Paul Derengowski, ThM
It is a question worthy of a legitimate answer given that so many seem to think that they have experienced the Spirit’s presence. Yet, when asked the question, “What does the Holy Spirit feel like?” the answer is ambiguous at best. Extreme peace, a comforting strength, or even a “burning in the bosom” are some typical responses, which really say more about the individual and a physical sensation he or she is attributing to the Holy Spirit than about the Spirit itself. So, why are responses so nebulous? Why cannot anyone provide the objective answer to an experience that many assume is God’s presence tweaking their physical being? Moreover, why do some impose upon others the idea that should one be unable to perform certain religious exercises, then that is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s absence? Are the answers really that out of reach or are they right before us, but we just do not want to acknowledge them. Keep reading below to find out.
Feelings are everything in today’s society. They are relied upon, appealed to, assaulted, manipulated, tweaked, and substituted for, especially when it comes to knowing and understanding the truth about anything. Feelings are what scam artists and commercial marketers prey upon to take advantage of the general public. It is not necessarily that feelings and emotions are a bad thing. Without them human beings would be nothing more than automatons. It is that they are not a reliable barometer for determining the truth. Add to that the fallen condition of all human beings (Rom. 3:9, 23), who are inherently selfish and sinful, and it is not difficult to understand just why deferring to one’s feelings to make truth decisions is ill-advised at best (Prov. 14:12; 16:25).
Feelings, though, are also a big part of the church scene as well. In fact, they play a major role in doctrinal pronouncements and preaching to the degree that a majority of professed Christians simply make-up their own beliefs 1 and only half of Evangelical pastors have a biblical worldview. 2 Attend any given Church on a typical Sunday morning and one will witness “Bible studies” that amount to nothing more than glossed-over gossip sessions with interjections of uninformed, uneducated personal opinions which have nothing to do with the Bible, and sermons from the pulpit which repeatedly exalt human capability to the status of godhood to the neglect of the fallen human condition; all the congregant has to do is will himself into position. Both scenarios reflect an ecclesiastical sickness that stems from too heavy a reliance upon human feelings as the guide to truth, rather than an objective appeal to God’s Book, and ultimately has resulted in churches becoming breeding grounds for all kinds of heresy and cultism, as well as a deathly decline in church attendance. 3
Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the responses to the question in our thesis are so vague. Most “Christians” cannot answer the question with any amount of depth because (1) it has been inculcated into them that feelings are absolutely dependable when it comes to doctrinal truth, and feelings change and shift like the northerly breezes on an autumn afternoon; (2) biblical illiteracy is pandemic in the average Christian church, to the degree that most Christians “cannot name the disciples, the Ten Commandments, or the first book in the Bible;” 4 and (3) Sunday sermons are more along the order of self-help sessions, where the patient actually tells the doctor what he wishes him to prescribe and the doctor abides by the patient’s wishes simply because (a) the doctor is afraid the patient will go elsewhere, and (b) it is the patient’s of way of thinking he is getting something out of the church experience.
In turn, when the average Christian under the assumption that the Holy Spirit can be felt is asked what the Spirit feels like, a kind of-sort of, wishy-washy, a person just has to experience it himself type of response is what one will receive. The Christian sensationalist does not know anything better because he does not know what the Bible says, much less does he know himself. Worse yet, he substitutes one ignorance for the other, and he and his feelings end up being the final authority, just like what occurs during the typical “Bible Study” and preaching hours on any given Sunday morning at “church.” Opinions abound, and everyone might even “feel” good about what they are doing, but none of it has anything to do with the Holy Spirit, because there is no way to objectively gauge the emotively driven commentary.
Lack of Objectivity
It is because of a growing biblical illiteracy among Protestant and Evangelical Christians that they turn to personal feelings and emotions to try and give credence to their profession. By doing so, however, they lower the person of the Holy Spirit to the level of a creature created in their own images. They become the final authorities on how the Holy Spirit should act and “feel” since it is their own personal sensibilities which are leading the way. When queried for something more objective to substantiate their claims they are either incredulous that anyone would dare question what they have felt or they become hostile and angry in their retort. It is not that anyone is questioning the sensations themselves, for people do have experiences which are real enough. The question is how they managed to make the determination in the first place given the lack of objectivity. Which leads to another question of how they know that they have not been fooled. How do they know that the feelings are not being precipitated by something sinister, rather that something benevolent, and it is leading them astray? Again, to even intimate such a question is to invite a “Just who do you think you are?” type of response.
The fact of the matter is, there is no objective source which validates the claim that the Holy Spirit “feels” a certain way or imparts a sensational feeling at all. Some cultists, like the Mormons, frequently assert that when a couple of disciples were on their way to Emmaus in Luke 24 that they sensed the Spirit’s presence because their hearts were burning in ecstatic joy. But, upon closer inspection there is no mention of the Spirit at all in the text. From all indications it is more plausible to conclude that when Jesus was explaining the Scriptures to them they simply became emotionally excited. It is a condition that all followers of Jesus ought to be in everytime the Bible is opened and read, but does not necessitate that it is the Holy Spirit manifesting himself a substitute for human emotions. Otherwise, how would the Mormons, or others, explain a Christian’s confusion, remorse, anger, or disappointment when certain passages of Scripture are read or explained after being betrayed by a friend, a family member passing away, someone in authority makes an unjust decision, or a favorite team simply lost the last game of the season? Was the Holy Spirit equally responsible for those emotions as well?
Other groups of the Pentecostal persuasion frequently allude to Acts 2 and the activities surrounding Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit as an objective example of what Christians today should experience when the Spirit is present. In fact, many become downright adamant about it to the point where they begin drawing extreme assumptions, like a person is not saved unless one speaks in tongues, as evidence of the Spirit’s presence in the person’s life. But, as with the Mormons, upon closer inspection of the text those at Pentecost did not feel the Spirit, but merely manifest the results of what he was doing. Indeed, they spoke in tongues, not as a prescription for future Christians to follow, but as a result of prophecy (2:17-21). Instead, the passage tells us that the Christians present at Pentecost experienced bewilderment (v. 6), amazement or confusion (v. 7), marvel and astonishment (v. 12), and great perplexity (v. 12), probably because of the motley gathering of people and languages, all of who were speaking languages that everyone understood! That is a far cry from what is often seen in modern-day Pentecostal churches where there is plenty of confusion, astonishment, and perplexity when most everyone is feigning to speaking in tongues, yet with zero understanding of what is being said.
With a lack of objectivity in knowing what the Holy Spirit is supposed to feel like, one is left with subjective experience and personal opinions. And those in themselves are precarious precedents, given, once again, the fallen nature of man and others in the spirit realm who play upon the emotions for the express purpose of deception (see 2 Cor. 11:13-15). Failure to recognize a need for objectivity or ignoring the objective standard, namely the Bible, which has spoken on the subject, can only ultimately get one into big time trouble, as is frequently the case in many so-called “Christian” lives today.
The Big Question
What does the Holy Spirit feel like? The answer is, he does not feel like anything, nor is there a prescription in Scripture that alerts the reader to expect to feel a certain way when he is present. In fact, in the true believer’s life the Spirit goes about his business of living within the saint during great moments of ecstasy and joy as well as moments of devastating depression and despair, and those without the saint giving a moment’s thought of whether the Spirit was invoking a particular feeling during whatever event might be transpiring.
That said, however, there will be those who will argue to the contrary, and will place certain prescriptions upon those who are expected to abide by them at the risk of being declared unsaved or out of touch with God. Such is the way of the legalist or cultist, which is to act with authority out of silence and then judge others according to how they “feel” God may judge, rather than according to what God has inspired and the legalist or cultist has chosen to ignore, whether willfully or simply out of neglect. Perhaps it was the “spirit” that led them to “feel” the need to interject where God was otherwise silent. One wonders, though, what was entailed in that “feeling,” given that it hardly could have been one of peace, love, and understanding. Maybe it was the same feeling experienced by Eve, back in the Garden of Eden, when she became convinced that so long as she questioned God’s authority and acted on her own, she would become like God (Gen. 3:1-7).
Human feelings and emotions can be tricky things, especially when we are bombarded with a wide variety of them each and every day. Sometimes “gut feelings” turn out to be true, while at other times they are more the product of our character and upbringing, and are woefully out of line with reality. We must, therefore, be very, very careful when relying upon them when making decisions, particularly when we are going through extremely high or low events when we are most vulnerable to make impulsive decisions that are either life-threatening or life-altering. The Bible tells us that, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). For one wrong move based on a faulty feeling could result in an unwanted tragedy or bondage that is often unforeseen because of the “heat of the moment.”
The same bowls true when it comes to the question before us: What does the Holy Spirit feel like? For while many well-meaning and well-intended individuals wish to think of God and His Spirit in a certain way, as one who brings only peace, comfort, and a good feeling, those same individuals seriously misrepresent the Holy Spirit through their misguided feelings and dogmatism. They are preaching another “spirit,” much like many preach another Jesus when discussions about him come about (2 Cor. 11:4; Matt. 24:5, 23). Therefore, it becomes incumbent upon those propagating such a view to step back and think about just what it is that they are saying. If they do not have a biblical precedent for their statement that the Spirit feels this way or that, then they need to cease and desist. Otherwise, they become deceivers, perhaps even unintentionally so, for whatever cause it is that they are representing.
Conversely, for the person confronted by those propagating the touchy-feelyism which permeates so much of the “Christian” religious world, a biblical guard must be set up to thwart the efforts by those attempting to lead one astray. The Christian is to beware of false prophets, not tolerate, carry on a “dialogue” with, and then crawl into bed with them (Matt. 7:15; Rom. 16:17; 1 Jn. 4:1). Clearly the Spirit is not a feeling, but a person, and his presence is not measured by the number of goose bumps on one’s arms, nor the amount of linguistic gibberish pouring forth from the mouths of those enjoying a moment of religious ecstasy. It was promised that he would live within the true believer when God regenerated and sealed him, and that regardless of how one might feel about it (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Eph. 1:13). Failure to establish that biblical barrier is to invite confusion and deception on the matter, and eventually to be led astray by a spirit whose ultimate goal is to instill a “feeling” of guilt, separation, remorse, and shame as a result of the negligence and disobedience. May the reader take heed.
- “By a three to one margin (71% to 26%) adults noted that they are personally more likely to develop their own set of religious beliefs than to accept a comprehensive set of beliefs taught by a particular church. Although born again Christians were among the segments least likely to adopt the a la carte approach to beliefs, a considerable majority even of born again adults (61%) has taken that route. Leading the charge in the move to customize one’s package of beliefs are people under the age of 25, among whom more than four out of five (82%) said they develop their own combination of beliefs rather than adopt a set proposed by a church.” http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/15-christianity-is-no-longer-americans-default-faith (accessed June 11, 2012). ↩
- http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/133-only-half-of-protestant-pastors-have-a-biblical-worldview (accessed June 11, 2012). ↩
- 7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html (accessed Jun 11, 2012). “Well-known church researcher and author Thom Rainer notes that the failure of churches to keep up with the population growth is one of the Church’s greatest issues heading into the future. In a 2002 survey of 1,159 U.S. churches, Rainer’s research team found that only 6% of the churches were growing—he defines growth as not only increasing in attendance, but also increasing at a pace faster than its community’s population growth rate. “Stated inversely, 94% of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve,” he says.” ↩
- Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/25.38.html accessed June 11, 2012. ↩