Being Filled With the Holy Spirit

Being Filled With the Holy Spirit

Not primarily a means to more powerful ministry, but the end toward which all God’s actions are leading

God’s goal for us

When I want answers to foundational issues, I go to the beginning of Genesis and the end of Revelation, for that is where we most clearly see God’s intentions for this creation. In Genesis 1-3 we have a profound glimpse into the mind of God as we ask, “Why did you do all this in the first place? What was your intent? In your mind, what was this world supposed to be like?” Revelation 21 and 22 address the same questions: They show what all this historical drama is leading to in the end. And the pictures in Genesis and Revelation that bear on the current question are remarkably identical.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, and according to our likeness. . .” And God created humankind in his own image. . . he created them male and female. . .   —Genesis 1:26-27 (transl. BCM)
They heard the sound of Yahweh God as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day; and Yahweh God called out to the man, “Where are you?”  —Genesis 3:8-9 (transl. BCM)
And from the throne I heard a loud voice saying, “Look! The home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them—they will be his own family, and God himself will be with them. . .”  —Revelation 21:3 (transl. BCM)

God’s aim in creating people was to have creatures as much as possible like him—free, creative, intelligent, loving—with whom he could enjoy fellowship. He made human beings, scripture says, “a little less than God” (Psalm 8:5, trans. BCM). And he aimed for the deepest possible relationship with these creatures. As was said to God’s people in Hosea 2:18 [trans. BCM]:

On that day, says Yahweh, you will no longer call me my lord; rather, you will call me my husband.

Moreover, scripture tells us that the Lamb was slain before the beginning of creation (I Peter 1:19-20, Revelation 13:8). God purposed that, since these human creatures were going to possess astounding freedom of choice, it was definitely possible that they would NOT love and trust him, that they would turn away from him and create unmentionable suffering and destruction; so God chose to bear the consequences of any such rebellion/sin/destruction/death within himself—without ever breaching their free will. The crucifixion of Jesus was an intersection, within human history, between this infinite love of the Father and the wickedness of this world; but the pain, the suffering, have been his eternally. The net result of God’s suffering would be, eventually, that he would have his way! He WOULD in the end have a universe of free, bright, creative, delightful creatures with whom he could have fellowship, whom he could love, who would freely and joyfully love him. And he would have this without ever compromising their freedom to choosea sine qua non of the whole operation. Revelation 20 and 21 show that the culmination of history leads to exactly this end point: God will dwell with human beings, and they will be his family. He will, in the words of Hosea, be their spouse.

It’s the fellowship, the relationship, that is the target—the partying and feasting and dancing, if you will, the time spent in intimate conversations, in playing and laughing together, in creating together, in making music and art together, in “making love” in the deepest sense of that term. Joyful, passionate intimacy is what God intended from the beginning; and that’s what he determined he would have, no matter what it cost him—and it cost him immeasurable, unspeakable suffering. But to him it was worth it. He wants us, he loves us, he desires us that much.

By and large, we Christians are still very steeped in Greek and Roman pagan philosophical world views. This is thanks in large part to Augustine and people of his ilk who tended (and still tend) to see God as an anal-retentive school principal. We have a penchant for viewing the history of God’s actions primarily in terms of rules and infractions, of sin and forgiveness, of rebellion and punishment and rescue, of God’s being focused mostly on getting us to “do right,” of God’s creating systems and dispensations and various rules by which human and divine actors relate to each other. Yet even when those things are relevant, they are not the primary goal, but mere steps along the way. The primary goal has always been fellowship/intimacy.  (Please enjoy the short fairy tale, The Reluctant Princess, that strikingly illustrates this point.)

One of the most influential stories I have heard came many years ago from a radio preacher whom I will call Arthur. He described an incident that took place after he had spent a long time praying and fasting about a specific issue.

God spoke to him: “Arthur, what is it you really want?”

Arthur thought for quite awhile, and then responded, “Well, I guess what I want most of all is just to hang around the throne.”

And the Father responded, “You have no idea what joy that gives me. Most people want me to do things for them or through them. Good things, very important things, but still only tasks they want to see accomplished. How rare it is that one my of my children loves me so much that his primary desire is just to be with me!”


What does all this have to do with being filled with the Holy Spirit?

These ideas are foundational because we have strong tendencies to see being filled with the Holy Spirit as a means rather than as the end for which we were created!

Most of us are naturally oriented toward works, i.e., doing good things: evangelizing, caring for the poor and oppressed, fighting spiritual battles, healing, letting light shine into dark places, comforting the lonely, and so on. And all these things are of inestimable importance. We are called to do them. Paul even said that

We were created in Christ Jesus for good works” —Ephesians 2:10.

And in the end, when God finally has his way, human beings

will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5),

finally fulfilling the commission that he gave in Genesis. And you can’t reign, of course, without doing stuff.

Yet I don’t believe the works, whether in this age or the age to come, are the primary focus of God’s attention. Even more important than the eternal reign of human beings, I believe, is the passage earlier in Revelation—the one that announced the pending marriage union of the Creator with his creatures (21:2-3)—which states first (and, I believe, foremost) that God’s home is with human beings. We are home at last, and so is he! That’s what he’s been looking forward to all these millennia! That’s the reason he has endured such pain and suffering and darkness, the Lamb having been slain from before the foundation of the world!

Even though our “works” will continue forever, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s the marriage bed to which our Lord is most looking forward!

Because we are created in God’s image, sometimes we can understand him just a little bit by observing our own feelings. And, for my part, I can assure you that on June 10, 1969, when I watched Elaine Huddleston walk down the aisle of that Methodist church in Nashville, I may have been well aware (somewhere in my brain) of all the wonderful ministries we would have together, etc., etc., but that’s NOT what was foremost in my mind!

Yes, we are “created for good works.”

But even more importantly, we are created for intimate, joyful fellowship with our Creator. Our primary call as children of God is not to spread the gospel. It is not to do spiritual battle or to help the poor or to do other good works. Those things are important, but they are not foundational. They are derivative. Our primary call, rather, is to walk with and enjoy and be enjoyed by our Creator.

As Paul said, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (I Corinthians 1:9). And the apostle John said, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (I John 1:3). When Paul prayed that “the fellowship (communion) of the Holy Spirit be with all” of the Corinthians (II Corinthians 13:13), he was asking for his friends nothing less than the most essential birthright that was theirs as children of God—fellowship with, communion with, knowledge of our Lord, our God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Lover.

And that fellowship, that communion, that intense and even erotic delight, comes through the Holy Spirit of God who dwells within us.

Let’s listen to some words of Jesus on the subject:

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. —John 14:18-20

In John 15, Jesus intertwines words about our doing things, our ministering (which he equates with our bearing fruit), with our resting in that special, deep, intimate relationship with him and with the Father for which we were created. Most of us, with our extraordinary emphasis on works, on what we do, tend to focus on the fruitbearing when we hear these statements. But the abiding—the intimate fellowship, the resting in God’s joy simply because we delight in him—comes first; and the works, the bearing of fruit, derive from that abiding/fellowship:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. . . My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. —John 15:4-11

The very last words John records of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 are these:

I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. —John 17:26

God is glorified when we bear a great deal of fruit. But the fruit is secondary. The abiding comes first. I believe God is most filled with joy when we simply love him. Victorious living is of incomparable importance, but it flows out of a deep, trusting, intimate relationship with our Lord. It’s the relationship that is paramount.

We often tend to consider the relationship with God, the “abiding,” as little more than a means to an end—so that we can then bear a lot of fruit. That’s not the appropriate mindset. We can live most victoriously, we can do the greatest good, when we stop focusing on what we do, on our works. Rather, let’s focus our eyes, our attention, our desires, on Jesus.

When a man is so captivated by love for a woman that he can barely see straight, he doesn’t say, “Marry me and we’ll do wonderful things together. Together we’ll work in ways you never imagined, and you’ll accomplish more than you ever thought possible.”

No, he says something more like, “I adore you. Marry me and be with me always, and let me love you.”

Or, in the words of an ancient writer,

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
O my dove . . ., let me see your face, let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful!
Until the day breathes and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you. . .
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes. . .
                —Song of Songs 2:13b-14, 4:1, 6-7,9

When we teach about the Holy Spirit, we tend to emphasize the power that the Spirit can create in our lives, or the gifts of the Spirit, or the fruit the Spirit creates within us—love, joy, peace, etc.  And all these are incomparably important. Yet they are all secondary. They derive from our growing intimacy with our Lord. Do you want more power in your life? Seek the face of God, seek to draw closer to his heart. Do you want greater deliverance from sins that enslave you? Seek the face of God, seek to draw closer to his heart. Do you want to experience more of the Holy Spirit’s gifts of ministry? Seek the face of God, seek to draw closer to his heart. And pray for God’s grace to shield you from the trap of drawing near to God so that you can experience more of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, so that you can know greater peace and patience and self-control, etc.

Rather, draw near to him because that’s the end for which you were created!

That is where your greatest joy lies!

Seek him for his own sake, for he is infinitely desirable and lovely.

This is not to say that we should ignore these secondary experiences. It can be quite helpful to study about and pray about the fruit and the gifts the Holy Spirit wants to exhibit in our lives. Paul encourages us to seek the “higher gifts.” But our primary focus must always be on drawing our hearts closer to God’s heart, since all the gifting or wisdom or power in the world is futile unless it builds on the foundation of love and intimacy for which we all were created.

I began this essay by referring to the beginning of salvation history, in the first chapters of Genesis, and to the end of history as described in Revelation. Both demonstrate that God’s goal all along has been intimacy with his people. Let me end this section by quoting the end of the first gospel sermon ever preached. It’s always a good idea to pay special attention to spiritual “firsts.” And here we see that same idea: that our being filled with God’s Spirit is the point of the gospel message.

Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.  —Acts 2:38-39 NET [emphasis is mine]


But what can we do?

How can I be more completely filled with the Holy Spirit? How can I draw closer to God? 

It’s a Möbius-strip conundrum. In my experience, most profound questions relating to God, the spiritual world, and our relationship with God appear to have two seemingly irreconcilable answers. A Möbius strip illustrates this phenomenon in a wonderful way, because there’s only one side! The two concepts are on “opposite sides” of the strip, but in the end there is no contradiction. [Thanks to Wayne Matthews for this valuable metaphor.]

On the one hand, there’s not a thing in the world we can do to draw closer to God, to be more filled with his Spirit. That’s his prerogative. We can’t compel or oblige God to do anything—he is absolutely sovereign. He also is absolutely loving, and we can trust him completely, which means that no matter what happens we expect him not to act in a way that is hurtful to us—but he’s still sovereign. As Lewis says in the Narnia stories, “He’s not a tame lion, you know!” This principle, in fact, is at the heart of the good news of Jesus.

All religion is futile, even the Christian religion, if we define religion as human beings’ attempt to reach God, or to please God, or to be reconciled in some way to God. It’s impossible. The Creator God is pure and sovereign and altogether good, while we are consumed with evil, selfish thoughts. The central proclamation of the gospel is that human beings cannot attain God’s presence by any means—but that, in his infinite love, God took the initiative and came to us! He bridged the gap himself. He loved us and forgave us and redeemed us when we were still his enemies, when we were impossibly separated from him.

The principle still holds, however: Improving our standing with God through our own efforts is just as much beyond us as is our connecting up with God in the first place! Try as we might, be as “good” as we can, pray as intensely as possible, and so on—the fact remains that God is absolutely sovereign, and we cannot manipulate, pressure, cajole, or sweet-talk him into filling us with his Spirit, into drawing us nearer, into delivering us from our sins, into healing us, into making us more into the image of Jesus.

It is impossible to game the system when we deal with Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus.

It all has to come from him, in his sovereign timing, in his way, and it may not come at all!

We’re guaranteed, of course, through the resurrection, that in the end he will have his way with us. We will be like Jesus. The promise and the process are inexorable. There’s nothing we can do, at the end of all history when we are raised from the dead to meet our Lord face to face, to keep that staggering transformation from happening unless we decide we simply don’t want it to happen at all, and (I hope) few people are that stupid.

But between now and then, between today’s date and the moment each of us sees Jesus face to face, what can we say?

On the one hand, we must face the reality of God’s sovereignty—that no matter what we do, there is no guarantee that we will end up closer to him, more healed, more delivered from the things that enslave us, more filled with his Spirit. That truth is foundational. This is not religion; we’re involved in a living, dynamic relationship with a person who cannot be manipulated, who cannot be second-guessed.

On the other hand, note some statements by those who have known our Lord most intimately:

Paul’s letters are filled with appeals to his readers to order their lives in ways that will lead to their being more filled with God’s Spirit, more like Jesus, etc.  Because you know the passages well, I won’t quote a lot of them. Let just one of Paul’s statements suffice:

Be filled with the Spirit.  —Ephesians 5:18

And let just one of Jesus’ statements illustrate his outlook:

If you, wicked as you are, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!  —Luke 11:13

In spite of the fact of God’s utter sovereignty, of our inability to manipulate him in any way, of the total inadequacy of any human effort to “get” God to do anything, we are presented with the delightful truth that God loves to indulge his kids!

Which means that it is incomparably worthwhile to seek to be filled with God’s Spirit!


Things we can do

I want now to jump immediately from theology to highly practical, hands-on approaches we can take in order to seek a closer relationship with God, to seek to hear his voice more clearly, to seek to be more filled with his Holy Spirit.

We have established that nothing we do can obligate God to do anything. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of statistics if nothing else, the following are rather likely to lead us closer to our goal. Except for the first item, they are not in any order of importance.

1. We are called upon to forgive. Period. No exceptions. That’s what our Father has done, and according to my reading of the New Testament that’s the number one item on God’s agenda for us. Failure to forgive can create a powerful block to anything God wants to do in our lives. This is number one in importance for anyone who truly desires to walk more closely with our Lord. The “number one sin” is not pride or sexual deviancy or political inanity, although I know plenty of people who focus on these things while harboring obvious disdain in their hearts toward certain of their fellow creatures. The “number one sin” is failure to forgive; it is also the most effective way to block our ability to draw closer to God (cf. Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 6:37, Colossians 3:13). We need to forgive our parents, our siblings, our children, our spouses, our bosses, our neighbors, our professional ministers, our teachers, our politicians. That’s step number one in drawing nearer to our Lord. He loves everyone. He suffered and died for everyone.

2. Sometimes we restrict God’s ability to have his way in us because we fail to be healed of something that blocks him. In this case I’m not referring to “sins” in the traditional sense of the word—rather, there may be something in our lives that prevents our freely letting go and giving him free reign in our lives. It may be conscious or unconscious. It can be any number of things, but two of the most common are (1) guilt from a long-past sin; (2) open wounds from things that happened to us years ago, or even in childhood, and which can include everything from childhood sexual abuse or violence to being teased on the playground for wearing the wrong brand of sneakers. As we become conscious of such roadblocks in our lives, we need to seek healing. This seems rather obvious, but it’s surprising how many people are aware of such open wounds but decide simply to live with them. It is extremely painful to address such things. But in the end, failure to address them causes much more pain.

3. We need to let God deliver us from sins that enslave us and from which he says it’s time to be free. Note that I did not say “deliver us from all our sins.” It is not uncommon for a person to be marvelously filled with God’s presence, exercising miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, ministering powerful healing and blessing to hundreds or even thousands of people—but still to be enslaved to any number of loathsome sins. Our sins are forgiven. At all times we stand cleansed by the precious blood of the Lamb. We stand pure and holy before God, through his infinite grace.

My being enslaved to something destructive does not in itself prevent the Holy Spirit from continuing to draw me closer and closer to our Lord. Problems arise, rather, when God is saying to me, “Now we need to deal with such-and-such,” and I hide from him because I don’t want to deal with it. That can cause major spiritual atherosclerosis.

The enemy loves to lie to us, convincing us that we’re too sinful for the Holy Spirit to be operating in our lives in any significant way. Nonsense! We will always be sinful, until we die. God knows that. We know that. In fact, failing to understand the depth of God’s grace is a major way by which we block the Spirit’s moving in our lives. Don’t ever entertain the fantasy that you can be pure enough to “lure” God to draw increasingly near to you. We’re all vile sinners, saved by grace. Jesus said, 

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” —Luke 12:32, NRSV

It’s all gift. My heart may be bound by the chains of a hundred sins, every one of which is highly destructive and ugly. But that doesn’t in itself prevent my becoming more and more filled with God’s Holy Spirit. In fact, the reverse is true! It is that filling, rather, that leads to the gradual breaking of one chain after another, even if my progress is so slow that by the time I die I’m still bound by most of those chains.

What is much more likely to block my spiritual growth is the situation when the Holy Spirit says, “OK, Brian, it’s time now to work on chain number 44,” and my response is to put my hands over my ears and yell “La-la-la-la-la-la” as loud as I can because that’s one of my destructive addictions that I really like! My tendency is to say, “Let’s work on numbers 5 and 27 and 61 and 68, OK? Those are tiresome sins, and I’m very eager to be rid of them.” But the Holy Spirit responds, “My grace is sufficient for sins 5 and 27 and 61 and 68; now about sin number 44. . .” That is the primary way by which our sins prevent us from deeper experiences in the Holy Spirit—not their mere presence, but rather our refusal to deal with them when God says it’s time to deal with them.

Don’t forget the ever-present condemnation that comes from the enemy. In my observation, it is extremely common for people’s spiritual growth to be halted not by their sins, but because they’re so hung up on their sins—while all along the Father is saying, “My grace is sufficient, forget about those things for now—there are more important things I need to be doing in your life instead of focusing on those particular sins!” My New Testament professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary loved to repeat the following rhyme:

Once in a saintly passion

I cried with desperate grief,

“Oh Lord, my heart is black with guile—

“Of sinners I am chief!”

Then stooped my guardian angel

And whispered from behind,

Vanity, my little man—

“You’re nothing of the kind!”

                          —James Thompson

Here are some positive, practical things we can do as we approach God, asking that he fill us more and more with his Holy Spirit. Even though most of them are obvious, we still neglect them:

4. Pray. Really, really pray! This is absurdly obvious, but it’s amazing how skilled we can be in talking about praying while we fail to do it. Our prayers, as I mentioned earlier, should focus for the most part simply on drawing near to God, not on the goodies we might receive as a result of such closeness. I’ve heard a heartbreakingly large number of people bemoan their lack of intimacy with God; and yet they confess to praying perhaps only a few minutes a day. If we are on a spiritual pilgrimage to genuinely experience life-changing closeness to our Creator, then we must devote appropriate amounts of time and energy to it! Prayer time should be measured in hours, not minutes.

5. We can offer our minds and hearts to him as much as possible. We can’t do that while we’re watching television or playing video games. Do we passionately seek to be more filled with God’s Spirit? Then we should strongly consider turning off our cell phones, and the TV, and the radio, and the video games; and removing those pods from our ears. We should tune into him day and night—especially when we’re alone. I have no interest in creating a new kind of legalism—in no way am I saying that it’s a sin to text friends, watch TV, play video games, listen to commercial radio, etc. We simply need to ask for God’s guidance in all these matters—and then we need to obey!

6. Fast. I won’t say much about fasting. Like any spiritual discipline, it is desperately open to abuse, to appropriation by a legalistic spirit that whispers to us: “We don’t get something for nothing, and if we suffer in an appropriate way, we will receive our well-deserved reward.” That is absurd, of course. Asceticism in almost all its guises is a work of the flesh, not of the Spirit. It crept into the Christian church from pagan philosophies in the first few centuries of our era, and is still the basis for many highly unbiblical practices (e.g., celibacy). Yet in spite of its potential for abuse, fasting can be an incomparably important tool in our journey to a deeper relationship with God. I have found on numerous occasions that my power in prayer was increased by orders of magnitude when, in response to the Holy Spirit’s leading, I fasted for several days. Instead of saying anything specific here, I will recommend only that we all seek the Spirit’s guidance over whether and how we might take advantage of this valuable discipline.

7. Practice blessing people. That is, after all, the essence of our Father’s heart. He’s a lover! We can consciously practice praying for and blessing people we see on the street, at work, at school, on the subway, as we shop or jog. We should especially pray for and bless people who are cranky, who cut in front of us on the highway, who give us sullen service at a restaurant, who mistreat us at work. Everyone we meet is a person for whom the Creator of the universe suffered immeasurable pain, out of sheer joy for what that person will become. Can we not try to glimpse that near-godlike quality, and add our own blessing?

8. Read and study and meditate on scripture. This goes without saying. The more deeply we have internalized things God has said in the past, and understand how he has acted in the past, the easier it can be for him to conform our lives to those same kinds of experiences. There’s a caveat, however. There’s nothing magical about the Bible. It’s an incomparably powerful tool for helping us understand God’s heart and mind, and the ways by which he interacts with this planet. But the people whom we most greatly admire because of their intimate knowledge of God didn’t even have the New Testament! The Bible is a tool, but it is not the ultimate gatekeeper in drawing us near to God. That gatekeeper is the Word of God—which is NOT the Bible, but the man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh.

9. Praise/worship/thanksgiving. He is worthy of our praise. It is vain to engage in worship and thanksgiving in order to get something out of him, of course. But as our hearts comprehend more and more how much he loves us, how much he has sacrificed for us, it becomes more and more natural that we express our thanksgiving.

And such expression can be quite intentional. To a large extent it is our choice how much we overtly express our thanksgiving, just as it is in our human relationships.

I can be very happy about the cool widget my friend gives me for my birthday, but say nothing about it. Or I can be very happy about the cool widget my friend gives me for my birthday, and thank him profusely—give him a hug, write him a thank-you letter, praise the beauty of my widget to my friends and family. By making the conscious choice to express my thanksgiving, I actually end up enjoying my widget much more than if I hadn’t made that choice; I actually feel more thankful. It’s just the way human beings are made.

I can be genuinely thankful that I’m married to Elaine but keep my feelings to myself; or I can be genuinely thankful that I’m married to Elaine and make the choice to express my feelings with overt actions and words. It’s funny, though—when I am more expressive of my feelings, they somehow intensify. It’s just the way we’re made.

Some people, because of their innate personalities, may be very undemonstrative in their worship of God. They may spend hours on their knees, in deep, silent adoration. That’s great. They’re doing it before God, not us. It doesn’t matter how we offer praise and thanksgiving, just that we do it. Again, it’s a vain thing to go through the motions of worship simply as a means to an end, as a way to cajole God into drawing us deeper into his heart. But we all have ample opportunity to express our thanksgiving to him in direct ways that are meaningful to us. And when we explicitly choose at those times to express our love, our thanksgiving, then our feelings intensify. It’s just the way we’re made.

10. Read books and use other means of accessing testimonies of God’s mighty works in this age. As we learn of the astounding things God does in other people’s lives, we become more and more able to open ourselves to his doing the same in our lives. For this reason, I believe strongly that every church and Christian fellowship should generously dedicate regular times during which people can share with others what God has done in their lives. The psalms challenge God’s people over and over to proclaim the mighty works of Yahweh! Unfortunately, this is often an uphill battle. I’ve tried for a quarter of a century to get our church to do that, and haven’t yet succeeded—but I’ll keep trying!

11. As appropriate, we should keep spiritual victories to ourselves. Another Möbius-strip conundrum. I just now mentioned the importance of testifying to God’s powerful acts, and how we all benefit from hearing such testimonies—but that doesn’t mean we need to blab about every semimiracle we experience! Most of us have strong tendencies to tell everyone we meet when we’ve had a really cool encounter with God or a dramatic answer to prayer. God tells me something that is going to happen, for example, and it happens—and I am quick to find any possible excuse to say, “That reminds me of something really neat that God did for me yesterday. . .” Or someone asks me to pray for them for healing, and they’re healed instantaneously—how long do you think I’ll wait before I make sure everyone knows about that? Or the Holy Spirit reveals to me an important truth about something that is going on around me—and I am quick to say, “Well, the Lord told me. . .”

Sharing things such as answered prayers isn’t inherently wrong. Such accounts encourage others. But often we share such stories not primarily to bolster others’ faith, but to brag about our great spirituality. I believe we need to ask the Holy Spirit when we should and when we should not share such stories. Often, we should keep them to ourselves. And I believe we should hear “The Lord told me” much less often than currently is the case. That’s because, very frequently, the very act of telling others about some great spiritual event ends up robbing us of the full benefit of that event. Powerful spiritual experiences often are correlated with increases in our own faith; yet I may be exercising a profound lack of faith when I go around telling about my experiences. “Bragging” about such things arises out of realization that such powerful encounters are rare in my life, and I want to get as much mileage out of them as possible! When God tells us to share with others a wonderful experience we’ve had, we should do so. Absent such instructions, I believe we all will do well to keep such things in our hearts. “Tell no one,” Jesus often said to people whom he had miraculously touched. I believe following that advice has a strong ability to ratchet up our faith as well as our capacity to go deeper and deeper into the heart of God.

12. We can be increasingly generous with all that we have and all that we are. Such generosity emulates the Father, and makes it easier for us to draw near to him. We can open our pocketbooks generously to those in need, to the point of sacrifice. We can do the same with our time and with our hearts. That is, after all, what God has done, on infinite scale, and as we pattern our lives to his we draw closer to his heart.

I close with a statement from the prophets that addresses this very phenomenon. It ties in nicely with the earlier brief discussion of fasting as a tool in drawing near to God. Do you want God’s fullest healing for your spirit, soul, and body? Do you want his light to shine ever more brightly into and through you? Do you want the living waters of his Holy Spirit to well up within you and overflow in praise to God and in blessing to those around you? Here’s what God said to his people many centuries ago:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of Yahweh shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and Yahweh will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
Yahweh will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

                                    —Isaiah 58:6-11  NRS, slightly altered