The “Nudge” of the Holy Spirit

kid1Greg Nettle was in Columbia with his wife Julie on a church planting visit when they visited an orphanage run by Compassion International.  They were looking for children that their new church starts there might sponsor, and as they reviewed the packets, looking at pictures and reading the details about the children – who they lived with, what they liked, how they were doing in school – Greg said that he just wasn’t “moved.”  He told his wife, “I just don’t feel the Holy Spirit nudging us to sponsor any of these children.”   And that’s when Greg’s wife Julie rather pointedly told him, “You don’t need to feel the Holy Spirit’s nudge… Jesus already told you to care for these children because it’s the right thing to do.” (

Last Sunday I preached about how the Holy Spirit pushes us both as individual Christians and as the church out of our own particular comfort zones and into the mission of God in Christ.  I quoted something Pope Francis recently said –

The Holy Spirit annoys us. The Spirit moves us, makes us walk, pushes the church to move forward.  [But] we want the Holy Spirit to calm down. We want to tame the Holy Spirit, and that just won’t do. The Holy Spirit gives us consolation and the strength to move forward and the moving forward part is what can be such a bother. People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that is not what the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit brings.

eagleAnd I believe this, in fact, I’ve felt it myself.  Fr. George Montague, a Biblical Scholar who teaches down in San Antonio, says that the push of the Holy Spirit is like “riding the wind.”  Growing up on a ranch out in West Texas, George says that he has watched the buzzards catch the wind and glide for hours without flapping their wings, being carried to the far horizon, and he said that that’s what it felt like to him when he was finally caught up in the renewing and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit after a particularly barren stretch in his spiritual life.  And this experience is supposed to be the “normal Christian life.”

When we become Christians, two things happen.  We are forgiven and we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).  This is what Jesus as the Christ came to do according to the intial witness of John the Baptist.  He said that it was as the Lamb of God that Christ came to take away our sins (John 1:29).  And then he said that it was as the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit that Christ came to empower us to walk in newness of life (John 1:33).  These are two different things.  Forgiveness happens in an instant.  Either we are or we aren‘t. But our transformation unfolds only gradually over time.  It’s a gradual process.  It’s underway.  And so Paul told the Galatians that as they “lived by the Spirit” – in the experience of God’s forgiveness in Christ already applied to their hearts by the Holy Spirit – so they needed to then “walk by the Spirit” – step by step, day after day growing into an entirely different kind of person, someone who thinks like, looks like, talks like and acts like Jesus Christ (Galatains 5:25). And it’s this exhortation to  “walk by the Spirit”  that creates in us the expectaion of guidance, that God will in fact “communicate with us, nudge us, move us along, and speak to us” (Andrew Haslam). The question is how?

Now, back to what Julie Nettle told her husband Greg in Columbia – “You don’t need to feel the Holy Spirit’s nudge… Jesus already told you to care for these children because it’s the right thing to do.”  And as far as I am concerned, the key to this matter of being guided by the Holy Spirit is found in this story.  In one of his essays in Modern Reformation Michael Horton touched on the basic problem –

We must avoid the temptation to regard the Holy Spirit as a freelance operator working independently of the Word. …A common misunderstanding of the Spirit’s leading in our day is that believers can decipher God’s secret plan by way of “hunches,” “nudges,” and “promptings.”…In this age, the Spirit does not inspire new revelations but illuminates our hearts to understand what he has already given us. …From Genesis to Revelation we find practical wisdom and guidance for our lives and the Spirit who inspired these commands inwardly illumines our understanding and, through the gospel, animates our will to follow them. …The Spirit, therefore, leads and guides us, to be sure, but it is mediated through his Word… [“I’ll Pray About It.” Jan./Feb. 2004 Vol. 13 No. 1.26-27]

This has been the traditional perspective of Reformed Christianity (and remember, that’s our natural branch on the family tree of churches).  The Word and the Spirit work together, always in tandem. When the Word falls on the ears and begins to get processed by the head, the Spirit goes to work on the heart.  Paul told the Ephesian Christians that the Word of God was the “sword of the Spirit” (6:17), the tool that the Spirit uses to lay open our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).  And so the nudges that we feel from the Holy Spirit will be set into motion through an enagement with the Word.

Now, frankly, I fear that this perspective, which was fully operative in the theology of Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has gradually gotten lost in the shuffle of the general loss of confidence in the authority of Scripture by so many in the mainline church these days and by the elevation of religious feelings as the new replacement “control” for our faith’s convictions and practices.  The tendancy that I see at work in the church today might best be described as being a matter of all Spirit with little or no Word at all.  And this is no better, it seems to me, than the old fundamentalism of all Word and no Spirit.  We desperately need both Word and Spirit. R.T. Kendall, the Pastor Emeritus of London’s Westminmster Chapel, has written extensively and, I think, insightfully about what he calls the “divorce” in today’s church between the Word and the Spirit.

scaleThere’s been a silent divorce in the church–not between a man and a woman, but between the Word of God and the Spirit of God.  As with any divorce, sometimes the children stay with the mother, and sometimes they stay with the father. In this divorce, some have embraced the Spirit and others the Word. However, I believe that our teaching and preaching will only be effective if it is firmly grounded in the Word of God and entirely saturated with the Spirit of God. What is the difference? Those on the “Word” side emphasize sound doctrine, expository preaching, contending for the faith. Those on the “Spirit” side emphasize the prophetic word, signs, wonders, miracles and the power demonstrated in the book of Acts.  But it is not one or the other that is needed, but both. []

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Kendall’s predecessor at Westmister Chapel put it, “I spend half my time telling Christians to read their bibles, and the other half telling them that just reading their Bibles is not enough” (paraphrased).

I have a series of four art books (The New Testament Series), all of them perfectly lovely. Published by Phaidon, each of these books show how a particular Gospel event has been portayed by some of the great artists from across time and from around the world.  There are more than 100 colorful images in each of these books drawn from the very beginnings of Christian art right up through modern times. One of these books is about the Last Supper.  One of these books is about the Crucifixion. One of these books is about the Descent (the removal of Christ’s body from the Cross after His death).  And one of these books is about the Annunciuation – the Angel telling Mary that she has been chosen by God to be the Mother of our Lord.  I think that it’s this last one – the one of the Annunication – that is my favorite, maybe because it is the least developed image in my spiritual imagination.

The death, burial and resurrection of Christ, the subject matter of the first three books in the series are all events that are vivid in both my head and my heart.   Sacrament and Scripture, ritual and liturgy have impressed them solidly on my soul.  But who among us Protestant Christians even knows that March the 25th – 9 months before the church’s traditional date of Christ’s birth, December 25 – is Annunciation Day, let alone what to do with it?  Maybe its our hesitation to make too much of Mary lest we be tarred with the suspicion of being “too Catholic,” but the Annunciation is just not that much of a player in the faith of most Protestant Christians like us.  And that’s too bad because, frankly, it is a pretty big player in the Biblical narrative (Luke 1:26-56).  And I find that the way that it has traditionally been portayed in the Christian art of the Annunciation has helped me better understand and thereby become more receptive to the nudges of the Holy Spirit in my own experience.

angelThis image is a pretty standard presentation of the Annunciation in Christian art.   You’ve got the angel breathlessly arriving on the scene with the big announcement of God’s intentions, and Mary devoutly, receptively kneeling.  These are standard features in all of the paintings of the Annunciation in my book.  But so are the two other things that you see on prominent display here in this painting – the open book, presumably a Bible, in front of Mary from which she’s clearly been reading, and the Holy Spirit as a dove hovering or brooding just over Mary’s head.  Word and Spirit, both are at work here.  It’s a picture of the spiritual experience of “illumination” that’s supposed to be part of the normal Christian life for all of us.  Mary was receptive to the Spirit’s nudges because she already knew what God had purposed because it had already been revealed in the giving of the Law and in the Prophetic Word and had become part of the record of Scripture.  What Mary read in Scripture, the Holy Spirit used to nudge her heart in the direction of God’s purpose. Go back and reread Jesus Christ’s famous encounter with the discourged disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and you’ll see the same exact dynamic at work.

First of all, the Risen Christ explained to them “the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and with all of the prophets” (v. 27), and then the two disciples reported that their hearts burned within them as He spoke to them on the road, explaining the Scriptures to them (v. 32).  And this is how I think that the nudging of the Holy Spirit in my life and in your life is still going to work today.  As we open our Bibles and read, our heads fully enagaged in the process of understanding, the Holy Spirit is going to be at work in our hearts, prompting responses that serve His purposes for both us and the whole world.

“Let it be done to me according to your word,” was what Mary prayed at the Annunciation (Luke 1:38), and I think that it will be our prayer too when the Word and the Spirit do their work in us. DBS+


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