How to Recognize the Holy Spirit in Your Life

Written by Renée Miller

I believe that everything that we do in God's name begins by the Spirit of God that is in us. We do not do anything in our own power. However, ...sometimes we don't acknowledge the power of God's Spirit within us, and we don't rely on that Spirit's power when we serve God.

If we are not relying on the power of God's Spirit within, we are likely to find ourselves using our own willpower to do what we think is right and good and holy. And over time, we will find that we lack joy in our serving. What might have been a delight turns to a stressful burden. What might have given us energy and hope leaves us weary and resentful. The freedom and peace we might have known if we had abandoned ourselves to the power of the Spirit within us, turns to nothing more than a willingness to do whatever is needed to be free of guilt and obligation.

Sometimes we wonder if we even have the Holy Spirit within us. Well, I'm here to tell you that there is no question whether or not you have the Holy Spirit. ... The Holy Spirit lives in you, strengthens you, guides you, teaches you, and moves you. The only question is whether you are willing to abandon yourself to the power of that Spirit within you.

I have had countless people ask me, "How do I know if it's the Holy Spirit speaking and working in me and not my own self?" ..There are three characteristics of the release of the Holy Spirit in our lives:

1)The release of the Spirit is unbidden - there is nothing we can do to make it happen. We cannot will to feel compassion, or force ourselves to have our heart moved, or work to achieve the power of the Spirit. It arises without our effort - in that, it is pure grace. When the Holy Spirit is released in our lives there is a warm affection that glows in the heart — rather like the soft glow that hangs silently and softly on the horizon as the day of bright sun shifts to the quiet of evening. ... Just such a luminescence floats over the heart that is abandoned to the movement of the Spirit.

You know how this works. You open up a magazine and as you flip through the pages, you see before you a small child with a bloated belly, thin arms, eyes that are too large for their sunken sockets, and a face that cries for food and care. The words at the bottom of the page urge you to help provide for this child by a small donation each month. I can guarantee that such an ad will cause you to feel love and compassion in your heart.

I can also guarantee that before you turn the page you will at least give some thought to whether or not you will respond to the plea for a donation. It will be an immediate response, one that comes unbidden, one you didn't think up or plan or work to achieve. You see the child in need, and your heart wants to love. That is the release of the Holy Spirit. Purity of purpose happens during that first moment when you see the picture and find your heart moved to love and compassion. And that love, compassion, and affection for the child lingers in your spirit — hovers in a warm glow around your heart, until the worldly cares and concerns divert your attention once again.

2) The release of the Holy Spirit is unexpected - there is always a quality of surprise about the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is not something you can prepare for, or even look forward to, though you can be on the lookout for it. It is ever new—ever fresh— without the taint of weariness and repetition. It may call you to do something you would never have thought to do on your own.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta spoke of how this happened in her own life. She saw a man in the street covered with maggots, and she wanted to help him. That was the movement of the Spirit—she did not 'will' to feel that she wanted to help him—remember, she had been a Loretto nun and had lived in a lovely school and convent environment where there was beauty, order and peace. She wore a clean habit and taught children who came from wealthy families. The feeling that arose in her to help the man covered with maggots came to her unexpectedly. It called her to act in ways that were out of the ordinary. Her response was immediate, and had she not responded her life would have been very different. She herself said, "if I had not picked up that one man, I would never have picked up another 42,000."

3) The release of the Holy Spirit in our lives is un-self-conscious —we feel what we feel — love, compassion, tenderness, gentleness, hopefulness, lovingkindness, because it is happening in us without our effort. And because of this, we don't stop to analyze how this feeling and our response to it is going to affect our own life or well-being. We don't care about what people will think, we don't seek to broadcast it, we don't pull out our appointment calendar to see if we can fit it in. We simply feel and respond —freely and without thought for ourselves. When the woman possessed of seven devils was cured by Jesus, she went to the house of Simon and in front of all those who knew her past history, she knelt down at Jesus' feet and washed those feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair and anointed them with precious nard. She had no thought for herself, no thought of condemnation or gossip from others, no thought for the cost of the ointment. She simply felt gratitude and love rise in her because of the movement of the Holy Spirit and she responded without concern for how it might affect her afterward. This also reminds me of a story I once read about the quality of true service. The story ended with this: True serving is washing the bent and gnarled feet of an old woman in a closed room where no one sees and no one knows.

You might well ask, "If the Holy Spirit is in me, why am I not moved? Why do I not feel the things of which you speak?" Even though the Spirit is within us, ever-ready to shower upon us the impulse to serve purely, we can cover up that impulse. We know how a bank of coastal fog can crowd out the sun. The sun is still there, but she cannot shed her bright warmth because of the cloud that covers her. In the same way, our own busyness, our insistence on keeping God at arm's length, our personal choices about what we will or won't do, our complex desires and needs, our wounded self searching for affirmation, our guilt and obligation can crowd out the Spirit. The Spirit is still there, but she cannot shed her sweet fragrance and gentle movement because of the cloud that covers her.

But when we let go of our tenacious hold on our own way of thinking and being in this world, we create a gap for the Spirit to slip through. The slightest space is all that is needed. The Holy Spirit makes herself known in the rush of mighty waters, and the falling of silent snow. In one wisp of a moment, we may detect the scent of sweetness, or find our heart on fire, or feel our feet beginning to dance, or see our hands reaching to serve. And, in that miraculous moment, unbidden, unexpected, un-self-conscious, we are lifted out of the tawdriness of our daily life into a broad expanse of love and we know ourselves to have been touched by the Spirit, moved by the Spirit, and called by the Spirit to respond with loving abandon. If we respond immediately we will be heeding the Spirit's voice.

This sermon was originally delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church  in Memphis, Tennessee on Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2003.

© 2003 Calvary Episcopal Church