The apostle Paul had a dramatic experience of God and also a slow, over-the-years formation by the Holy Spirit. The dramatic one is his well-known conversion on his journey to Damascus in Acts 9. The slower formation, we know little about. It started with the three years he spent in the desert after his conversion. According to Paul’s report in Galatians 2:1, a total of fourteen years passed before he went to Jerusalem with Barnabas, who had sought him out in his hometown of Tarsus and supervised a year of ministry internship (Acts 11:25).
It is reasonable to expect that Paul spent a lot of his unrecorded years explaining to others what happened to him and even preaching in the Galatian region near his home in Tarsus. Somewhere in those years, Paul had worked out the centrality of grace in God’s relationship with his people, as evidenced so powerfully at his conversion. He also came to a much greater depth of understanding of how the Spirit works changes in the believer’s heart, as the Spirit did in his own. Paul is by far the clearest and most applied interpreter of the Spirit in action.
When he writes about what the Holy Spirit can do among God’s people, you can confidently assume this is what the Spirit did to him over those years. He learned to look into the future based on his own past experiences of the Spirit. You, too, can do that.
- Have you found that your understanding of faith has moved beyond childhood knowledge to greater willingness to live with Jesus as Lord of all your life? That was the Holy Spirit at work (1 Corinthians 12:3).
- Have you found that certain desires of your sinful flesh have lessened and even gone away? You experienced how, living with the Holy Spirit, you were less inclined to gratify desires of your old sinful nature (Galatians 5:16).
- Have you experienced feelings of enslavement to pervasive fears that inhibit joyful living? The Spirit lessens them as he helps you cry “Daddy,” confident of yourself as his child (Romans 8:15). Is there movement in that direction that you have noticed in yourself lately?
- Have you noticed yourself more inclined to be involved in a congregation, perhaps teaching Sunday school or taking on administrative responsibilities? The Holy Spirit has been working on you, giving you extra motivation to do what you now find to be satisfying (1 Corinthians 12:7).
- Have you found yourself experiencing a spiritual act of worship in decisions to sacrifice what seemed important, in order to live a life more pleasing to God? (Romans 12:1). Recognize the Spirit at work.
- Have you experienced a special sense of unity with other Christians, perhaps in a time of worship or when decisions were made? That was the Holy Spirit at work. Have you experienced such unity at a special conference with Christians? Thank the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3–6).
- Have you found, this week or last month, a greater sense of love, joy, peace, patience, or gentleness? That was the Spirit working these fruit in your life. In years of teaching the fruit of the Spirit, I found that the fruit that people want more than any other is patience, especially those with children. Have you become more patient with your children lately? That’s the Spirit. Do you want more patience? Ask the Father to send his Spirit.
- Have you found yourself frustrated, speaking only words of human wisdom and seeking opportunities to express spiritual truths in spiritual words? (1 Corinthians 2:13). This tug helped me recognize that as well as I was doing, I was not at home at a secular university and should teach at a Lutheran university. It also explains the satisfaction and joy I find in turning insights from the psychology of religion into spiritual words.
Can you prove that any of these positive movements in your life came from the Holy Spirit? No more so than you can prove God exists to someone who does not want to see him. This insight happens when the eyes of your heart are enlightened (Ephesians 1:18). It takes the Spirit to recognize what the Spirit has done in your life. This is what Jesus taught Nicodemus: You cannot enter the kingdom of God unless you are born of water and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit influences the human spirit (John 3:6).