The Holy Spirit is Subtle — St. Peter's Fireside | Vancouver, B.C. 

by Alastair Sterne
January 23, 2013
5 min read

I have had this recurring inclination, or perhaps its a nagging suspicion, that there has to be more to this whole Christian deal. Sometimes when I read the Bible there seems to be a vast disconnect between what I read and what I see in my life. Obviously this is true when we consider the gap between God’s holiness and ourselves. But this suspicion mostly creeps up for me when I consider the Holy Spirit.

For example: I look at how the Spirit showed up in the book of Judges—incredible feats of power and strength, miraculous victories for the underdog, and the like—and the Holy Spirit seems to not only be boomingly audible, but also undeniably tangible. When I consider how the Holy Spirit shows up in the book of Acts, again the presence of the Spirit is palpable: miraculous healings, prophetic speeches, speaking in foreign tongues. When I read these verses and then consider my own life, well … I start to worry. I start asking, “Where is the powerful, all creative, tangible, and palpable Spirit of God in my life?” Often the Spirit seems more like a quiet whisper, or a presence that I must remind myself that I have. Does this mean that I don’t have the Holy Spirit?

Hardly.

For starters, I could not confess that Jesus is Lord—and actually believe it—without the Holy Spirit leading me into this truth (1 Corinthians 12:3). I don’t say this to the detriment of the Spirit’s more visible ministry, but to emphasize that faith is a gift and work of the Spirit and true belief in Jesus comes in and through the Spirit’s abiding power.

Now I’m not a cessationist. I am charismatic, at least in the sense that I think the Holy Spirit works exactly the same today as yesterday, and as we read throughout the Canon of Scripture. My goal isn’t to undermine the powerful and easily observable works of the Spirit. There certainly have been times in my life where I have experienced the Holy Spirit’s palpable, abiding presence. But when we have these encounters with the Spirit, its easy to begin to ask “Why isn’t it like this 24/7?” The reality is, however, that the Holy Spirit is always at work in our lives, non-stop, 24/7.  

I think the problem is that our attention is grabbed more by the fancy, tangible works of the Holy Spirit. We tend to completely overlooking the subtle nature of His ministry. Let’s consider just a few of the more subtle ways the Spirit works within us:

Anytime you remember a teaching from Scripture and live it out, that’s the Spirit (John 16:13).

Anytime you feel a conviction of sins you committed, anytime you thirst and hunger for a better life, anytime your heart stirs towards justice and acts of mercy, that’s the Spirit (John 16:7-11).

Anytime you feel hopeful, that is the work of the Holy Spirit too (Romans 15:13), and while you’re at it add anytime you feel joyful (1 Thess. 1:5).

Anytime you feel a love towards God, you got it: Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).

Anytime you feel confidence in your identity as a child of God, again … that’s the Spirit of God (Galatians 4:6).

The best part is that this list isn’t even exhaustive! The Holy Spirit is active in so many more ways, and in more ways than we can even fathom.

My point is this: while the Holy Spirit’s palpable and tangible ministry is amazing, and available to us, we often overlook how powerful and incredible the Holy Spirit’s subtle ministry is. Every day, from moment to moment, the Spirit is at work in us: guiding our thoughts and hearts towards the adoration of Jesus, while shaping us to become people who look more and love more like Jesus. The truth is that the Holy Spirit’s subtle ministry is emphasized more in the New Testament than the Spirit’s palpable ministry. We just overlook it because its subtle, and we judge it as not as impressive.

Another part of the problem is that we often take the credit for what the Holy Spirit has done. We tend to think that we are doing the work and take for granted that God is giving us both the desire and ability to carry out his good purposes (Philippians 2:13). It is only when we recognize that we have nothing in and of ourselves, that we are only weak, broken vessels, that we can come to see that anything good, anything noble, any love, any mercy, any compassion, any pursuit of righteousness and justice is from God through His Spirit and not from ourselves alone. The fact that anything good could happen through us is miraculous, and down-right impressive.

We have nothing in ourselves, and everything in God. But to tap into the eternal, unending power of God it means embracing that we are empty and weak and dependent upon his mercy and grace. But we can take comfort in the fact that the Holy Spirit is at work in more ways that we realize, and that God is delighted to give his Spirit without measure (Luke 11:13; John 3:34). If you feel like you aren’t experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit in your life, it starts with admitting that and asking for his presence.

While we may not always experience the miraculous (like superhuman strength, healings, tongues, and what not) we are always being formed and fashion by the Spirit. The Spirit is always with us, and you can rest in his abiding yet subtle presence while  hoping and asking for his mighty power to show up in tangible ways. And maybe, just maybe, the Spirit prefers to work in subtle ways day-to-day to keep us humble, dependent, and constantly aware of our need for him.

about the author
Alastair is the lead pastor at St. Peter’s Fireside. Once upon a time he was a touring musician of a forgettable indie band, and a Creative Director at a few design agencies. He is the husband of Julia, the father of Ansley and Maggie, and quite skilled with "the photoshop." If you're feeling up for it, you can follow him on Instagram.

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