Somewhere in my past, I read a novel about a young boy in India. This child was the son of English parents (set during the British Raj) whose social life was such that a full-time babysitter was in order. In India, this servant was called an ayah. She was a combination of governess, nanny, companion, guide, servant, teacher, surrogate mother, disciplinarian, and best friend. My imagination connected that person with the Holy Spirit, and for years now I have thought of the Spirit of God as an Ayah, tending to my life and, indeed, sustaining it.
Of late, however, I have longed for a fuller understanding of the clear biblical invitation, even command, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I ran across this statement by St. Seraphim of Sarov (18th-century Russian saint): “The true aim of the Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” When I read the scriptures, this seems to jump out at me—this wild call to be filled, head to toe, with the Spirit.
Evangelicalism has historically been a little wary of Spirit-talk. Our rationalist roots and our fixedness in word create a wee bit of skepticism and leeriness around “signs and wonders,” which seem to be the primary way we think of Spirit-experiences. If we restrict our conversations to the gifts of the Spirit, and focus on the lists in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, or on the fruit of the Spirit as outlined in Galatians 5, then all good. If we want to affirm the Trinitarian formula, all good. If we talk about the Holy Spirit’s role in our conviction of sin and regeneration, all good. But if we really want to explore this business of living by the Spirit, being guided by the Spirit, moving in sync with the mysterious wind of God, well, then we really don’t know how to talk about it or how to experience it.
One preliminary remark: Invariably the question of pronouns will come up. The Spirit—He? She? It? In English, most nouns have no defined gender. A ladder, for instance, is an “it.” A ship is often referred to as a “she,” but that is mere custom, not linguistics. In Hebrew and Greek, nouns may have implicit genders assigned to them. The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it is feminine. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma, and it is neuter. Invariably, conservative writers wanting to preserve traditional language about God use ‘he’ and liberal writers wanting to undo patriarchal influences use ‘she.’ I have no agenda here, one way or the other. May I only point out that since we nearly all agree that there is no gender in God, either way, that the pronoun doesn’t really matter. If we do not believe God is male, then ‘he’ is as inaccurate as ‘she.’ My greater concern is that we do not resort to using ‘it’ in order to avoid the problem of gender, for then we have lost the personhood of God. God is Person, not an It. This is even more important when we speak of the Spirit, because we can imagine Father and Son, but Spirit could easily become Force, Power, or Energy, and then we’re into Star Wars spirituality, not Christian spirituality.
So, a beginning. Who can say where we will go?