Who is the Holy Spirit? He is, of course, God, and he helps us know where God is. But in talking about “where” God is, Christians are forced to retain two equal and (seemingly) opposing truths. We must with one hand cling to God’s transcendence—the doctrine that the triune God is utterly and infinitely beyond creation; and with the other to his immanence—the doctrine that he is utterly and infinitely close to his creation. The Holy Spirit helps us understand the latter.
Once we begin to trace the outlines of God’s immanence, we quickly see that the story of his closeness to the world and to those made in his image is a Spirit story. Why? The answer lies in his distinctiveness among the members of the Trinity. The blazing uncovered glory of the Father does not pair well with human life as we currently experience it—think of Moses begging to see God’s face. “No one may see me and live,” the uncreated One says to the prophet on the holy mountain (Exodus 33:20). The Father’s closeness to creation maintains distance, loving fury veiled in clouds and flashes of lightning, the shrieks of six-winged seraphim rending eardrums and causing us to fall prone, crying like Isaiah that we are undone, (Isaiah 6). We are never allowed to forget his Source-ness, his almighty power and utter authority. His kingship and fatherhood so deep that nothing is outside his decree, all is sourced from his perfections.
The Son, unmade yet eternally begotten, became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, prone to limitations of a human body. That blessed body, Scripture says, sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven even now, at this moment, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. His incarnation is glorious in its chosen limitations, but limited nonetheless.
But the Spirit? He is able to be immanent, close, and intimate in a way that is distinct from the ways the Father and Son can. His presence can be gentle, unbounded by body or place. His omnipresence is perfect, yet his personality and divinity are unquestionable. He is God, the uncreated Creator from before any beginning of beginnings, perfect and transcendent, and yet able to be here in a way of true and gentle love for his people. He may remain hidden, invisible, but it does not diminish his presence or his power. And in him, Creator and Sustainer, we live and move and have our being.
This is not to say that the Trinity has three natures. God is one, and his nature is one. Nor is it to affirm the idea that he takes on different forms in different places. It simply says that the various persons of the Trinity work in different ways, consistent with the one nature and the distinctives of each of the three.
Is the whole Trinity immanent? Yes, but not in the same ways. And it is the Spirit’s ways of immanence that I believe we most often forget, to our great loss.
What do we lose? We lose the capacity for seeing the wonder and wisdom of God in places where we commonly overlook it. We lose the daily holy awareness that in God’s economy there is nothing worthless that he has made. We lose the chance to have the visceral, unspoken realities of embodied life become paths of sanctification and quiet worship for us. We lose the chance for God’s closeness in the world to give holy quiet shape to our inner lives. We lose the chance to know him, even if just a little, by noting his close presence.
The Holy Spirit Intersects All of Life
Immanence intersects us. The divine Spirit who draws near is not only close to the forests and creeks, he is close to the cities, to the suburban sprawls, to the work of our hands. He is close to the Bible’s great narrative—the means of Mary’s miraculous conception, the empowering fire of Pentecost, the guide and Comforter of the apostles and early church. He is close to the life of our hearts. All the classic works of the Holy Spirit—baptism, illumination, sealing, sanctification—are immanent works. He must be close to work as intimately in our lives as our doctrine tells us he does. His immanence extends to community and church—“One spirit,” Paul says (Ephesians 4:4), and wherever two or more are gathered, the Spirit of Jesus is in our midst (Matthew 18:20). Close. Here.
Reclaiming our awareness of the Spirit’s immanence begins to unlock holy imagination for our world. We see things—all things—differently, if we understand their relationship that persists even today to their Creator.
Instead of viewing creation as some sort of divine art project—interesting primarily as the past work of God—we see it as his multiform dwelling place, holy because he works and loves there now. A place of his activity and goodness, limited or flawed as those places may be. Limited and flawed as we may be.
The Holy Spirit Reveals God
Can our awareness of God’s immanent presence lead us to dangerous theology? Of course. It is one of the oldest sins to confuse the Creator with the creation, a sin there is little excuse left for in the Bible. Few Christians today are in any danger of making that mistake, so far have we erred in the opposite direction. We read Scripture thinly. Our imaginations—indeed our eyes to see God—have atrophied.
Think of the images of God’s closeness in the Bible, the poetry of the immanence of his work. He is described as the bird, the striding man, the nursing mother, the lover, the rock, the feathered thing of Psalm 91. The Bible’s images for God fly, stride, float, wash, hunt, breastfeed, sprout, water, and leap from the page. If that surprises us, we have failed to be formed by Scripture.
One of our more pressing sins is shoehorning God into tidy little manicured set-pieces, bounded by sermon podcasts and nifty branding, and forgetting his mystic strangeness, his lovely ferocity, his kinship and closeness with all the rough and breeding things he has made. Even the trees (he says the kingdom is like one), the water (he says his Spirit is like it), and the stones (how our souls ought to long for God like they can shelter our bodies!). All of these become symbols, and more than symbols, means by which the God of creation and redemption meets us here. Today. He bridges worlds, for love’s sake. For his glory.
Balancing his immanence, in person and work, with his transcendence is a tension we must walk. And we must walk it well to engage with him fully, to answer the “where?” in a way that satisfies and involves our whole persons and our entire world, a way that sees him more fully as he is—dwelling close, working close. Intimate in quiet glory.
God delights in painting himself into our world. He loves the poetry of existence, being thought of as the Water behind all water, the Fire from whence every earthly fire leaps. The Bird of heaven, descending dove-like among the jays.
It is immanence that is this beauty, the bones and sinews of this beauty. Not in the imperfections, but in spite of. Shining through the cracks in our skins, as it were. The Spirit’s presence here.
The Holy Spirit Is Both There and Here
Immanence is a doctrine much like a Russian nesting doll—containing truths inside it shaped like itself, compounding the mystery. Truths responding to deep questions: To what degree does God’s presence equal his influence? How do we reconcile that everywhere kind of divine presence with the overwhelming ubiquity of evil and suffering? Is God as present with the moss and crested jaybirds as he is with me?
Let me leave it at this: ever since I began to glimpse his immanence in my own life, it has haunted me. I have learned to see God flutter where I least expected him, to humble myself before his rich and fulsome presence. The Holy Ghost has haunted me, ever present, moving invisibly and well.
Where is God? There. Completely there. And here. Completely.
Paul J. Pastor live in Oregon and is author of The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit. This article is adapted from one that first appeared in Christianity Today.