I know you’re not supposed to, but there are things I want that other people have. My coveting problem doesn’t have anything to do with money or stuff. I yearn for spiritual experiences. I covet Paul’s face-to-face encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. I am jealous of those three years the disciples got to spend with the earthly Jesus, and I covet their encounter with the Holy Spirit in a room overlooking the city after his ascension. I covet my friend who saw Jesus face-to-face in a hospital room, and I envy anyone who gets knocked off their feet by the power of God when they worship him.
I’ve read Moses’ account of talking with God as if to a friend and I soak in every word of Elijah’s story of hearing the voice of God on a mountain. I want that. I hunger for it. And I wonder why those experiences don’t happen more often.
I suspect the greatest obstacle to my own intimate, supernatural encounters with the Holy Spirit is me. Growing up in a very traditional Methodist setting with almost no exposure to the Holy Spirit, I battle against spiritual inertia. It simply wasn’t our experience in worship, so I confess its a stretch to make it my experience now.
I have learned, however, that with a willing spirit and an open mind, I can encounter the Spirit firsthand and experience a rich and intimate life with God.
Over the last three years, I’ve focused personally and vocationally on one word: encounter. I have thought, prayed, written and spoken about what it is like to encounter Jesus, encounter the Father, encounter the Spirit.
Over this season of deep reflection and study, I’ve come to confess that while I know something of God in all his forms, I have so much to learn about being open to a face-to-face encounter. Because you may have struggled, too, to understand what an encounter can be, allow me to share a few thoughts from my own experience as one on the journey toward encountering the Spirit:
1) First, is an encounter necessary for salvation?
Yes, in the sense that an encounter activates my faith in Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we are not being called to believe in a lifestyle or a set of principles. We are called to a relationship with the one, true God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This life with Christ is a relationship, not a set of rules, and relationships requires meetings, conversations and sharing hearts. The Holy Spirit empowers us to relate to Father and Son, and no encounter can happen without the presence of the Spirit. From the beginning we are invited to seek the Spirit so we can seek the deeper things of God.
2) Are all encounters the same?
My father had a saying about parenting. He said there are as many ways to parent as there are parents. I’m guessing the same is true about encounters with the Holy Spirit. When we talk about encountering the Spirit, we are talking about an encounter with the most creative being in the universe, someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. The most creative being in the universe, who knows you that intimately, is surely able to design an encounter that deeply connects with who you are at your truest.
The Holy Spirit is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on us, nor does he require us to be less than who we genuinely are. In fact, I sense that the Holy Spirit is so incredibly sensitive to our make-up that he can connect with us more deeply, more richly, more effectively than any other being. Psalm 139:13-16 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
That is the God who longs to meet us in the secret place. What isn’t to covet—to long for, to cry out after—about that?
3) What is an encounter with the Holy Spirit?
I am sure there are better definitions out there, but here is mine: An encounter with the Spirit is that moment when I become aware through faith of God’s endless love for me and his Lordship over my life. It may come in a form as obvious as a manifestation (a vision before me or a response that wells up from within) or it may simply be a moment of keen awareness of the reality of God. In either case, it is always accompanied by love.
Hear this: Any voice speaking into your life that contains shame or condemnation is a counterfeit voice and not an encounter with the Holy Spirit.
And yes, I covet more encounters with a perfectly loving, all-powerful, all-knowing Spirit. These encounters build faith and enliven my relationship with my Father. They speak a deeper truth that feeds my soul and fills my spirit. I have experienced the reality of God while looking out a window at a tree, and I have encountered him powerfully in the midst of reading the Word of God. I have come face-to-face with him at a Golden Corral Restaurant (that story can be found in the video series, Encounter the Spirit, but suffice it to say that our God has a sense of humor!) and I have heard his still, small voice speaking life and vocation into my spirit.
I have most often encountered the Spirit in worship. In fact, my first encounter happened while I was on a spiritual retreat. I had not long before made the statement to some church leaders that I’d never worshiped God in church. I was always happy to be there but couldn’t honestly say that what we did on Sundays led me into the true worship of the living God. And I assumed it was a problem with the church, not me.
Then I went on a “Walk To Emmaus” retreat and God met me there in a precious and unexpected way. It happened while a group of us were sitting around late one night, talking casually. Someone struck up a song on a guitar and within a few moments we were all on our feet, praising God. As I lifted my hands (not a normal worship posture for me at that time in my life), I felt myself strangely occupied. I sensed my body being physically filled with the Holy Spirit. And in that moment, I worshiped God for the first time. Out of that moment, my call to lead others into worship was born. I credit that moment as the motivation that got me to seminary.
From my perspective—and this is just my perspective—an encounter with the Holy Spirit will bring you face to face with truth. It will give order to your life, with Jesus as Lord over that order. And I trust that an authentic encounter with God will always lead to worship.
I don’t believe grace is irresistible. I do believe an encounter with the Spirit can be ignored, misunderstood, or outright rejected. We are all both fallen and free. We can accept or reject his love, and we make bad choices just like that every day.
And ultimately, an encounter is a choice—a choice perpetually preceded by an invitation from the One who loved you first and loves you most, who will keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking, waiting for your response.