On the Spirit


The Holy Spirit – or, since it’s a name, you can leave off the article and call the third person of the Trinity “Holy Spirit” – is, by definition, very hard to pin down. Mom used to say to us, when we were kids, that if we got a really good idea, and we didn’t know where it came from, it was probably Holy Spirit. That’s fair enough, and I’ll probably use the same tip for my kids. But a relationship with Holy Spirit, as a person of the Triune God, is so much more than that. This meditation is a collection of what I’ve learned about Holy Spirit during my two years in seminary, reinforced by many years of relationship before that.

First – and I only put this first by way of explanation – I am going to refer to Holy Spirit in the feminine for the rest of this meditation. I confess, I was a little weirded out when I first heard some close friends call Holy Spirit “she,” as I’ve never had a problem with gender-specific language in Scripture or elsewhere. The generic masculine is just a part of the grammar I grew up with, so I have no problem feeling included when the word “man” is used. But according to more recent research, this is changing. When young girls hear the generic “man,” “men,” “mankind,” “he,” etc., they are less likely to intuit that they are included. And to be fair, why should they? This is why I’ve come to embrace the use of gender-neutral language when appropriate in Bible translations, liturgies, etc. From a linguistic standpoint, it makes sense, and to do otherwise is to alienate people unnecessarly.

But I digress. What does this have to do with Holy Spirit? The Bible makes it pretty clear that both men and women are created in the image of God. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Man isn’t the image of God; humanity is the image of God, and it takes both men and women together to image God. Now, God doesn’t have gender in Godself, because, well, God doesn’t have a body. But God is a person – three persons, to be precise – and at least in English, it’s just awkward to talk about a person without a pronoun – and our only personal pronouns are gendered. We certainly don’t want to call God “it,” so it has to be he or she. God the Father, for various reasons, is generally referred to in the masculine. Jesus has a human body, and it’s a male body, so it’s logical to refer to Jesus as he. But the Spirit? The Spirit doesn’t have a gender, and we have no particular reason to use “he.” So, as is slowly becoming more accepted in certain circles, there’s nothing wrong with calling the Spirit “she.” (There’s also nothing wrong with using “he.” It’s about what is permissible within the relationship that exists, and what is more helpful in a world that is still unhelpfully prejudiced in favor of men. More on that another day.)

Second – Holy Spirit is the one who makes God present to us. As you read through the Bible, look for that thread. Jesus is God communicated to us – and his presence on earth communicated God more accurately than the most finely crafted words. Not that words aren’t important – but so is the other 90% of communication. But what were we to do when Jesus left? This was hard for me to understand for a long time. I wanted Jesus to be present with me, to comfort me and fight for me. Eventually, and with a lot of help, the light bulb came on. Jesus’ presence is limited to his human body. As long as he was on earth, he couldn’t be present with me all the time, because there are billions of others on the planet who need him too. But he left so that he could send his Spirit, who brings the presence of the Triune God into the hearts and lives of all who believe. She’s the advocate, the comforter, the counselor, and her presence enables all of God to be that for me, too.

It isn’t just the presence of God that she brings – it’s the salvation of God as well. That’s why we call the Holy Spirit the redeemer – while Jesus did the reconciling work that made salvation possible, and the Father is the source of the whole thing, the Spirit brings that salvation to us when we believe. That’s called grace. And salvation doesn’t end where it begins; grace through faith is a life-long process for which we definitely need comfort, counsel, and advocacy.

Third – Holy Spirit is unpredictable, but that doesn’t mean she removes all boundaries. God works in “mysterious ways,” and many of the ways he’s moving today could not have been predicted by the earliest apostles, or even Christians of a few hundred years ago. Everything we need for life and salvation is revealed in the Bible, but it takes us dumb humans a very long time and a lot of work to understand and apply all that revelation as it was intended. Hence why it took a very long time for us to get the message that the Bible actually condemns slavery – it’s subtle, because we couldn’t have handled it at first, but it’s there. The same is true for the equality of men and women.

But some have taken this to mean that “the Spirit” could lead us in any direction at all, without respect to the Bible, tradition, or everything that the Spirit has in fact been doing in the church and the world for the past two thousand years. This “Spirit” is held up as a banner for any and every change, which may come from God, or may come from the hearts of humans who have forgotten how to listen to God.

Some depictions of Holy Spirit symbols are awesome in the way that death metal is awesome. By which I mean: violent, cheesy, and not quite right in the head.

The question to ask is, which Spirit are you claiming? 1 Corinthians 12:3 is pretty straightforward on this one, and the rest of the New Testament testifies to this explicitly: the Spirit of God is the one that causes us to confess that Jesus is Lord. If it causes us to confess that anything else is Lord, or that Jesus is one Lord among many, or that the meaning of his Lordship – that he is the incarnate Son of God – is compromised, we’re talking about a spirit entirely. Thezeitgeist, maybe, but not the third person of the Trinity.

Holy Spirit takes us deeper into Scripture, deeper into relationship with the Godhead, deeper into the community of the Church that she’s been building and shaping and refining. That journey always, whether in the church or the individual, involves the confronting of sin, and when that sin has entrenched itself in tradition, it has to be confronted there too. But this doesn’t mean that the Spirit is always about novelty. It means that she is the untamed lion, the flaming sword and the dove of peace, the refining fire of the one who died.

I’ve been trying, in the last couple of years, to pray more to Holy Spirit. Sometimes, when I’m mad at God generally about one thing or another, it’s easier to pray to one person of the Trinity. They’re all there, but God has given us different ways to relate, so try it. When you know that Holy Spirit is praying for you with “groanings too great for words” (Romans 8:26), it’s a little easier to remember that it’s Jesus who suffered and died for you, and the Father who made this rescue mission. So go for it, and get a little closer to the dance of the Trinity that we were destined for.

This is the third essay to celebrate Pentecost, accompanied by the third clue of the Pentecost Mystery Knit-Along.


2 thoughts on “On the Spirit

  1. I agree with all of that. Father Dominic used to say that the Holy Spirt was the expression of God…my thought: you know how you do those personality codes? The Spirit is the female expression, the one that has to say something, needs quality time, etc. I love when you were saying that it takes males and females to picture the “image” in which we were made. We are made in God’s image and we need females to illustrate the feminine side of God which is just as important!


  2. On “alienating people unnecessarily”: I had a really hard time reading this post just because, to me, the Holy Spirit (I guess in my head the phrase also needs the article, like “the Lord” if we are speaking about but not to it/him) can be all encompassing without being given another pronoun:) I always thought it was a failure of the English language that we didn’t have higher language than “he” to speak of God (probably why someone ended up capitalizing the “h”). I would question the research questions and sampling of that study, and cluck annoyingly at anyone who seriously hangs their identity on a pronoun (or even their sexuality). C. S. Lewis was the one who said something about us *being* souls and *having* bodies, not the other way around.

    Not to be divisive; I certainly don’t mean to offend: it is just another perspective. Didn’t stop me from enjoying your post:)

    One thing that has helped me understand the Holy Spirit better was in a sermon I heard ages ago–the preacher said something to the effect that the Holy Spirit is our Comforter but he does not bring the comfort of sentiment, of feeling pleasure: he gives the comfort that brings courage. Honestly, that has been more my experience; in praying to the Holy Spirit, I often feel myself at peace, but not for the sake of my own comfort–he gives me peace that I might do what needs to be done. There are times, brief experiences of joy or of insight which I know could only come from him, but they are unexpected graces I could never have known to pray for:)

    I definitely agree that sometimes it is easier to pray to the Holy Spirit than to God. Often I find myself whispering “teach me what to pray!” when I cannot find the words to express myself, or do not know what I feel/think. For some reason when I pray to God I feel more as if I’m calling judgment down on myself. Could be because I’m in the middle of reading Deuteronomy… haha.

    Good post, as usual:)


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