Why doesn't the Holy Spirit do anything to me?

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It can't just be me. But one night, it really seemed like it. I was a teenager, standing in an unfamiliar charismatic church at the height of a 1990s phenomenon called 'The Toronto Blessing.' I was a new Christian, quite uninitiated in theology or the practices of the average church, and so very much unprepared for what was now going on all around me.

To my left, a woman started quacking – I kid you not – quacking, like an excitable duck who'd just spied a small child with a hand full of breadcrumbs. In the row in front of me, a man with his hands extended out in front of him began to shake vigorously. At the back of the room, someone started screaming in a way that suggested they had just trapped a precious part of their body in a closing door. It was a fairly bizarre thing to witness, and might have been scary if I didn't trust the older Christians who'd taken me along that evening. And then, the tumbling started.

I'd noticed out of the corner of my eye that a team of stewards was busily working their way around the room, removing everyone's chairs, mine included. Another, larger team of people wearing different coloured badges were also making the same journey, but they stopped at people rather than chairs, and every time they did – and prayed for them – those people were sent sprawling to the ground, only saved from nasty bruising by yet another team, this one employed as 'catchers' who then gently laid those people on the floor.

Now I was freaked out, not least because the prayer/catch combo team was heading my way. Yet as I looked down at the increasing numbers of people lying flat out on this church floor, with their eyes closed and in many cases an ecstatic look on their faces, a big part of me wanted some of that too – whatever it was. I knew God was involved. I knew it was good. So instead of following my instincts and bolting for the door, I closed my eyes and waited.

The team arrived, and they prayed. I got ready to feel some great whooshing rush of spiritual energy which would send me floorwards. But it didn't come. I didn't move. I stayed on my feet, and the prayer team moved on, barely hiding their disappointment. The quacker to my left went down like an Italian striker in the penalty box. The Spirit had clearly struck her powerfully, but he didn't seem interested in me. I had felt nothing at all.

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In the 22 years following that experience, I've stood in countless charismatic churches and festival environments where leaders have ministered 'in the power of the Spirit'. In almost every case, the result has been the same: I've stood unmoved, my hands haven't shaken, I haven't felt remotely close to impersonating a duck. For a while I thought there must be something wrong with me; some deep unresolved sin in my life that needed dealing with before God could work. Then I began to get cynical, and consider whether the whole thing was some sort of NLP-style illustration of the power of suggestion. I don't believe either of those things. But here's what I have realised.

It's got nothing to do with 'my heart'

The Holy Spirit doesn't wait for people to have their lives in total order before he moves powerfully. There are many, many testimonies of people who weren't even Christians, but have felt the incredible power of the Spirit – often it's been instrumental in their decision to follow Jesus; the Alpha course is built around a weekend which makes exactly that assumption. A feeling of unworthiness in the face of God is only natural when we don't fully grasp his grace, but I see no biblical precedent that says God can't work in us while we're still 'sinners'. In fact, the reverse is true; that's the foundation of how we believe God engages with us.

Some people fake it... but that doesn't invalidate the Spirit's work

Freud would have a field day with this, but it's absolutely clear that in any room full of people apparently manifesting the Holy Spirit, some will inevitably be faking it. I've spoken to young people who've admitted to this in the cold light of day, and once or twice I've even felt tempted to do a bit myself in order not to discourage the tiring person who's just spent half an hour praying for me. However, I am entirely certain that I've seen the real thing – the Holy Spirit powerfully filling and working in a person so that they begin to physically react to him – and I know the truth of it because I've seen the total life transformation that's resulted.

God works in different people in different ways

The glorious breadth of the church demonstrates that God graciously meets us where we are. The only logical explanation I have for the same God being equally present as a cesassionist conservative church and a wild pentecostal revival meeting is that he's happy to engage with us in a number of different ways. The Bible seems to back this up too: he speaks with Moses 'face to face, as a man speaks with his friend' (Exodus 33:11), but he spoke to Joseph through dreams. David (or other psalmists) often found God to be far away; absent even, while the early church met him through 'tongues of fire'. Power doesn't necessarily equal feeling, and vice versa – God often chooses to work deeply within us without causing so much as a quivering lip.

What matters isn't the manifestation, but the fruit

I've observed people laughing, shaking, dancing and rolling around on the floor in church, but behaving entirely differently in the pub a few hours later. Fake or genuine, those manifestations of the apparent power of God mean nothing if they don't lead the person changing; becoming more Christ-like. The Bible talks about the 'received power' of the Spirit (Acts 1:8); Paul talks about an 'energy that works so powerfully within me'. These things don't happen for the sake of it; they're not God proving his existence over and over again. The Spirit works to help us to change, and that change is the 'fruit' of a true encounter with him.

Two or three times in those last two decades, I believe I have experienced the power and presence of God as a tangible, physical thing. A moment, praying on a long car journey with my then-boss, where I began to speak in tongues; a time at the Soul Survivor festival where I experienced an overwhelming feeling of peace, joy and warmth during prayer. I hold on to these moments dearly, but they are by no means my only evidence that God works powerfully in my life. The total transformation of my life, from the person I was and was destined to become, to the man I am now is the real answer to the question, 'why doesn't the Holy Spirit do anything to me?' Of course he does; he works in me every day of my life, but it seems he chooses to meet me gently, cerebrally, and it seems more subtly.

My hunch is that's true for many other people too, who like me have stood and wondered why they're not 'getting it' like everyone else. Their lives however will tell the same story of transforming power. The Spirit and his work remain something of a mystery to me, but when I observe the way he changes lives, it is a mystery that I firmly believe in.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and an author, screenwriter and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders

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