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How Can I Be Filled with the Spirit?
By Nicky Gumbel
The evangelist J. John once addressed a conference on the subject of preaching. One of the points he made was that so often preachers exhort their hearers to do something, but they never tell them how to do it. They say, ‘Read your Bible.’ He wants to ask, ‘Yes, but how?’ They say, ‘Pray more.’ He asks, ‘Yes, but how?’ They say, ‘Tell people about Jesus.’ He asks, ‘Yes, but how?’ In this chapter I want to look at the question of how we can be filled with the Spirit.
We have an old gas boiler in our house. The pilot light is on all the time. But the boiler is not always giving out heat and power. Some have only got the pilot light of the Holy Spirit in their lives, whereas when people are filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin to fire on all cylinders (if you will forgive my mixing metaphors!). When you look at them you can almost see and feel the difference.
The Book of Acts has been described as Volume I of the history of the church. In it we see several examples of people experiencing the Holy Spirit. In an ideal world every Christian would be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment of conversion. Sometimes it happens like that (both in the New Testament and now), but not always---even in the New Testament. We have already looked at the first occasion of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. As we go through Acts we will see other examples.
When Peter and John prayed for the Samaritan believers and the Holy Spirit came upon them, Simon the Magician was so impressed he offered money in order to be able to do the same thing (Acts 8:14-18). Peter warned him that it was a terrible thing to try and buy God’s gift for money. But the account shows that something very wonderful must have happened.
In the next chapter (Acts 9) we see one of the most remarkable conversions of all times. When Stephen the first Christian martyr was stoned, Saul approved his death (Acts 8:1) and afterwards began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged men and women off to prison (v. 3). At the beginning of chapter 9 we find him still ‘breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples’.
Within the space of a few days, Saul was preaching in synagogues that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ (v. 20). He caused total astonishment, with people asking, ‘Isn’t he the man who caused havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name [of Jesus]?’
What had happened in those few days to change him so completely? First, he had encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. Secondly, he had been filled with the Spirit (v. 17). That moment, ‘something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again’ (v. 18). It sometimes happens that people who were not Christians, or who were even strongly anti-Christian, have a complete turnabout in their lives when they come to Christ and are filled with the Spirit. They can become powerful advocates of the Christian faith.
At Ephesus, Paul came across a group who ‘believed’, but who had not even heard of the Holy Spirit. He placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:1-7). There are people today who are in a similar position. They may have ‘believed’ for some time or even all their lives. They may have been baptised, confirmed and gone to church from time to time or even regularly. Yet they may know little or nothing about the Holy Spirit.
Another incident occurs early in the Book of Acts and I want to look at it in a little more detail. It is the first occasion when Gentiles were filled with the Spirit. God did something extraordinary which started with a vision to a man called Cornelius (who had been prepared by the first vision). God also spoke to Peter through a vision and told him he wanted him to go and speak to the Gentiles at the house of this man Cornelius. Halfway through Peter’s talk something remarkable happened: ‘The Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers [ie, the Jews] who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God’ (Acts 10:44-46). In the rest of the chapter I want to examine three aspects of what happened.
Peter had to stop his talk because it was obvious that something was happening. The filling of the Spirit rarely happens imperceptibly, although the experience is different for everyone.
In the description of the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), Luke uses the language of a heavy tropical rainstorm. It is a picture of the power of the Spirit flooding their beings. There were physical manifestations. They heard a gale (v. 2) which was not a real gale, but it resembled one. It was the mighty invisible power of the ruach of God; the same word as we have seen for wind, breath and spirit in the Old Testament. Sometimes, when people are filled, they shake like a leaf in the wind. Others find themselves breathing deeply as if almost physically breathing in the Spirit.
They also saw something that resembled fire (v. 3). Physical heat sometimes accompanies the filling of the Spirit and people experience it in their hands or some other part of their bodies. One person described a feeling of ‘glowing all over’. Another said she experienced ‘liquid heat’. Still another described ‘burning in my arms when I was not hot’. Fire perhaps symbolises the power, passion and purity which the Spirit of God brings to our lives.
For others, the experience of the Spirit may be an overwhelming experience of the love of God. Paul prays for the Christians at Ephesus that they might have ‘power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ’ (Ephesians 3:18). The love of Christ is wide enough to reach every person in the world. It reaches across every continent to people of every race, colour, tribe and background. It is long enough to last throughout a lifetime and into eternity. It is deep enough to reach us however far we have fallen. It is high enough to lift us into the heavenly places. We see this love supremely in the cross of Christ. We know Christ’s love for us because he was willing to die for us. Paul prayed that we would ‘grasp’ the extent of this love.
Yet he does not stop there. He goes on to pray that we would ‘know this love that surpasses knowledge’---that you would ‘be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God’ (v. 19). It is not enough to understand his love; we need to experience his love that ‘surpasses knowledge’. It is often as people are filled with the Spirit---‘filled to the measure of all the fulness of God’ (v. 19) that they experience in their heart this transforming love of Christ.
Thomas Goodwin, one of the Puritans of 300 years ago, illustrated this experience. He pictured a man walking along a road hand in hand with his little boy. The little boy knows that this man is his father, and that his father loves him. But suddenly the father stops, picks up the boy, lifts him into his arms, embraces him, kisses him and hugs him. Then he puts him down again, and they continue walking. It is a wonderful thing to be walking along holding your father’s hand; but it is an incomparably greater thing to have his arms enfolded around you.
‘He has embraced us,’ says Spurgeon and he pours his love upon us and he ‘hugs’ us. Martyn Lloyd-Jones quotes these examples among many others in his book on Romans, and comments on the experience of the Spirit:
Let us realize then the profound character of the experience. This is not light and superficial and ordinary; it is not something of which you can say, ‘Don’t worry about your feelings.’ Worry about your feelings? You will have such a depth of feeling that for a moment you may well imagine that you have never ‘felt’ anything in your life before. It is the profoundest experience that a man can ever know.
When these Gentiles were filled with the Spirit they started ‘praising God’. Spontaneous praise is the language of people who are excited and thrilled about their experience of God. It should involve our whole personality, including our emotions. I am asked, ‘Is it right to express emotions in church? Isn’t there a danger of emotionalism?’
The danger for most of us in our relationship with God is not emotionalism, but a lack of emotion--—a lack of feeling. Our relationship with God can be rather cold. Every relationship of love involves our emotions. Of course, there must be more than emotions. There must be friendship, communication, understanding and service. But if I never showed any emotion towards my wife, there would be something lacking in my love for her. If we do not experience any emotion in our relationship with God, then our whole personality is not involved. We are called to love, praise and worship God with all of our beings.
It could be argued that emotions are all right in private, but what about the public demonstration of emotion? After a conference at Brighton attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury there was a correspondence in The Times about the place of emotions in church. Under the title ‘Carey’s charisms’ one man wrote:
Why is it that if a cinema comedy produces laughter, the film is regarded as successful; if a theatre tragedy brings tears to the audience the production is regarded as touching; if a football match thrills the spectators, the game is reviewed as exciting; but if the congregation are moved by the glory of God in worship, the audience are accused of emotionalism?
Of course, there is such a thing as emotionalism, where emotions take precedence over the solid foundation of teaching from the Bible. But as the former Bishop of Coventry, Cuthbert Bardsley once said, ‘The chief danger of the Anglican church is not delirious emotionalism.’ One might add, ‘Nor in many other churches.’ Our worship of God should involve our whole personality, mind, heart, will and emotions.
As on the Day of Pentecost and with the Ephesian Christians (Acts 19), when the Gentiles were filled with the Spirit they received the gift of tongues. The word for ‘tongues’ is the same word as that for ‘languages’ and it means the ability to speak in a language you have never learned. It may be an angelic language (1 Corinthians 13:1) which presumably is not recognisable or it may be a recognisable human language (as at Pentecost). A girl called Penny, in our congregation, was praying with another girl. She ran out of words in English and started praying in tongues. The girl smiled and then opened her eyes and started laughing. She said, ‘You have just spoken to me in Russian.’ The girl, although English, spoke fluent Russian and had a great love for the language. Penny asked, ‘What have I been saying?’ The girl told her that she had been saying, ‘My dear child,’ over and over again. Penny does not speak a single word of Russian. For that girl those three words were of great significance. She was assured that she was important to God.
The gift of tongues has brought great blessing to many people. It is, as we have seen, one of the gifts of the Spirit. It is not the only gift or even the most important gift. Not all Christians speak in tongues nor is it necessarily a sign of being filled with the Spirit. It is possible to be filled with the Spirit and not speak in tongues. Nevertheless, for many, both in the New Testament and in Christian experience, it accompanies an experience of the Holy Spirit and may be the first experience of the more obviously supernatural activity of the Spirit. Many today are puzzled by the gift. Hence, I have devoted quite a lot of space in this chapter to the subject. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals with a number of questions which are often raised.
What exactly is speaking in tongues?
It is a form of prayer (one of the many different forms of prayer found in the New Testament), according to Paul, ‘for anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God’ (1 Corinthians 14:2, italics mine). It is a form of prayer which builds up the individual Christian (v. 4). Obviously, the gifts which directly edify the church are even more important, but this does not make tongues unimportant. The benefit of tongues is that it is a form of prayer which transcends the limitation of human language. This seems to be what Paul means when he says ‘For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful’ (1 Corinthians 14:14).
Everybody, to a greater or lesser extent, is limited by language. I am told that the average Englishman knows 5,000 English words. Winston Churchill apparently used 15,000 words. But even he was limited to that extent. Often people experience frustration that they cannot express what they really feel, even in a human relationship. They feel things in their spirits, but they do not know how to put them into words. This is often true also in our relationship with God.
This is where the gift of tongues can be a great help. It enables us to express to God what we really feel in our spirits without going through the process of translating it into English. (Hence Paul says, ‘My mind is unfruitful.’) It is not mindless; it is unfruitful because it is not going through the process of translation into an intelligible language.
In what areas does it help?
There are three areas in which many people have found this gift especially helpful.
First, in the area of praise and worship. We are particularly limited in our language. When children (or even adults) write thank-you letters it is not long before they run out of language, and we find that words such as ‘lovely’, ‘wonderful’ or ‘brilliant’ are repeated over and over again. In our praise and worship of God we can often find language limiting.
We long to express our love, worship and praise of God, particularly when we are filled with the Spirit. The gift of tongues enables us to do this without the limitation of human language.
Secondly, it can be a great help when praying under pressure. There are times in our lives when it is hard to know exactly how to pray. It can be because we are burdened by many pressures, anxieties or grieves. Not long ago I prayed for a man aged twenty-six whose wife had died of cancer after only one year of married life. He asked for and instantly received the gift of tongues and all the things that he had pushed down in his life seemed to pour out. He told me afterwards what a relief it had been to be able to unburden all those things.
I too have found this in my own experience. In 1987 during a staff meeting at our church, I received a message to say that my mother had had a heart attack and was in hospital. As I dashed up to the main road and caught a taxi to the hospital, I have never been more grateful for the gift of tongues. I desperately wanted to pray, but felt too shocked to form any sentences in English. The gift of tongues enabled me to pray all the way to the hospital and to bring the situation to God in a time of crisis.
Thirdly, many people have found the gift a help in praying for other people. It is hard to pray for others---especially if you have not seen them or heard from them for some time. After a while, ‘Lord, bless them’ might be our most elaborate prayer. It can be a real help to start praying in tongues for them. Often, as we do that, God gives us the words to pray in English.
It is not selfish to want to pray in tongues. Although, ‘he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself’ (1 Corinthians 14:4), the indirect effects of this can be very great. Jackie Pullinger describes the transformation in her ministry when she began to use the gift:
By the clock I prayed 15 minutes a day in the language of the Spirit and still felt nothing as I asked the Spirit to help me intercede for those he wanted to reach. After about six weeks of this I began to lead people to Jesus without trying. Gangsters fell to their knees sobbing in the streets, women were healed, heroin addicts were miraculously set free. And I knew it all had nothing to do with me.
It was also the gateway for her to receive other gifts of the Spirit:
With my friends I began to learn about the other gifts of the Spirit and we experienced a remarkable few years of ministry. Scores of gangsters and well-to-do people, students and churchmen, were converted and all received a new language to pray in private and other gifts to use when meeting together. We opened several homes to house heroin addicts and all were delivered from drugs painlessly because of the power of the Holy Spirit.42
Does Paul approve of speaking in tongues?
The context of 1 Corinthians 14 is excessive public use in church of the gift of tongues. Paul says, ‘In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue’ (v. 19, italics mine). There would be little point in Paul arriving at Corinth and giving his sermon in tongues. They would not be able to understand unless there was someone to interpret. So he lays down guidelines for the public use of tongues (v. 27).
Nevertheless, Paul makes it clear that speaking in tongues should not be forbidden (v. 39). With regard to the private use of this gift (on our own with God), he strongly encourages it. He says, ‘I would like every one of you to speak in tongues’ (v. 5) and, ‘I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you’ (v. 18). This does not mean that every Christian has to speak in tongues or that we are second-class Christians if we do not speak in tongues. There is no such thing as first-and second-class Christians. Nor does it mean that God loves us any less if we don’t yet speak in tongues. Nevertheless, the gift of tongues is a blessing from God.
How do we receive the gift of tongues?
Some say, ‘I don’t want the gift of tongues.’ God will never force you to receive a gift. Tongues is just one of the wonderful gifts of the Spirit, and not the only one by any means as we saw in the last chapter. Like every gift it has to be received by faith.
Not every Christian speaks in tongues. Yet Paul says, ‘I would like every one of you to speak in tongues,’ suggesting that it is not only for a special class of Christians. It is open to all Christians. There is no reason why anyone who wants this gift should not receive it. Paul is not saying that speaking in tongues is the be-all and end-all of the Christian life; he is saying that it is a very helpful gift. If you would like to receive it, there is no reason why you should not.
Like all the gifts of God, we have to cooperate with his Spirit. God does not force his gifts on us. When I first became a Christian I read somewhere that the gifts of the Spirit went out in the apostolic age (ie, the first century). They were not for today. When I heard about speaking in tongues I decided to confirm that they were not for today, so I prayed for the gift and then kept my mouth firmly shut! I didn’t start praying in tongues and felt that this proved that the gifts had gone out with the apostles.
One day two friends of mine, who had just been filled with the Spirit and received the gift of tongues, came round to see me. I told them quite firmly that the gifts of the Spirit had gone out with the apostolic age, but I could see the difference it had made to them. There was a new radiance about them, and there still is years later. I decided to ask the people who had prayed for them to pray for me to be filled with the Spirit and to receive the gift of tongues. As they did I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. They explained to me that if I wanted to receive the gift of tongues I had to cooperate with the Spirit of God and open my mouth and start to speak to God in any language but English or another known to me. As I did, I received the gift of tongues also.
On one occasion Jesus was speaking to his disciples on the subject of prayer and the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9-13). In that passage he deals with some of the principal difficulties we may have in receiving from God.
There are many doubts people have in this whole area, the principal one being, ‘If I ask will I receive?’
Jesus says simply: ‘I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you.’
Jesus must have seen that they were a little sceptical because he repeats it in a different way: ‘Seek and you will find.’
And again he says a third time: ‘Knock and the door will be opened to you.’
He knows human nature so he goes on a fourth time:
‘For everyone who asks receives.’
They are not convinced so he says it a fifth time: ‘He who seeks finds.’
Again a sixth time: ‘To him who knocks, the door will be opened.’
Why does he say it six times? Because he knows what we are like. We find it very difficult to believe that God will give us anything--—let alone something as unusual and wonderful as his Holy Spirit and the gifts that come with the Spirit.
Even if we have cleared the first hurdle of doubt, some of us trip up on the next hurdle of fear. The fear is about what we will receive. Will it be something good?
Jesus uses the analogy of a human father. If a child asks for a fish, no father would give him a snake. If a child asks for an egg, no father would give him a scorpion (Luke 11:11—12). It is unthinkable that we would treat our children like that. Jesus goes on to say that in comparison with God, we are evil! If we would not treat our children like that, it is inconceivable that God would treat us like that. He is not going to let us down. If we ask for the Holy Spirit and all the wonderful gifts he brings, that is exactly what we will receive (Luke 11:13).
Of course it is important that there is no unforgiveness or other sin in our lives, and that we have turned our back on all that we know is wrong. However, even after we have done that, we often have a vague feeling of unworthiness and inadequacy. We cannot believe that God would give us anything. We can believe that he would give gifts to very advanced Christians, but not to us. But Jesus does not say, ‘How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to all very advanced Christians.’ He says, ‘How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’ (Luke 11:13, italics mine).
If you would like to be filled with the Spirit you might like to find someone who would pray for you. If you don’t have anyone who would be able to pray for you, there is nothing to stop you from praying on your own. Some are filled with the Spirit without receiving the gift of tongues. The two do not necessarily go together. Yet in the New Testament and in experience they often do go together. There is no reason why we should not pray for both.
If you are praying on your own:
1. Ask God to forgive you for anything that could be a barrier to receiving.
2. Turn from any area of your life that you know is wrong.
3. Ask God to fill you with his Spirit and to give you the gift of tongues. Go on seeking him until you find. Go on knocking until the door opens. Seek God with all your heart.
4. Open your mouth and start to praise God in any language but English or any other language known to you.
5. Believe that what you receive is from God. Don’t let anyone tell you that you made it up. (It is most unlikely that you have.)
6. Persevere. Languages take time to develop. Most of us start with a very limited vocabulary. Gradually it develops. Tongues is like that. It takes time to develop the gift. But don’t give up.
Being filled with the Spirit is not a one-off experience. Peter was filled with the Spirit three times in the space of chapters 2—4 in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31). When Paul says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18), he uses the present continuous tense, urging them and us to go on and on being filled with the Spirit.
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