The Holy Spirit is arguably the least understood person of the Trinity.
When I was a kid, the apostolic church I grew up in held services where praying in tongues became common. I was both scared and fascinated. “Why is grandma talking that way?” I asked. “She’s filled with the Holy Ghost,” I was told.
Ah, the Holy Ghost. The one we sang about in the plethora of evangelistic Al songs, which I knew by heart before I was 9. At that time, I pictured the Holy Ghost as a cross between Casper and the Force in Star Wars. A scary presence who was also good and made people speak weird languages. And I suppose I thought he haunted churches too.
My understanding of the Holy Spirit increased as I got older and read more about him. I noticed that some Christians hardly ever said anything about the Holy Spirit, while others mentioned him regularly. I also began to suspect that people were connecting things to the work of the Holy Spirit whether he had anything to do with those things or not.
Some of us do that now.
Here are a few things I’ve heard attributed to the Holy Spirit that raise a red flag for me:
Services going into overtime. I know that for the Lord a thousand years are like a single day, but that doesn’t apply to the rest of us! I’ve heard church leaders defend poor transitions, rambling sermons, long prayer request segments, and seemingly never-ending announcements with the excuse that it “allows the Spirit to move.” Sometimes, maybe the Spirit does do something that lengthens a worship service. More often, however, I suspect it’s a combination of poor planning and execution by the humans involved.
Suspicious minds. Often what we call a “gift of discernment” is our own negativity and cynicism. Certainly the Spirit gives us wisdom to discern right from wrong and some of us even have the supernatural ability to detect when diabolical forces are at work in a situation. But that’s not the same thing as having a critical spirit. When the Holy Spirit is at work, the Kingdom is built up, not torn apart.
Bad Bible interpretation. I’m the first to admit that there are times when the Spirit shows us something in Scripture that may seem a little unorthodox. That’s the way God works. But we have to be careful, lest we come up with novel interpretations born from our own prejudices and imagination. Being accountable to someone we don’t teach, and studying the Bible with peers as well as individually can provide some checks and balances to help prevent this potential pitfall.
Guilt. Conviction comes from the Holy Spirit and it’s good because it leads to repentance and positive changes. Guilt, however, is not from the Spirit. It leads to negative cycles of sin, lowers our self-esteem, drains us emotionally, and produces no fruit for the Kingdom of God. True conviction is liberating, never accusatory, and ultimately produces holiness in our lives.
Changing sermons at the last minute. You may have heard pastors say that God had them throw out their sermon the night before and preach something totally different on Sunday from what they’d planned. That may be true, but it makes me wonder if it’s possible they weren’t really listening to God when they planned the sermon in the first place. Or maybe they’re being too rigid in their planning process. Or the sermon stunk and they finally saw the light. Sometimes we don’t need supernatural help to show us when something is low quality.
Inspiring only the people who agree with us.It’s interesting how quickly some are willing to call “prophetic” those who agree with their political causes or beat a similar theological drum. I’m much more impressed when a person recognizes the Spirit working through someone who challenges their perspective on something. Surely there are times when the Spirit affirms things we believe, but if he’s only a “yes man” and never turns one of our opinions on its head, maybe it’s time to question how much we’re hearing the Spirit in the first place.