Open to the Spirit :
God in Us, God with Us, God Transforming Us
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
In Kenyon’s poem, “Let Evening Come,” she touches on a belief deeply held by Christians from all streams of the church: that God does not leave us without comfort. In each church that I have been a part of, whether Southern Baptist, Reformed Presbyterian, Episcopal, or non-denominational, that comfort is seen as a characteristic of the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. And yet despite this belief, as widely held as it is in the church, there is a pittance of instruction given about how to engage this comfort, this power, this person, that is otherwise so deeply affirmed by so many.
This is precisely the issue at the heart of Scot McKnight’s latest book, Open to the Spirit. McKnight, a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, addresses the tendency of contemporary American churches to focus exclusively on the word of God, Jesus, and God, without giving due consideration to the Holy Spirit. There are multiple reasons for this development, but McKnight cites his own experience, in which his church leaders became nervous at the thought of the uncontrollable Spirit, and instead focused on controllable aspects of spiritual formation, “…resorting to reason, to intellect, to the mind, and to the Bible.” Add to this our modern prejudice toward the material world, which is empirically provable, over the immaterial, unprovable world of the Spirit, and it becomes quickly evident why the Holy Spirit is now sometimes referred to as “the forgotten member” of the Trinity, and rarely explored outside Pentecostal churches on Sunday mornings.
Beginning with his own reluctance to open himself to the workings of the Holy Spirit, McKnight presents stories from his own life and others’ lives to illustrate the Spirit’s active participation in the world. McKnight takes pains to address readers who may have preconceived notions about Spirit-filled churches, acknowledging that his own initial experience at his grandmother’s Apostolic Holiness church, in which congregants prayed out loud all at once, one person even flattening himself on the floor to pray, struck him as “beyond weird.” The fact that McKnight acknowledges his own discomfort with the idea of being open to the Spirit makes his book that much more endearing to readers who have their doubts.
One of the ways in which McKnight engages these readers’ doubts is by repeatedly pointing them back to the Bible and Jesus. McKnight is fastidious in his use of the scriptures as the basis for his assertions. He returns again and again to the demonstration of the Spirit’s power at work in both the Old and New Testaments, and examines how individuals like Mary, Peter, and Paul all interacted with the Holy Spirit. His examination of how much Jesus called on and recognized the Holy Spirit was particularly illuminating, since my own tendency when reading those verses is to focus on Jesus and skim right over the words “Holy Spirit.” Too, McKnight is always looking to the New Testament church and the apostle, Paul, who were very aware of the power of the Holy Spirit and how it could be misconstrued.
As McKnight observes, because of this, the newly-established church set ground rules for maintaining order in worship, and seeking the Spirit as a means of edifying the whole church and glorifying Jesus, rather than a specific individual. McKnight also supplements his own observations about the work of the Spirit with the works of other Biblical scholars from a range of Christian traditions, from Pentecostal to Orthodox. It was refreshing, in fact, to read an author so keen to write about the other authors and thinkers who have influenced his own work, and to give their voices a place of prominence in his own book. Not only does this give readers other resources to investigate McKnight’s claims about the Spirit, but it gives the book a sense of being part of a larger conversation happening in Christendom, a reminder of what a great cloud of witnesses can look like in the contemporary American church.
McKnight’s treatment of life lived open to the Spirit is fairly comprehensive, ranging from being open to the Spirit while reading scriptures and praying, to what it looks like to exercise the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing, to the moral dilemmas posed by a Holy Spirit indwelling a sinful person in the process of sanctification. In regard to the more controversial gifts of the spirit, the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing, McKnight grounds his belief that these are still gifts available to the church through his exposition of New Testament writings regarding these gifts. Whether or not a reader holds the same views theologically as McKnight, his scriptural exegesis and examples of how these gifts can be used today are worthy of serious contemplation.
The author also acknowledges in several points throughout his book that being open to the work of the Holy Spirit also requires that a person seek the counsel of the Bible, other believers, church leaders, and, at times, professional counselors. McKnight acknowledges that many have suffered abuse at the hands of those who were misguided and claiming to speak for the Spirit, but points out that this is no reason to ignore the Spirit. In this regard, I do wish McKnight had devoted one specific chapter to the discernment of the voice of the Spirit from the voices of the self or other spirits. While he peppers his text with admonitions for the reader to always interpret what they are hearing from the Spirit in light of the scriptures and affirmation by fellow believers, discernment is such an important part of listening to the Spirit that I would be interested to read McKnight’s thoughts on this specifically.
Ultimately, however, McKnight has created a rich mosaic of personal narrative, scholarly research, and biblical exegesis in Open to the Spirit. This book would be perfect for group studies, especially for those seeking more in-depth reading on the Holy Spirit. McKnight offers prayers and practical ways that readers can engage the Spirit as they go through their lives, encouraging readers to seek after that union with the Spirit that so characterized Jesus. Open to the Spirit is also a book that can be read repeatedly due to the depth of its content on the Holy Spirit. Through Open to the Spirit, McKnight shows us how the Holy Spirit is available to all believers, affirming Jane Kenyon’s words, “God does not leave us comfortless.”
Julie Sumner is a writer who has worked as a critical care nurse, liver transplant coordinator, and massage therapist. She is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared in The Cresset, Juxtaprose, San Pedro River Review, Catalpa Magazine, and The Behemoth.