Archives For The Holy Spirit


Christians talk a lot about being “filled with the Spirit,” but what does that actually mean? And how is it accomplished?

Paul’s command to “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18 is intriguing. The form of the verb “filled” that Paul uses is what’s called a present passive imperative. Without getting nerdy, that means it’s a command that we are to obey in the present tense (present + imperative). But the odd thing is that it’s in the passive voice. We are commanded to “be filled.” Are you seeing the significance? Paul is commanding us to be doing something that must be done to us.

This raises an important question: How do I receive something that is outside of my control? If it’s the Spirit who fills me, then why is Paul directing that command to me?

I find this deeply mysterious and often frustrating. It’s easier if there’s a procedure I can follow, something I can simply do to fulfill this command. But it seems more mysterious than this—a realization that should not surprise us when we are discussing the workings of the Spirit.

James K. A. Smith is often helpful with this sort of thing. In the following quotation, Smith is exploring French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of how a person “falls” asleep. Smith suggests that this account might help us in thinking about being filled with the Spirit:

“I cannot ‘choose’ to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. ‘I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there’ (PP 189)[1]. I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed—but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. ‘I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep “comes,” settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be” (PP 189–90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome. What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls ‘habitations of the Spirit’ precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?”[2]


Smith is suggesting that our embodied practices (“liturgies” is Smith’s broad term for these practices, whether they be “sacred” or “secular”) might prepare us to receive the Spirit’s filling. We ourselves are not doing the filling—that is the Spirit’s work. But by engaging in specific embodied practices—the eating and drinking of communion, the posture of our knees on the floor in prayer, the raising of our hands in worship, the use of our vocal cords in praying, singing, or reading Scripture—we are training our bodies, and thus our whole selves, to be receptive to the Spirit’s filling. The power of our bodies and of embodied practices (liturgies, broadly conceived) is the subject of Smith’s book (and an important earlier book), and he convincingly argues that human beings do not primarily consist of the thoughts in our heads, but of the desires—the love—that fills our being and is directed at objects around us.

Imagining the KingdomCould it be that just as sleep “settles on the imitation of itself which I have been offering to it,” so our obedience to practices like singing to one another, giving thanks verbally, and performing acts of mutual submission actually make us receptive to the Spirit’s filling in our lives? These activities are listed, after all, along with the command to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5.

We could try so hard to be filled with the Spirit, and in a certain sense we should. Be the sleep analogy helps me to step into the mystery a bit. As Smith says, “Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome.”

Smith’s analogy does not lessen the mystery of being filled with the Spirit for me. I still can’t say that I know precisely what to do. But I find the analogy helpful, and I find myself motivated to actively welcome the Spirit, to engage in those postures that make me receptive to the gift.


[1] Smith uses the abbreviation “PP” to refer to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962).

[2] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013) 65.

Self-control is an important biblical concept. Without it, we’re out of control. Those who lack self-control perfectly fit Paul’s description of a person who says, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).

The problem is, self-control is a bit of an oxymoron. Because from a biblical perspective, we can’t control ourselves. That’s actually Paul’s point in Romans 7: we want to do what we know we ought to do, but we can’t get ourselves to do it. The man in Romans 7 can do nothing better than cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The self needs to be control, but this man is forced to look elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the Bible commands us to control ourselves. In 2 Timothy 3:3, one sign of the godless is that they are without self-control. Peter commands us to “make every effort” to supplement our faith, virtue, and knowledge with self-control. And in Galatians 5:23, self-control is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit.

So we have to control ourselves, but we can’t. Frustrating, right?

But God doesn’t leave it at that. This is exactly the problem that Romans 7 leaves us with, that people “in the flesh” cannot control themselves. But the solution comes immediately afterward, in Romans 8. What the person in the flesh can’t do has been made possible through the Spirit of God. The Spirit takes our dead selves and gives them life.

And take a closer look at Galatians 5:22–23. These qualities, including self-control are the fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit. Are you seeing it? These aren’t things that we conjure up through intense effort. These are fruits. They’re produced, grown. And where do they come from? The Spirit.

So self-control is commanded, and it’s possible. But not if we think of self-control as self-control. It’s really Spirit-enabled-control. It’s self-control, but not until your self is brought under the control of the Spirit.

So next time you’re struggling with sin and are tempted to pull yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps, read Romans 7 and resonate with the description of the person who tries to please God apart from the Spirit. Feel the hopelessness of that approach. Then continue reading into Romans 8 and be inspired by the power available to us in the Spirit. Be empowered and filled with the Spirit of God, and then get that “self” in control.


OverpassCan a Christian learn from non-Christians? Can you enjoy a painting by an atheist artist? Can you see life more clearly by listening to secular music?

Whatever your stated views on these questions, we all do this all the time. The reality we all experience is that non-Christians have solid insights and an eye for beauty from which we frequently benefit.

Look no further than your morning commute. Your car was designed, built, and sold to you by a team of people, many (most? all?) of whom profess no faith in Christ. The roads and bridges you drive to work every day follow the same pattern. If non-Christians had no ability to perceive truth about God’s world, you couldn’t get to work in the morning.

We take this for granted, yet we rarely consider it theologically. It would make the most sense if those whose hearts and minds have been transformed by the Spirit of God saw God’s truth most clearly in all aspects of life. That seems to be in the indication of verses like 1 Cor. 2:14, Rom. 1:21, and 2 Tim. 3:7.

But John Calvin insisted that we ought to learn from and appreciate the insights and skills of non-Christians. This is a bit surprising, given his emphasis on human depravity. But the knowledge and abilities of unbelievers, Calvin confidently asserts, are gifts they received from the Spirit:

“Whenever we come upon these matters [skill and understanding] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [deride, demean, blaspheme] and reproach the Spirit himself.”[1]

Did you catch that? Not only do we need to acknowledge that non-Christians have “that admirable light of truth shining in them,” but had better be careful to heed and appreciate their insights lest we demean the Spirit. Those are strong words. He says again:

“We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects [law, philosophy, medicine, and math] without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts.”[2]

John MayerIf the Spirit is the source of the engineer’s knowledge and skill, the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and prophetic voice, and the philosopher’s quest for and apprehension of the truth, then we had better admire what we see, receive, and learn from non-Christians. If we fail to rejoice in the beauty and truth created and taught by non-Christians, then Calvin tells us to be ashamed of our ungrateful selves. The “pagans” don’t even demean the Spirit in this way because they see a divine source behind these good things.

So when you listen to the music of John Mayer, ride in a BMW, fly in an elevator to the top floor of a skyscraper, or float through the air in a 747, are you led to worship? If not, you demean the Spirit of God, from whom all of God’s good and perfect gifts flow. Don’t be an ingrate. Glorify God for all of the truth and beauty that his Spirit has brought into this world from all sides.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960) section 2.2.15, 273-274.

[2] Ibid., 274.

God Commands You to Sing

Mark Beuving —  November 13, 2012 — 3 Comments

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at a familiar passage in an unfamiliar way:

“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-21, ESV)

We sometimes think that this passage is about alcohol—that it teaches a strict avoidance of alcohol or puts “the Spirit” and “wine” at odds with one another. It doesn’t. If we look carefully, it’s only teaching the avoidance of drunkenness. But the bigger issue is that the passage is not about alcohol at all. Paul mentions wine in order to contrast the state of drunkenness with the state of being filled by the Spirit.

The contrast is fitting. In both cases, a person is being controlled by something external to himself. A drunken person is so out of control that he behaves like an idiot. A person who is filled by the Spirit is so out of control that her behavior is superhuman.

Sometimes we stop right there. We see that we are to be filled by the Spirit, but we don’t always ask what that looks like. So let’s ask. What does the person who is filled by the Spirit do? Paul gives us four descriptions in this passage of what the Spirit-filled person does: (1) he communicates, (2) he sings, (3) he gives thanks, and (4) he submits.

hymnalHere’s what I find interesting. So much of this description of being Spirit-filled revolves around music. Christians are to be “addressing one another.” How? By singing! Specifically, we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. It is probably unwise to make too sharp a distinction between each of these terms. But psalms are probably Old Testament psalms, likely accompanied by musical instruments; hymns are probably “poetic material that is either recited or sung” in praise to God (keep in mind that the hymns in our hymnals are relatively modern); and spiritual songs are probably songs that are spiritual, which means songs that spring from Spirit-filled hearts.[1]

So we are to be communicating to one another in song. Perhaps we could say that if the Christian life were a movie, it would be a musical.

But Paul has more to say about music. He continues by saying that we are to be “singing and making melody to the Lord” with our hearts, which literally means that we are to be “singing psalms and songs,” the same thing he told us to do in the previous phrase. It seems that Paul is repeating this for emphasis.

We might get hung up on the fact that Paul says that we are to sing “with our hearts,” he is not telling us to sing literally, just internally. But Paul is actually telling us where the music begins. It starts in the human heart, and is directed “to the Lord.” It’s conceivable that the music could remain in the mind and never be expressed audibly. But Paul’s statement that we are to be “addressing one another” in song tells us that our singing must at some point become audible.

We are rightly reminded from time to time that worship goes far beyond music. We shouldn’t equate our singing together at church gathers with worship, as though our acts of service and our thought lives are inadmissible as worship. But we also need to hear Paul’s emphasis here. If we are filled by the Spirit (which is a command we must obey), then we will be singing. We will also be giving thanks and submitting to one another, but we will be singing all the while.

God clearly cares about music, so we should as well.


[1]  Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 708-709.