Who Is the Holy Spirit?

Folded paper illustration of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove with a water color background symbolizing water and sun rays emerging behind the blue background
FOTF-Cary Bates

Long ago, when I went to seminary, I learned that the Holy Spirit was: the active presence of God manifest in the tangible world and a divine component of the Trinitarian God — ontologically equal to God the Father and God the Son — who empowers, purifies, teaches, comforts, convicts and guides those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.

Whew! That definition would likely meet most doctrinal standards today, not to mention sound impressive in small-group settings. But I have not found it particularly useful when explaining the third member of the Trinitarian God to my daughter, Missy. While she understands many basics of our Christian faith, helping her comprehend a seemingly murky, ethereal concept like the Spirit of the living God has not been an easy task.

And, honestly, isn't the obscure nature of the Spirit something we all wrestle with? We're comfortable with the concept of God the Father. We know who Jesus is and what He did for us. But as theologian Sinclair Ferguson notes, we often find the Holy Spirit to be more mysterious: "The Spirit himself remains to many Christians an anonymous, faceless aspect of the divine being. Even the title 'Holy Spirit' evokes a different gamut of emotions from those expressed in response to the titles of 'Father' and 'Son.' "

Faceless and anonymous indeed. I sometimes imagine the Holy Spirit to be a bit like the GPS lady that seems to live inside my dashboard. We can't quite figure out the details of the Holy Spirit, but He helps us and directs us to where we need to go. He is God's Positioning System, if you will.

As we help our children better understand the mysterious nature of God's Spirit, we can focus on the following principles:

Fully God, yet functionally separate

Not long ago, a friend of mine was at the park with her children. She was close enough to overhear her daughter's conversation with another little girl. "I think our God is awesome," my friend's daughter said. "He's awesome because He's a triple."

A triple! Kids often have creative ways to understand the basics of the Trinity. God exists in three different persons. Each person is fully God, yet there is only one God. Those statements are all true without any contradiction.

That fancy term I'd learned in seminary — ontological equality — just means the Father, Son and Spirit are equal in value, although separate in function. Focusing on those functional differences can be a helpful way for kids to understand the Spirit's nature. Teach them that God the Father planned the redemption of mankind. Jesus, the Son, accomplished this redemption through His sacrifice on the Cross. The Holy Spirit applies and affirms that redemption. He applies the gift of redemption by working in our hearts to get us to realize our need for God's grace. And He continues working by affirming God's character and assuring us that He is always with us and that we truly are adopted into His family.

Since He is fully God, the Spirit has always been involved in God's work, even if we often view His activities as starting after Jesus departed from earth. As you read Scripture with your kids, note how the functional presence of God — manifest in His living Spirit — is present through Old Testament history. He was active during the Creation (Genesis 1:2, present with Moses and the Israelites (Numbers 11:26-29), and working in and directing King David's heart (Psalm 51:10-11).

He instructs and comforts

My friend Theresa told me a story about her little boy, Jim. Once, on the way to preschool, he asked, "Mama, what shape is the Holy Spirit?" Theresa was a believer in that great wisdom of redirecting a child's difficult questions back to him, so she responded with, "What shape do you think the Holy Spirit is?" They drove along in silence while Jim pondered the theological conundrum. Then he proclaimed, "I think He's a triangle because sometimes He pokes me!"

He pokes me. For a 5-year-old, that's pretty good theology. Sometimes the Holy Spirit does poke us. He convicts us of sin. He prods our hearts so that we may make good decisions. Those "pokes" sometimes even hurt a bit, but they are there to help us.

The Bible also says that the Spirit comforts us. I wanted my daughter, Missy, to view our God as instructive but also compassionate and approachable. So I borrowed little Jim's metaphor as I explained how the Holy Spirit would "poke" her before and after she made a bad choice — like talking sassy or stuffing giant wads of toilet paper in Mom's commode simply because she wanted to watch the ensuing waterfall that preceded the plumber. And that He would also comfort her like a good friend to remind her of how much God loves her.

He satisfies us

Recently, Missy and I were wedged in a booth at her favorite Mexican restaurant. She'd just polished off a cheese quesadilla twice the size of her head when she asked sweetly, "Mama, may I sit with you?"

"Of course, honey" I said, scooting back to make room. She scampered over, climbed up, and then leaned against me and sighed dramatically. "I'm so happy, Mama," she exclaimed. "I'm really full!"

When the Holy Spirit made His grand debut to the early church, the believers "were all filled" with His power and presence (Acts 2:1-4). Like my little girl with a belly full of melted Monterey Jack, the disciples were filled and satisfied by the Spirit of the living God. This is surely the best gift the Spirit offers — a deep sense of satisfaction, of belonging in the family of God. The Spirit fills us with the empowering realization that we have been adopted and now have permission to call God "Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15).

If you were to run into me and Missy at the mall someday, she'd introduce herself, saying, "Hello, I'm Missy Harper." And then she'd point to me and say, "And this is my Mama Harper!" She loves to acknowledge the fact that I'm her mama. She can't say it enough.

Help your kids recognize that this is the same thing God's living Spirit does for us. He fills us and satisfies us, confirming in our hearts that we are the very children of God.

Lisa Harper is a popular Bible teacher and the author of several books on the Christian journey. Her most recent is Believing Jesus: Are you willing to risk everything?
This article first appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2016 by Lisa Harper. Used by permission.

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