Imagine a Christian named Bill. This Bill has decided to submit more of his life to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He has recommitted to the daily disciplines of Bible study and prayer. He is eradicating noise from his life, mindless busywork from his schedule, and compartmentalization from his spiritual thinking. All of his life belongs to God, he reckons, and all of it ought to be impacted by the gospel. And surprisingly enough, since sur- rendering more of himself to the Spirit’s working, he has never felt freer.
But Bill knows the big test of his “new lease on life” is coming. Because Thanksgiving is approaching.
Bill plans to visit his family in his hometown. This is always difficult for Bill. He struggles not to feel “less than” around his siblings, who are all married and who all make better money and have more exciting jobs. Bill’s dad has stopped even trying to figure out what exactly Bill does, and Bill has stopped trying to explain it.
That slight alone would be no big deal. Who cares if your dad doesn’t know what you do? But Bill feels keenly the pride his father takes in his other children, how he beams over their (apparently) perfect marriages and brags about their work accomplishments to his friends.
But Bill’s dad is not nearly as passive aggressive in his dis- approval as Bill’s mom. Bill’s mom is the queen master of passive aggression. Her martyr complex makes actual martyrs look self- ish. According to Bill’s mom, he never spends enough time with them when he comes home, never calls home enough, never sends enough cards. You don’t have to tell Bill to save the drama for his mama, because his mama displays the most drama of anyone in his life. Bill leaves every family visit emotionally exhausted and feeling utterly defeated.
Maybe you don’t have a relational conflict that resembles Bill’s. But chances are you can pinpoint some difficulty in your relational life. Maybe it’s a hurt from the past you can’t quite shake, the haunting memory of someone who never forgave you or whom you yourself have struggled to forgive. Maybe you have a friend or family member who routinely takes advantage of you, and you struggle with the courage to confront them and ask them to repent. Maybe your marriage is broken or your children are prodigals or your best friend is a jerk.
Whoever you are and wherever you are, you’re probably not living much of a relational life if you are not touched in some way by relational conflict. Ever since the fall, our relationships have been a complex web of hurts, fears, worries, and slights.
Would it surprise you to know that the Holy Spirit was sent by God to help with all these kinds of brokenness?
When the Holy Spirit takes up residence in a sinner’s heart, he immediately begins renovating the place. It doesn’t matter where you placed the furniture before; he’s going to rearrange it into a home more suitable for himself. And he’s going to start populating the place with new qualities and sharpened attributes. The Holy Spirit does not bear love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self- control (Gal. 5:22–23) in us to focus those fruits on us. Each of these important character qualities from God’s Spirit reach their fullness and most glorify God when they are exemplified in loving service to others. It is great, for instance, if you are generally peaceful. That is a gift from God. But it is better when being peaceful means you are able to forgo vengeance when someone wrongs you. Self-control is great for personal growth and devotion, but self-control hits its apex when it results in margin or abundance with which to share with others in need.
The fruit of the Spirit are the evidences of God’s grace fusing into our hearts and minds, conforming our affections and behav- ioral patterns to the movements of the Spirit and the rhythms of the kingdom. This is something we need gospel power for; we cannot achieve this kind of supernatural outlook on life in and of ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit can establish it in us.
Once you realize the Spirit has hidden you with Christ in God (Col. 3:3), you realize you don’t have anything left to hide. And when you’re intentional about awareness of your new identity in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), you stop feeling like you have something to prove. The Spirit gives you the power to be your true self with both humility and confidence. I call this “gospeling” yourself.
What God graciously does for us is connect us to the eternal reality of his kingdom, which operates on a higher level than the idolatrous kingdoms of this world. Believing in the gospel of the kingdom tunes our hearts to heaven and its frequency. This may sound weird, but when we walk in step with the Spirit, it is like inhabiting another dimension even while participating in the regular world.
When Bill sets his heart on grace and prepares to “gospel” his heart out of any hurts or confusion he may be tempted to wal- low in at Thanksgiving, he is in a very real sense operating in a completely different dimension than his parents and siblings. The digs and barbs come, but he’s like Neo in The Matrix, dodging all those bullets as if in slow motion. The Spirit has bent reality for him, helping him to see that whatever hurtful or discouraging things are said to or about him aren’t the final and true words— not about him, not about his life, and not even about reality.
This may sound like pretending, but it’s really the other way around. Whenever we hurt someone, whether intentionally or by neglect, we are operating according to the perversion of God’s created order. His original design for men and women was to know him fully and joyfully and, consequently, through him to know each other. Husbands and wives, by the Spirit, are meant to experience unashamed nakedness with one another. Every human being, by the Spirit, is meant to love his neighbor as himself.
Christians have the power to “do relationships” in an entirely unworldly way. If we will set our minds on things above and remember that we are not our own, we will become fertile ground for relational transformation. The Spirit does this because his aim is to glorify the Son and proclaim the gospel, and these aims cannot be accomplished if we aren’t loving others, including— especially?—the people who hurt us.
The primary means by which we get out of our own relational way is repenting of our aspirations to godhood.
So there is Bill at Thanksgiving. Just as he expected, he is wrestling with envy and bitterness about the allegedly better lives of his siblings. He knows that treating them unkindly based purely on his own emotions and nothing that they’ve ever done or said to him is petty and immature. Because he has become more and more satisfied by the Holy Spirit through his newly adopted daily disciplines, he is not simply conscious of this weakness, but he finds the strength to actually enjoy his siblings’ presence. He is happy that they are happy. He is glad that they are thankful for healthy families and a relatively trouble-free year, and he is thankful for them. He doesn’t feel “less than” in their presence at the dinner table because he’s already been feasting on the Good News with his King.
But then there’s Bill’s dad. Once again he saves his glowing words and big smiles for Bill’s siblings. But Bill begins to empa- thize. He knows his dad isn’t trying to slight him. He’s simply not aware. And remarkably Bill begins to find it pleasing that his dad would be so happy on Thanksgiving Day, surrounded by all his children and grandchildren. Bill realizes that his biggest problem with his dad is himself and his own need to be the center of attention.
Bill has not fully wrapped his mind around this reality yet, but he is beginning to experience the shifting dynamic all the same. Having become more and more regularly filled by the Spirit through engaging in the divine dynamic of friendship with God, he finds himself less needy at Thanksgiving dinner. He discovers that while he used to be racked with guilt and envy and woundedness in that situation, now his inner life seems much more tranquil. This is what pastor Jeff Vanderstelt said about handling relationally complex situations:
“Quiet your soul and listen to God. And close your mouth once in a while and listen to others. Do both together, and you will find yourself joining in with the activity of the Spirit work- ing through you as his dwelling place.”
Christians want to be channels of the Spirit’s working in the world. We can’t do that, however, if we’re constantly wor- ried about having our needs met by others. When we realize that our cup has been filled already by the Holy Spirit working through the gospel of Jesus, we begin to see ourselves more as need-meeters than need-takers.
The good news is that being born again empowers and equips us to love others; the rhythms of the kingdom include this rhythm of service and generosity, and this rhythm is something the Holy Spirit produces in and through you.
Now Bill does not see his mom as a necessary meeter of his emotional needs. He also begins to see himself in relation to Jesus as she is in relation to him. How many times has he slighted Jesus, hurt Jesus, ignored Jesus, failed to honor Jesus? And yet Jesus continues to love him and receive him, overlooking faults and forgiving sins. Maybe with Jesus’ help, he can extend that same kind of love to his mother.
Bill discovers that as he even thinks about embracing this posture, he feels a bit of Spiritual power helping him along.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Bill may walk out of that Thanksgiving dinner still feeling a little beat up. Adopting the wimpy posture of a human doormat comes easily. But this is not the same thing as choosing to love. Bill may leave his holiday at home weary from the spiritual warfare against his own flesh, but he can also walk out victorious because he realizes the security the Spirit has given him through the blossoming fruit of patience, peace, and gentleness.
(This is an edited excerpt from my book Supernatural Power for Everyday People: Experiencing God's Extraordinary Spirit in Your Ordinary Life)