How Does God Speak to You?

The varieties of Holy Spirit experiences

Edvard Munch, The Sun, 1911

Something lovely I probably should’ve expected, but didn’t, about working for Faith+Lead/Luther Seminary, is that we take time for prayer and spiritual practices at the beginning of many of our meetings. One practice we often use is Dwelling in the Word.

At a recent meeting, we engaged in this practice using Isaiah 55. Dwelling often looks something like this: start with prayer, read/listen to the text, pause to reflect, read/listen to the text a second time, and pause to reflect once more, generally on the following questions: What catches your attention in this text? What questions does this text raise for you? And what do you think God might be trying to tell you through this text? Then share your reflections with a partner or small group.

What stuck out to me on this reading were verses 10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be
that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

When I brought this up with my exercise partner, he said it ultimately comes down to having a developed pneumatology, or, an understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in our lives and in the world.

We often get hung up on the “right” way to engage with or proclaim God’s word, whether that is through preaching/hearing the word preached, engaging with the written word (scripture), or spending time in prayer with the living word, Jesus Christ. We worry that we are doing it wrong, or that others are doing it wrong. We make judgments and let anxiety overtake us. We forget that God’s word will not return empty. It will accomplish that which God purposes. It’s not on us to make the word work, the word works because the Holy Spirit makes it work. It might not work in the way that we want it to, but it will succeed in doing just what the triune God intends it to do. 

[Piotr Uklanski (Polish, 1968–), “Untitled (Pentecost),” 2008.] 

Our comfort levels with the Holy Spirit

This is ultimately an immense relief. Paradoxically, at the same time, it is terrifying! We don’t like to admit that we’re not actually in control, that the Spirit will blow where it chooses, and we won’t know where it comes from or where it goes. Everything in life already feels that way much of the time, so we do all we can to assert our (futile) attempts at control on everything, including God. 

For instance, many people in mainline churches are uncomfortable with how pentecostal/charismatic traditions talk about and experience the Holy Spirit. Some of us because it is very foreign to our own experiences of God, and some of us because we found a way out of bad examples of those traditions and saw (or experienced firsthand) abuse in the name of the Holy Spirit by people/churches who were trying to assert their own control. However, we should be careful not to write off the whole of these traditions because of unfamiliarity or an absolutizing of our own past experiences. Especially as we’d be closing ourselves off from a number of vital churches and traditions.

“This isn’t for everybody, but it is for these folks today”

Of course, there is a history of charismatic renewal within mainline churches, and like anything else, there are examples of the bad it did in certain contexts, and examples of the good it did in others. I recently heard a story about a church where the pastor started speaking from the pulpit “in the name of the Holy Spirit,” saying things that took agency and power away from the larger congregation and consolidated it for him. Power plays are not a fruit of the Spirit. But there are also stories of churches that completely changed course from dying to thriving, and found a way to move forward as a cohesive unit without getting stuck feeling like they needed constant signs and wonders to do so.

The rector at my church was telling a story about a time he attended a charismatic Baptist service with a number of people from other traditions where parishioners started speaking in tongues, falling to the floor, dancing, shaking, sobbing, and more during a call for healing prayer. While this was happening all around them, there was a group who were not getting into the action. The pastor came up to them and said, “These folks you see falling out and shouting are doing it because they need to. This isn’t for everybody, but it is for these folks today.  Don’t feel that you need to act this way too, this is between them and God.” 

When we look at the Gospels, we see that Jesus really sees the individuals he talks to, and doesn’t just have one standardized way of relating to them all. He doesn’t speak to Zaccheus the same way he speaks to the woman at the well, nor does he speak to either of them the way he does to the Gerasene Demoniac. He is always concerned with speaking to the individual in a way that they will be able to hear him. Why would the Holy Spirit be any different?

We all, both as people coming from different traditions and as unique individuals, have different ways of relating with God. A lot of the most beautiful examples of the Church I’ve seen in recent years come from people (of different denominations, backgrounds, dispositions, etc) sharing with each other the means God uses to speak to them. If we can learn to listen to one another, we might find another avenue for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, or at the very least, widen our scope of how that can happen for others, and in doing so, get a slightly more capacious view of God’s work in the world.

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