The Holy Spirit is not a life hack. We are not empowered by God to avoid responsibility. But too often, the Lord’s name is used in vain in this way.
Last month, a United States federal court had to decide whether a juror in a criminal trial was allowed to wave aside evidence and base his verdict on what he said the Holy Spirit told him. One judge in the 11th Circuit said this is not allowed. A court of appeals decided that actually, it is allowed. According to a dissent from that ruling, this juror “is not capable of basing his guilty verdict on the evidence but instead will base his verdict on what he perceives to be a divine revelation.”
Whatever one makes of the legal matters, the court case raises pressing questions about the charismatic, Spirit-led life; public reasoning; and shared responsibility for the common good. It is an urgent problem when so many Pentecostals, charismatics, and other Christians seem to believe that one evidence of the work of the Spirit is rejection of the need for evidence.
At its best, however, Pentecostal spirituality affirms that the Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, is truly “the public person,” urging believers to take responsibility in the public sphere. The Spirit compels believers into solidarity with the poor, the downcast, the outsider.
The all-embracing Spirit of creation is the same Spirit who rested upon Jesus of Nazareth, accomplishing his identification with humanity, and making possible the pattern of life that reveals the heart of the Father. Those who are led by this Spirit are always drawn—as Jesus was—to the dispirited and downtrodden. Filled with this Spirit, we cannot help but pour out our lives in care for others.
Yet today, too many American Pentecostals have been caught up in conspiratorial thinking. Some have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Some have defied pandemic guidelines, warning against wearing masks and taking the vaccine. A few have suggested the Spirit makes believers immune to the virus. We should ask how this has happened. Are Pentecostals especially susceptible to political pressures and the meaningless ups and downs of the culture war? If so, why?
Until recently, a majority of Pentecostals in the US opposed direct political involvement, even while they encouraged charitable ministries, calling for societal transformation through revival rather than activism. As a result, Pentecostals have earned a reputation for being “otherworldly.” Allan Anderson, emeritus professor of mission and Pentecostal studies at the University of Birmingham, explains, “They have sometimes been justifiably charged with proclaiming a gospel that either spiritualizes or individualizes social problems. The result has been a tendency either to accept present oppressive social conditions or to promote a ‘prosperity gospel’ that makes material gain a spiritual virtue.”
Although it is surely not what anyone intended, many Pentecostals have come to think of the Spirit as a kind of ultimate life hack, a means of avoiding pain, eliminating difficulties, overcoming obstacles, and assuring success.
Otherworldly Pentecostals tend to think the Spirit’s work is limited to the domain of personal spiritual experience. This way of imagining the Spirit-led life gives rise to a kind of dissociative state. Believers become more and more absorbed in their own experiences, and less and less concerned with the needs of their neighbors.
Dominionist Pentecostals, including those who feel driven to fulfill the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” tend to go another step and think the Spirit’s work is to exalt believers into positions of authority and influence. This way of imagining the Spirit-led life leads to collusion with political and economic powers and a weaponizing or instrumentalizing charismatic gifts for partisan and commercial gains.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. A deeper, truer understanding of the Spirit can set us free.
In The Subversion of Christianity, philosopher Jacques Ellul—who once inquired about becoming a member of the Assemblies of God in France—argues that the Spirit does not coerce or control us, but frees us to live wise, caring lives.
The Spirit, he insists, is “no more dictatorial, authoritarian, automatic, or autosufficient” than Jesus was. The Spirit “liberates us from every bondage and puts us in a situation of freedom, choice, and open possibilities.” The Spirit enlivens our conscience, allowing us to discern God’s will, preventing us from taking refuge in ignorance. The Spirit “makes us fully responsible.”
This is exactly what we learn from a careful reading of Acts. On the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), Peter stands up with the 11 disciples and declares to the gathered crowd that the outpouring of the Spirit marks the occasion of Jesus’ enthronement “at the right hand of God.” It is the inauguration of the long-desired Day of the Lord.
Years later, however, Peter sees in a vision a sheet lowered from heaven teeming with unclean animals. He is told to eat, but he can’t. He says the animals are unclean. He is told again, but cannot obey until he hears the liberating word of the Lord: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15, NASB).
As Willie Jennings says, these words “have rarely, if ever—maybe never—really been heard in all their redemptive density.” In this unimaginably disorienting moment, Peter is being invited to “take flight with the Holy Spirit into an uncharted world where the distinction between holy and unholy, clean and unclean have been fundamentally upended.”
God works in and from tight spaces, intimate settings of family and close friends, to change wide open spaces of peoples and nations. Peter is now caught up in the revelation of the intimate. God has pushed him over the line that separated Jewish bodies from Gentiles bodies, holy bodies from unholy ones, and pressed Peter to change his speech acts by never again calling anyone unholy or unclean.
Even now, Pentecost remains an unfinished project. Indeed, in some sense, the work has hardly even begun.
Like Peter when the sheet is lowered from heaven, Pentecostals have not yet fully felt the creative power of the breath of God, much less fully acted on that power. But as we do commit to accept the liberation of the Spirit, as we allow the Spirit’s fullness to open the circles of our lives wider and wider, we will find ourselves empowered to live with the creativity that marked Jesus’ life, the originality of mercy perfected in forgiveness, reconciliation, and shared thriving.
We will be free for responsibility. Not from it.
Living with the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead requires us to live with what Johann Baptist Metz called “a mysticism of open eyes.” Freed from political innocence and moral scrupulosity, open-eyed mysticism not only notices the suffering of others but actually “takes responsibility for it, for the sake of a God who is a friend to human beings.”
Whatever the law says about the juror who ignored evidence and invoked the Holy Spirit in a criminal verdict, that is not what the Spirit does. The Spirit frees us for the work of discernment and public reasoning, frees us to nurture the common good and care for our neighbors, and frees us toward the cross-shaped patterns of life.