many of our unbelieving friends exhibit these traits--brothers and sisters, these things ought to not be so! Just as I advised my Jehovah’s Witnesses visitors, we need to begin afresh by reexamining our preconceived ideas about the Holy Spirit and what it means to be a temple of the Spirit. There is much more to God and following in the Way of Jesus than getting a bunch of talented people together to hold a church service.