What Exactly is the Holy Spirit?

What Exactly is the Holy Spirit? August 24, 2010

The Holy Spirit is God–fully God, not any sort of partial, almost God sort of thing–that any believer in Christ understands resides within him or her. It’s the means by which God maintains an immediate, unfathomably intimate relationship with those who understand His presence within them as being complete and of the same substance as the other two aspects of the divine Holy Trinity: God the Father, and God the Son.

God’s big, right? He’s huge. Unimaginably gigantoid. And so we naturally have that sense of God being out there somewhere, of his abiding in the cosmos, residing in the heavens, in an almost detached sense overseeing and directing everything that happens everywhere in the universe. We have that intuitive understanding of God the impenetrable, the inscrutable, the unknowable.

And that makes sense: We are, after all, talking about the Forever Beyond here, about the Alpha and Omega of all that is, has been, or ever will be. So it makes sense that about God we should have this very profound sense of eternal otherness.

And in a very real sense that is who God is. God the Father is God above.

And then, through Jesus Christ, we are given a vastly different way to appreciate and understand God. Here is a God who is also fully human, a God who is anything but detached from our fears and trials. Here is a God who loves us so much that he incarnated himself as one of us, and then willfully had himself brutally murdered so that we might even begin to grasp the depth of his commitment to our present and eternal well-being. Even if we can’t fully understand the whole of Jesus, we know that he is a God of human, earthly action, of persuasion, conviction, love, anger, anguish. We know that in becoming Jesus, God became someone with whom we can definitely relate and even identify. More importantly, Jesus proves to us that God is someone who can forever deeply and truly identify with us.

Sweet Jesus, indeed. This is a God whom we know knows every last bit of trouble we will ever suffer.

First we have God the Father above us–and then we have God the Son below that, down here on earth, abiding with us where we live and breath and die.

But ultimately, physically, Jesus left us, didn’t he? After his stunning resurrection, the Son went back up into heaven, where, as the Bible tells us, he resumed his place “at the right hand of the Father.”

And then there we were, left without the corporeal, bodily God it was such joy to have walking among us.

And that breaks our hearts. And over time it’s also bound to make it harder for us to properly remember and honor God. We humans are, after all, inclined to be more impressed and persuaded by what’s before us than we are by what’s eons and eons behind us.

God, of course, knows this about us. He knows we can’t live on memories and ancient stories alone. He knows that in order to keep us inspired and engaged we need something dynamic, immediate, real, vibrant, deeply individualized, profoundly personal.

And so, out of his infinite love for us, he arranged to leave behind in the heart of every one of his believers the entirety of himself–that miraculous, clear, unmistakably holy presence inside each one of us that we are all very pleased to call the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is God within. It’s all of God, as close to any believer as his or her next heartbeat.

From John 14 (this is Jesus speaking): And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. …. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.

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  • Beautiful article, John.

  • Very eloquently stated. Thank you.

  • Tanager

    Oh gosh, I love this. It's so hard to articulate the Holy Spirit or even contemplate His nature; much easier to identity/explain God the Father and God the Son. This is like a big sigh of relief to read and say "that's what I have been trying to say (even to my own mind) all along."

  • Lois

    Thank you for a wonderfully clear and simple explanation of a very deep, complicated subject. I think the fact that God seems so far away, so huge, so incomprehensible, is the reason many people who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" like the idea of angels. Something/someone who is right there next to us, guiding us, protecting us, loving us. It is good to be reminded that as Christians we have God not just near us, but IN us.

  • John, I've had computer problems…thus my silence on this page for the last while….

    When you write on simple yet hard to understand Biblical truths you do it masterfully….I love this one on the Holy Spirit! Truly a feast for the soul! I shall be referring to it when I speak at the Women of Wisdom Conference here in Abbotsford this weekend. Thank you for this tasty morsel today!

  • Wow … well done!

  • Sounds suspiciously like pantheism to me.

  • Kim

    John, love love love and love this post!

    Brian Shields, pantheism? Seriously???

    God is not the universe…He created the universe. God is not impersonal…reread John's post above and the book of John possibly if you have time. Our destinies are not determined by karma…we use our own free will and choice to mess up our own lives. And God knows we will do this. Evil is not an illusion; evil is a manifestation of the evil in our own hearts. We choose it. Ethics are not relative; they are absolute; God has provided natural law which attributes worth to humanity. Complete contrary to pantheism.

    God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (the Trinity) are not 3 gods but 1 God…hard to grasp intellectually…but Hebrews 11:1 advises that faith is that which is unseen.

    If we or John were pantheists there'd be a lot of New "Agey" music and free love goin' on right about now…

    Read "Unshakable Foundations" by Geisler and Bocchino…might "enlighten" you.

  • Sam


    It was easier for me to grasp reading John's blog and hearkening back to St. Patrick's analogy of the shamrock – three distinct petals forming one distinct plant. Three distinct beings in the Holy Trinity.

    Wait, I'm still not sure I grasp it.


  • Kim

    Sam, good analogy. The trinity is the most mind-boggling thing about God, in my opinion. But because God is all powerful and can do anything He wants, He simply wants to manifest Himself in ways we can relate to. He is our father…the most perfect father ever. Then in order to get our attention He came to earth as man and became Jesus. Once He finally got our attention and Christianity was growing, He encouraged our growing faith and continues to nurture it in His manifestation of the Holy Spirit. He is showing us all the ways He has come to us looking for a relationship. He wants our love – willingly given. But sometimes we are ignorant and shallow and He does the things that He knows will affect us at our level.


  • Kim and Sam… a great metaphor for the Trinity is water…it can be in liquid form, frozen form or steam.

    But it remains water just the same. Thanks for the interesting dialogue!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    The devil needed an advocate, so I volunteered pro bono.

    So, Answer Guy and Adoring Minions, why three? If we're talking about aspects or manifestations, why three? Wasn't the burning bush a manifestation? Isn't love an aspect? Aren't there so many others than these?

    Did not Jesus defend His Son-hood thusly:

    "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'? If he called them 'gods,' to whom the word of God came– and the Scripture cannot be broken– what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, 'I am God's Son'?"

    If it is only because we understand the world and God's existence in terms of realms heavenly, earthly, and internal, is this not just one particular point of view of the Godhead then?

    "But ultimately, physically, Jesus left us, didn’t he?"

    "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." If the Christ, fully God and fully man, *is* with us, He must be in the flesh since otherwise he isn't fully man but only (Holy) Spirit.

    "What does 'he ascended' mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very One who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe."

    But now Brian Shields has a good point: is this not pantheism then?

    Speaking of which, I can't follow the logic of some of Ms. Kim's statements. There seem appear to be some significant gaps that could only be breech by altering my understanding of the normal denotations & connotations.

    "Ethics are not relative; they are absolute; God has provided natural law which attributes worth to humanity. Complete contrary to pantheism."

    "If we or John were pantheists there’d be a lot of New 'Agey' music and free love goin' on right about now…"

    I think rather that the answer to Mr. Shields is to be found in understanding the nature of the body of Christ. And this then touches upon the matter of Communion. I know I seem like a conservative, a traditionalist, insisting on the material presence of Christ in Holy Eucharist, but ask yourself before tossing it to the rubbish, why and how was such a (cannibalistic) tradition established in the first place if there were no reason to believe it?

    Now, Sam (and Kim who knows Sam's analogy to be a good one), that attribution to St. Patrick is but myth and legend, and that analogy — a poor one indeed. For as you believe in three distinct beings together forming one divinity, you do not believe in the God of Abraham, and there is no god but He.

  • Since when does the devil need (yet another) advocate?

  • Huh ! Another Evangelical Lutheran theologian. But, will we still be able to gather faggots for burning John? I can't remember if this heretic burning idea is more a catholic or protestant thing?

  • In my humble opinion, when we use the Trinity teaching to explain how we can simultaneously pray to Jesus and worship the God of Israel without violating the first commandment, we're using it correctly. One God revealed in three divine figures. Why three? Because that's enough to do the trick. Pantheism. God revealed in his universe? Where else would he do it?

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I dunno. He just called me up, said he was in a bit of tight spot, asked me to help him out, reminding me of few things Jesus had said, and I just couldn't turn the poor guy down.

    But actually, there is a reason for the devil's advocate: Sound doctrine can easily become corrupted if an attitude of complacency sets in.

    "[B]e prepared in season and out of season…."

    "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever."

    And –God forbid– what if the poor devil's right?

  • Kara

    What part of the John 14 passage quoted indicates that the Counselor/Holy Spirit is God, not something different and non-divine?

    (John: This is actually a lot more what I meant the other day when I said there were areas of theology where we disagreed but I didn't mind. I'm not sure where I stand, but I've been seriously studying nontrinitarianism of late. Or modified trinitarianism, or… I dunno. Something different from traditional views of the trinity.)

  • Susan

    @ Don

    Seriously, I can't take any more hate today, so please tell me your use of the "f" word is simply to make a point and there is no mal-intent.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Hi, Mr. Rappe! Thanks for your input!

    "…how we can simultaneously pray to Jesus and worship the God of Israel…"

    I don't know about that one. I though we should pray to our Father in Christ Jesus' name.

    "Because that’s enough to do the trick."

    Could you explain how it could not be done with fewer and how you've ruled out the need for more?

    God bless!

  • Gina Powers

    Yes. THIS. And THANK YOU again, John!!!!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I'm pretty sure he meant the older, primary literal meaning of a bundle of wood, although he used it punningly.

  • Homosexuals are known as the "f" word because they were often burned at the stake with those bundles of wood which makes even the so-called "literal" meaning still quite offensive.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Are you sure it didn't come from the older pejorative meaning akin to "woman" or "old woman"? Can you point to even one the supposedly often occasions when homosexuals (and we are talking male homosexuals, right?) were burned at the stake (preferably in a place where the English language was spoken, if you could)?

  • Kara

    The origin of the word as a pejorative term is unknown.

  • Diana A.

    Both Catholics and Protestants did it. Catholics to Protestants, Protestants to Catholics and to other Protestants with whom they disagreed, and both to anybody else they regarded as heretical or practicing witchcraft or whose property they were particularly interested in obtaining.

  • Susan

    The Trinity sounds like pantheism?

  • Susan

    Very well said, John. Thank God for the Holy Spirit. 😉

  • Don Whitt

    Thank you, John, I meant.

  • Kim

    Not sure why communion applies here…or what the problem is with my logic, but that’s Ok. I was answering Mr. Shield’s “pantheistic” label with information I’ve gathered from recent Apologetics books I’ve read. 3 divine figures? Because Jesus was clear in who He was and correct in who He claimed to be. And there were 3…

  • Kim

    “God revealed in his universe? Where else would he do it?”

    God may use the universe to display His glory but He certainly isn’t equal with it…He’s far greater than that which He created. Where else would he do it? In our hearts and His word.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    And the flaming bush was clear in who It was and correct in who It claimed to be. And there were 7…

    Do you seriously not see how your leap from pantheism to “New ‘Agey’ music and free love”, the incompatibility of pantheism with moral absolutism, that natural law inclusive of human worth is completely contrary to pantheism, are left wholly unsupported, lacking evidence or proof, without any apparant reason given for drawing such connections?

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Oops… that was the unedited version.

    That should have read “And the Fire of the burning…” and *apparent.

  • ManimalX

    Color me pleasantly and merrily surprised!

    A very clear and rousing examination of the Holy Spirit.

    If even *I* (ignorant, hateful, scary, bigoted, sexist, laughable, dummy dumb head troll that I am) can’t find any theological nits to pick, then you must be doing something right! 😉

  • Diana A.

    The trinity has always driven me a bit crazy as a doctrine–especially when people feel a need to get all snobby about it and put down anybody else’s understanding of it. I believe God the Father is God. I believe Jesus of Nazareth is God in flesh. I believe the Holy Spirit is God. So I guess I believe in the trinity, but it’s not like I’m married to the concept or like I’m going to start gathering fire wood if somebody disagrees with me.

    Sometimes, I think we (human beings) come up with the dumbest reasons for hating each other. Just lighten up already. God doesn’t need us defending his honor.

  • Diana A.

    By the way, John, love the post! Anything else I might be saying in the comments should not be taken as criticism of what you’ve written. If anything, you’ve come closer to enlightening me on this subject than most of the other sources I’ve studied–so good for you!

  • Don Whitt

    John, so interesting, so good. Thank you.

    I have a son – my only son, my only biological child. in what context could I, would I, sacrifice him? Why?

    It would only be to save the human race. So I understand that concept, that act of God. I would also do such a thing – such an important thing. I would have to if given the opportunity. Is any of us worth more than that?

    Why? It can only be because I love us – all of us – in a way that transcends all of the selfish reasons we cling to this existence. The politics, the bullshit – the noise.

    As a child, for years, I described myself as a pantheist, though I was raised and participated in the Christian church and paradigm. I saw God in everything and in different manifestations – he was everywhere. The trinity was an artificial construct to me.

    But it is the holy spirit, I think, that may be the most apt description of what motivates us to love, to forgive and to take action to cure the ills and fix the broken parts of this world. To transcend the worldly milieu and listen to that which resonates in our hearts and makes us love. To act on that.

    Description. What an analytical word. But how do I describe that which motivates, what drives me to think that love is at the core of life? Truly, it must be the holy spirit. Thank you.

  • DonP

    @ Brian Shields, I appear to men to be a father, a son, and a friend. And yet, I am one man. If I, a man, can do that without even trying; Imagine what an omnipotent God can do.

  • Kim

    Mr. Tweedell, please clarify…

    I’ve seen you post many times on John’s blog. Atheist? Or very argumentative Conservative Fundamentalist? I can’t tell…

    Either way you make me tired.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I am not;

    whatever you may think of me,

    this am I not.

    I am not God,

    though God too is not this and not that

    and though I am what I am.

    Neither am I you

    nor anyone else.

    Yet God is in me;

    you are in me;

    we are more than our selves.

    So you, my brother,

    could it be You, my Lord?

    No, for you know not yourself.

    I need not answer you then

    until you answer me:

    Is the Trinity fully revealed unto you?

    For there is profound Truth therein.

    I’m sorry that such would tire you.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Yeah… ya’d think He could do more than three… right? (and the Bible does depict Him at times as husband, brother, etc….)

  • An omnipotent God, heck any god, does require a great deal of imagination.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Ha ha! 😉 very funny, Mr. Sheilds.

    It is for this reason—that we cannot fathom the infinite, cannot actually conceive of the infinitely powerful—that when we say He is omnipotent, we cannot mean anything other than that He is in no wise impotent (and similarly with other “omni-”’s, as well as such attributes as “eternal”). To try to take it in any other way and return to anything finite is to perform in effect an equivalent operation to division by zero.

  • DonP

    I agree! Although, I would rather use the word "faith". It has been said that : Faith is the evidence of things not seen and the substance of things hoped for. I suppose one might call that ignorance. Others have called it a gift from God. Or, perhaps you were sincere in your proclamation of great "imagination". May-be you meant that sentence to be a recognition of a gift as well.

    As for me? I call it life. He, who's Spirit now is in me an with me gives me life. And, makes all the shit that His creation has become……….tolerable.

  • kim

    I am another Kim, but I have no problem with the trinity. Electrons can be either particles or waves, just depends on how you measure their properties.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Very good! That's an excellent analogy.

    But now let us consider why it is that no matter how we observe it—there is no third option—it must appear as either particle or wave. Then we might be able to consider similarly why the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—no more, no less.

  • Kim

    Great article. Really concise and wonderful.

  • lulu

    it is divine what makes you think it isnt

  • lulu

    well it says “the holy spirit” aside from that it says “which the father will send in HIS name” which is “God” meaning an additional part of God the father and God the son making it God the holy spirit im just assuming tho….also in the bible the word “Holy” is attached to the word “Spirit” ONLY! when referring to the trinity other wise just referred to as “the spirit” or some type of other spirit like i said tho thats just what i got from it i could be wrong