In September 2002 I got blasted by a 40,000 megawatt dose of the Holy Spirit [see The Return of the Prodigal]. It was, to use a very clichéd expression, an experience that changed my life. The change, however, was not instantaneous as some imagine it to be — I didn't go from bad to good in a single giant leap, but I received the ability to make the change possible, and an adviser to guide me through the process. This advisor, the Holy Spirit, led me through a metamorphosis that was nothing short of amazing. And though it took a million little steps rather than one huge leap to achieve it, I did go from bad to good. And in the briefest time possible!
King of the Universe The wonder was not so much the speed with which the entire transformation took place, but the systematic manner in which it did. I was, quite literally, educated into being good, and the process was as structured as a traditional educational system is. There were lessons that I had to learn. They were rules that I had to follow. They were levels that I had to pass. About the only thing different from a normal system was that I had just one tutor instead of many, and he remained constant right through all the grades.
The tutor, of course, was the Holy Spirit, and it is the manner and mode of his instruction that is the subject of this article. As we are all familiar with how an educational system functions, I will use the analogy of one here for ease in understanding how the Spirit works and how our growth takes place. Let us call this educational system the School of the Holy Spirit. As in any school, the first step is getting admission into it.
Being baptized in Christ is the only requirement for receiving the Holy Spirit, but to grow in the Spirit there are certain things that are necessary and these are a few of them.
1. A genuine desire to be holy
I always use the word 'holy' to mean living a life pleasing to God in every possible way, not just in those matters you consider expedient; and obeying his commandments to the fullest extent that you are capable of. Holiness has to be your goal and you must be prepared to do whatever it takes to attain it, which includes a total, unwavering commitment. The course is gruelling and if you aren't committed, you will crash out in no time.
2. Heartfelt repentance
You have to be genuinely sorry for your sins. It doesn't matter that you might be constrained by sin at this point — part of the Holy Spirit's role is to take away the constraints and free you of sin, which will happen in time — but what is important at this stage is that you be truly sorry for the offences that you have committed against God and be determined never to sin against him anymore.
3. Honesty and courage
Another requirement is honesty, more with ourselves than with anybody else, and the courage to face up to who we really are. Most of us put up facades for public display and have been doing it for so long we have ended up even fooling ourselves. The Holy Spirit is going to rip the masks apart, albeit gently, and reveal things about you that you will not like to see. If you aren't willing to face up to the truth of who you are and be ready to remedy yourself without justification, you aren't going to make much progress.
4. Love for God
A vital requirement is a genuine love for God, translatable into action. Love for God is something that will grow as you grow in him, but what you need is a basic element of it to begin with, because it is only love for God that will help you make a lot of the tough decisions that you will be called to make as you progress through this school. The more love for God that you have, the more you will be prepared to do for him, which will, consequently, make it that much easier for you.
If you meet these requirements, you are ready to begin your education, but before we do so it would help to know a few things about the Holy Spirit.
A little about the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is not a vague, ethereal power who floats about in the heavens, waiting to be invoked by us screaming, “Come, Holy Spirit!” at the top of our voices. He is a real person, with a personality as distinct as that of the Father or the Son, and He is with us at all times. The reason many of us do not notice His presence is because we have ignored him so totally over the years, He has been relegated to the back room of our lives like a mentally challenged step-brother we’d prefer was neither seen nor heard.
Despite His awesome power, the Holy Spirit is an extremely gentle person. While it was His power that initially drew me to Him, it was His gentleness that made me fall in love with Him. It probably took less than two weeks for this to happen, and ever since He has been my closest friend, most trusted adviser, and precious confidant. It is my absolute devotion to Him that has contributed largely to what I am today, and if you want to transform your life, get to know the Holy Spirit intimately. Once you do, you will simply not have the heart to grieve Him, and this, more than anything else, will help you stay in line.
As a teacher, the Holy Spirit is unique. He adapts Himself to you, both in speech and in behaviour, so there is a high comfort level. Furthermore, He speaks your language, both literally and metaphorically, so there is always perfect communication. In addition, He has infinite patience and will take you through a lesson, over and over again, if necessary, until you learn it. He will never punish you for a weakness or scold you for a failure; on the contrary, He will always be there with words of comfort and encouragement when you fall, urging you to press on.
The Holy Spirit asks only one thing of you and that is obedience. Your growth and the rapidity with which you grow are both dependent on this. Obey and you move forward. Disobey and everything freezes. It is as clear cut as that. You might try to continue your education on your own, choosing to grow in holiness by doing things based on expediency rather than on the truth, but you won’t get very far. You will quickly reach a point when the lessons are incomprehensible and further progress is simply impossible. Most Christians stagnate at this level, unable to grow further other than by millimetres, simply because they work independently of the Spirit, or worse, choose to wilfully disobey him. Obey, however, and you will register phenomenal growth until one day you will stand as solid and as unshakeable as an oak tree, a spiritual giant!
Recognizing the voice of the Holy Spirit
To be able to follow the Holy Spirit it is also helpful to know how He talks to us, how to recognize His voice, and how to respond to it when we hear it.
The Holy Spirit speaks to us in different ways. He usually speaks to us through our thoughts. If you are doing something that you shouldn’t and you feel an uneasy pricking of conscience (assuming your conscience is still active — it is dead in several of us), know that it is the Holy Spirit telling you to desist. As you grow in the Spirit, His “voice” becomes more easily recognizable from the thousands of different thoughts that race through your mind, and with time you will be able to actually isolate it from the others. Once you are able to do this, your growth accelerates, because there is perfect communication between you and Him.
A word of caution here. The enemy can do an excellent job of imitating the voice of the Holy Spirit, and if you aren’t very careful, he can have you doing his work even as you believe that you are doing the work of God. It becomes very important therefore to learn to distinguish between the two. Though the devil can do a pretty good impersonation, there are certain traits that he has which give him away, but it takes time to recognize these. Consequently, it is wise to have a human adviser, preferably a priest, who can help you through in the interim.
In my early days I used to sit in counsel with my spiritual director for a couple of hours every week, updating him on some of the things that I was being “taught” by the Holy Spirit. I quickly developed an understanding of inherent differences between the two and certain characteristics of the devil that he simply can’t hide. One of these, for example, is impatience. Whenever I am hustled into doing something with undue haste, I can be certain that the devil is behind it nine times out of ten. Eventually, you develop a pretty good nose for the evil one and you will be able to smell him coming from a mile away.
I no longer check everything out with my director, but if it is a message of some import, I still seek external affirmation. This involves having a person confirm the message I have been given without my actually asking him to do so. The Holy Spirit does not object to this; on the contrary He encourages it! If it is something really important I ask for multiple affirmations to ensure that there is absolutely no doubt that the message is from the right source, namely, the Holy Spirit. Towards the end of last year, for instance, I received what appeared to be a very clear signal from the Holy Spirit that it was time to launch my ministry. As this was a matter of extreme sensitivity for reasons I am not prepared to disclose at this moment, I was simply not willing to take any chances. I asked the Holy Spirit for not one, but three people to confirm the message was accurate, with the added qualification that all three be leaders in Catholic ministries. Before the month was over, the Holy Spirit sent me three very highly anointed people all of whom told me that it was time to begin God’s work!
The Holy Spirit also uses people like these to speak for Him, especially in the early stages when you haven’t fine tuned your ear to His voice. He can use just about anybody, and I think He takes particular delight in using somebody you dislike to deliver some of His messages. It is His way of teaching you humility even as He tries to communicate with you. His preferred choice of people, however, are ministers. This is to prevent you from being unnecessarily confused. (I use the word “minister” loosely, to cover all people who do the work of God under authority of the Church.)
I have developed a standard practice that I recommend you follow when listening to these people. Listen to them without judgement. Pay closer attention to the speaker whenever your mind begins to rebel at something he is saying, because when your mind tells you that something a particular preacher is saying is rubbish, it usually is just because it doesn’t fall in line with your thinking. It need not be rubbish at all.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that ministers don’t occasionally speak rubbish. They do; some of them often. Consequently, discernment is required. But how is one to discern what is right or wrong? True discernment is a gift and not everybody has it. For a person without the gift, discerning something means evaluating it with his own mind, which is unreliable to say the least. If you see nothing wrong in consuming alcohol, for instance, and if a minister tells you that you should stop drinking, you will “discern” that the person is speaking nonsense! Get what I mean? So how do you find out the truth? Just check out what God has to say on the subject; it’s right there in His Book!
God’s Word is not only a way of discerning truth, it is the best way of listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. As you read God’s word, you will come across a verse every now and then that leaves you feeling distinctly uncomfortable because it convicts you of something sinful that you are doing. This is the Holy Spirit speaking directly to you, asking you to address the issue immediately. Don’t hesitate. This is one occasion when God Himself has delivered the message and you don’t need any confirmation or affirmations — simply obey!
The Sound of Silence
One final point and then we are ready to commence our lessons in school, though, in case you hadn’t realized it, your education has already begun. I had stated earlier that the Holy Spirit never scolds us. How then are we to know that we have displeased Him? The Holy Spirit has a remarkably effective way of letting us know: He goes silent! There are three types of silence I have learned to recognize in the Spirit.
One is the mild silence that greets a sinful action you have committed by mistake. You suddenly notice that the Holy Spirit has gone quiet on you and you know instinctively that you have messed up, though it is quite possible you don’t fully understand the nature of your mistake. Ask the Spirit what you did wrong and He will tell you.
The second is the heavier silence that follows when you disobey a direct order you have agreed to obey, or when you try to justify a sin after He has shown you how grievous it is. The Holy Spirit will simply clam up and refuse to resume any sort of “normal” conversation with you until such time that you remedy the situation!
The third silence is terrifying, and is brought about when you hurt one of God’s children. You only have to hear the sound of this silence once to never want to do anything that will bring it about again.
I experienced this early last year when I permitted my famous temper to get the better of me. For sixteen full seconds — which is how long it normally takes for my temper to be spent — I hurled abuse at my offender. The attack was vicious while it lasted, and immensely hurtful. Anger spent, shame took over and I retreated to church which was my main place of refuge in those days, hoping for the comfort that God could give me. There was not a sound. I sat for five hours in the church that afternoon, praying that He would utter just one word, but there was just this total, unnerving silence. Finally, more dejected than I ever recall being in recent times, I got ready to leave. Even as I did so, I picked up my Bible and flipped it open, reading the first verse that my eyes fell upon. I do not believe that verses picked up at random from the Bible are always messages for us from the Holy Spirit, and I strongly discourage you from thinking so, but there are instances when they can, indeed, be messages and have profound impact. This is what I read:
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."
I didn't waste any time in reconciling myself with my offender. Almost immediately thereafter, the Holy Spirit broke his silence and things rapidly got back to the way they used to be. But this deathly quiet is something that I have never been able to forget and I never gave the Holy Spirit a reason to go silent like that again. The Holy Spirit would, however, go silent on me once more, for a very long time and for a totally different reason, but we will come to that later.
It is now time to enter school.