What in the world is the Holy Spirit?

What in the world is the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit (pneuma, πνεύμα) is part of the Trinity, and asserted in the Nicene Creed.  “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  But I think the Holy Spirit gets short shrift, and almost always comes last in the trio: God the father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  I think I know (as far as an ordinary human can) what God is, and who Christ is.  I’m just not sure about the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit seems to be an inspirational force that took the place of Christ after his death.  It explains how a bunch of cowardly and disorganized apostles who fled the scene after Christ’s execution could, fifty days after his crucifixion, become the highly motivated and organized group who created Christianity.  The Holy Spirit remains with us today; it’s part of believing in God and Jesus.  If you believe in Jesus, then you believe in the Holy Spirit, so it’s worthwhile figuring out what it might be.


There is no difference between the Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit.  Both refer to pneuma, breath–the animating power and the soul.  The Holy Ghost is simply how the term pneuma was translated in the King James Bible.  Most modern translations use the term spirit, because of the spooky connotations of the term “ghost.”

In the Hebrew Testament, the Holy Spirit (řuah yhwh) is the power of God, the extensions of himself through which he carries out his mighty deeds.  It is only in the New Testament that the Holy Spirit becomes the Paraclete (παράκλητος), the helper who Christ leaves behind to inspire men and women.  In other words, the Holy Spirit as Christians understand it only makes sense in the context of the Trinity.  It developed within that framework, becoming one of the persons of God (Evangelical Dictionary).  Only from this perspective does the Holy Spirit make sense.

The single most important verse about the Holy Spirit

Forty days after his death, as he was about to ascend to heaven, Jesus said to his disciples,

It is for your good that I am going away.  Unless I go away, the Counselor [Paraclete] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

A little earlier Christ said,

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate [Paraclete] to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. (John 14: 17-17)

An example of what the Holy Spirit does . . . if it does

They have been foster parents to thirty-two children and have adopted sixteen. Domingo and Irene are in their late fifties and currently have eleven children living with them, and they tell me they would take more if they could. Anyone who has children knows they could be doing this only by the Spirit’s power.  (Chen, loc 531)

From a philosophical or critical point of view, one outside Christianity, this is ridiculous.  They could be fostering for the pleasure they get being around so much life energy, possibly guilt or compensation regarding one of their own children, etc.  But I don’t think it is senseless to say that this is evidence of the Holy Spirit working within them because it is really a way of saying this is what the Holy Spirit looks like when we see it in action.  It is not proof of the Holy Spirit; it is a description of what the effects of the Holy Spirit would be like (if it exists). 

The Holy Spirit: a person who uses us

Chan writes that the Holy Spirit is a person.  I’ve never understood this until now.  The person language is from the doctrine of the Trinity, and the idea is that the Holy Spirit uses us; it has its own agenda.  It may be our Paraclete, but it is not a bodyguard.  It directs us (when we are open to it).  We do not call upon its power.  Its power becomes ours through the will of the Holy Spirit, not our will.   

From this perspective, the Holy Spirit is God.  Not a lesser God, but as much God as Jesus Christ is God.  The words Spirit and God are often used interchangeably in the New Testament, for example Acts 5:1-11.  The Holy Spirit knows our own hearts, and prays for us–for what we really need, not just what we want (1 Corinthians 12: 7-11)

What if the Holy Spirit asked you to give up everything you own?

What if you could hear the voice of the Holy spirit and He asked you to literally give everything you owned? What if He asked you to sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor? Could you do it?  Before you start explaining why He would never ask that of you, take a moment and answer the question honestly. It’s not out of His character to ask for everything.  (Chan, loc 1174)

If anyone had read more than a couple of my posts, then he or she knows that this is the one that always trips me up.  I’m scared to give up even half my wealth when I might need it to keep me or my wife out of a lousy nursing home (it’s not all about Caribbean vacations).  I can’t do it.  Not yet, maybe never.  And yet this seems to be the kind of thing the Holy Spirit asks: of the Apostles, of Domingo and Irene, perhaps of all of us.  But one at a time, from within.  If we are not deaf to it. 

Yet, it must be very difficult to know when and if the Holy Spirit speaks.  Perhaps it is just you, your guilt, your desire for sanctity, or whatever else that is speaking.  A well-thought out moral decision takes time, talking with diverse others, most importantly those who will be most affected, such as other family members.  How in the world can one know that it is the Holy Spirit talking?  It can’t be as simple as saying “the Holy Spirit asks what is most difficult.”  Maybe sometimes it’s easy. 

Instructions for use

Not thoroughly convincing to me, there is an answer, called the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, an idea not in the Bible, but developed by Patristic thinkers* in the first centuries after Christ’s death.  The Holy Spirit not only directs us, but provides guidance in the form of virtues, or instructions for use as I call them.

  • Understanding that helps us relate our lives to our supernatural purpose.  This requires wisdom, not just knowledge.
  • Counsel functions as a sort of supernatural intuition, enabling a person to judge promptly and rightly, especially in difficult situations. The gift of counsel operates under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the will of God.
  • Fortitude includes a willingness to stand up for what’s right in the sight of God, even if it means accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm. The gift of fortitude allows people the firmness of mind that is required both in doing good and in enduring evil.
  • The gift of knowledge allows one, as far as is humanly possible, to see things from God’s perspective. It “allows us to perceive the greatness of God and his love for his creatures” through creation. (drawn from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 1804-1832, and a pair of speeches by Pope Francis)

All would be fine if this were the case, but aren’t these virtues often already corrupted by arrogance, false eternals, and bogus absolutes?  Reinhold Niebuhr says this about the natural law  and I think the same thing applies to these gifts of the spirit.


It’s hard to know what to make of the Holy Spirit.  Though sometimes it seems like a harsh taskmaster, I’d rather think of it as the Zen of Christianity, that still, small voice that we can only hear when we are quiet and in a receptive spirit.  Then we may have a chance of understanding what it is truly telling us.  Perhaps we might even find it comforting. 


* Patristic authors wrote from the end of New Testament era to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.  Though his dates do not fit the age, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is generally included in discussions of Patristic thought.  Patristic refers to early Christian writers designated as Church Fathers, such as Saint Augustine. 


Francis Chan, Forgotten God: The Holy Spirit.  David C. Cook, 2009.

Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell.  Baker Academic, 2001, pp 568-573.

Pope Francis, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/gift-of-knowledge-attunes-us-to-vision-of-god-pope-says

Reinhold Niebuhr, “Christian Faith and Natural Law,” in Saint Thomas Aquinas on Ethics and Politics, ed. Sigmund, pp 222-225.  W. W. Norton, 1988.

4 thoughts on “What in the world is the Holy Spirit?”

  1. I thought you wrote ” parasitic authors ” so that threw me as I’d not heard of those before.I’ll comment later

  2. I think in order to be creative one has to give up all preconceptions and desires.To become nothing.
    On the other hand, that might be a way of evading the notion of actually giving away one’s money, house or clothing to the poor.This is hard when even the newspaper is full of articles and image s about the houses of wealthy people and how to dress well etc.So it appears that’s what matters.And it’s hard not to fit in.That’s why unchosen poverty is hard
    I can’t see much point in having a Holy Spirit separate from God the Father.I wonder if it is female? Though categories like this are irrelevant. I realise.I suppose you must now explain the Trinity
    In Judaism it’s like having us 3 gods and they don’t agree with it.
    It seems not monotheistic.

  3. Yes, a number of people think that the Trinity means that Christianity is not monotheistic. I disagree. I embrace the mystery of the Trinity, mostly because it allows God to know what it is to suffer, being human as well as divine. I know this doesn’t fully address the Holy Spirit, but I’ve tried to do so in this post.

  4. I think observant Jewish people feel it’s not monotheism.I spoke to one recently but before that I’d never thought about it.I accepted it all as I was brought up a Catholic.I
    t may be because we can’t explain such a mystery as God is simple language. or in any language Even in science there are great problems talking about relativity and quantum theory and light being both a wave and a particle at times.And the observer affecting the observed….. it’s not a straightforward subject as many seem to believe
    I like your explanation of why you like it.I am sure if I studied it more I would find what it means easier to understand .Why do we think everything is simple and can be described in a few lines or it does not exist.
    God is incomprehensible.I think God was here before language was invented so language is limited

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