The Holy Spirit is often cast as purely spontaneous, but what if there’s a structure to the Spirit that unlocks the Spirit’s personality?
New Testament scholar Craig Keener said that he had decided early in life that he would only be a scholar if he could be a Spirit-filled scholar. Then, after he experienced the Holy Spirit in a miraculous way, he dedicated himself to the study of the Scriptures with a fervor that only comes from God.
He is a living example of what I want to emphasize in this post.
I agree with A.W. Tozer when he wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
As I examine evangelicalism today, of which I am a part, I see how one view of God’s Spirit dominates the landscape. It affects the way we “do church,” it feeds into the way we conduct church services, and it impacts how we approach God in prayer. These reveal, in part, how we view God’s Spirit. We pray spontaneously, we preach extemporaneously, and we hold church loosely. Whatever comes to us — this we go with. Because that’s how the Spirit works.
When I was 14 years old in a Christian band, I got obsessed with learning about “stage presence.” In fact, for my birthday, all I wanted was a certain video series about how to make my band have a great stage presence. And it’s hard to believe, I know, but that was the least of my issues!
The instructor had coached all the big Christian bands of the 90s, like Audio Adrenaline and DC Talk. When I finally got the video series, I thought, I get to learn from this guy! Then, I proceeded to sit in my family’s TV room soaking in everything I could learn about how to make our Christian band’s stage presence pop. Eventually we even choreographed synchronized jumps to win the Thompson Station, Tennessee, Battle of the Bands in 2003.
Well, I’ve forgotten almost everything about that video series. But one nugget of wisdom from this Christian band stage coach that stuck with me remains profound in my mind. It even impacts the way I preach. The instructor said something like this:
The Holy Spirit works as much in our preparation as in our performance.
He meant it for rock concerts, but I think the principle applies to much more than performative music. Our view of how the Holy Spirit works on and off the stage carries profound implications for how we live our day-to-day life.
How do you view the Holy Spirit’s work in your life?
Your View of the Spirit
If I were to ask you, “What do you think about the Holy Spirit?” you might give me an answer like, “The Spirit is like the wind.” And you’d be right! You might go on to say, “And we can’t understand it.” If you were nuanced, you might even use “he” to describe the Spirit (instead of “it”). Perhaps you’d continue and say, “He helps you, he comforts you, and he convicts you.”
These answers carry with them biblical precedent and logic. In fact, these are all true statements about the Holy Spirit!
But who is the Spirit in specific terms? What is the Spirit like?
I’ve found that most people view the Holy Spirit’s personality, if you will, through only one lens. The Spirit does, in fact, have a personality according to the Creeds and orthodox Christianity; this is why we say “he” instead of “it.”
The Trinity is three persons and one essence.
So the Holy Spirit is a person. Got it.
But what kind of person is he? What is the personality of the Spirit? If I narrowed down to one aspect of personality, what would you say to this question: Is the Holy Spirit more spontaneous or structured?
The Spontaneous Nature of the Spirit
To answer this, of course, we can quickly go to passages that point out the apparently spontaneous nature of the Holy Spirit. The first is John 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
We typically consider the wind to be a spontaneous force, so we conclude the Spirit is spontaneous: he does whatever he wants, and what he wants is random, even spontaneous.
Another passage to defend the spontaneity of the Spirit is Acts 2:2–4:
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Wind again. Other languages. Spontaneity.
Consider also the spunk of the Spirit in Acts 8. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch has become the biblical example of how the Spirit can ask you to “Go and talk to someone.” The Spirit says to Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it” (Acts 8:29). Philip obeys, and that day he baptizes the unnamed castrated charioteer from Ethiopia. Let’s just say this particular eunuch ended the day happier than he began the day.
Plus, consider how prophecy in general — examples of which are scattered throughout the Bible — seems to be off the cuff, random, spontaneous.
The way we can gather all these verses and examples together anecdotally presents, at face value, a spontaneous Holy Spirit.
I want to present to you a way of thinking of the Holy Spirit that is both spontaneous and structured.
This may dramatically affect how you live your life; in fact, your view of the Holy Spirit already plays a big role in your perspective, so a change in your view will change your life.
These are the three moves I want to make in what follows:
- First, let me make the case that responsible spontaneity is never the full picture of a person.
- Then, I will argue that the Spirit’s personality is not only spontaneous but also structured.
- Finally, I will make the case that the Spirit’s structured nature is as important as his spontaneity.
My conclusion leads to clear, practical, and vital implications for our lives as disciples, for our churches, and for discipling others.
True Artists Are Spontaneous and Structured
I have the unique privilege of knowing two professional oil painters. Very few people can make it financially in the world of fine art, but they exist! And I’ve gotten to know two of them, each of whom has sustained a decades-long career in oil painting.
While they don’t specialize in landscapes like Bob Ross, they’ve got mad talent.
Most people would say that a professional oil painter is spontaneous. They have to be to paint like they do! But I’ve learned from knowing these two successful painters that they are not only spontaneous and creative but also disciplined, structured, and well-ordered persons.
Behind their complex and beautiful paintings lies structure, style, and clear form. They require large amounts of creativity, yes, but they also maintain an underlying strength in their personality with regard to structure.
Successful writers are the same way. Most of them write every day, not just when they feel like it.
Responsible musicians practice regularly, discipline themselves in their craft, and sometimes even study music formally.
Even some professional comedians of the highest caliber studied formally the art and craft of spontaneous comedy. For example, some cast members of the sitcom Seinfeld were formally trained in comedy: Jason Alexander (George) studied theater at Boston University, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Eliane) studied the craft at Northwestern University and wrote for SNL for six years.
They were very spontaneous during the show — none of their physical comedy was scripted but made up by each actor! — but I’m convinced that creatives like that have deep roots and wells from which to draw up water and fruit for the masses.
So while some of the most well-known performers are celebrated for their creativity, they also have their feet firmly grounded in structure.
The Structured Nature of the Spirit
I believe we can say something similar of the Holy Spirit. While we typically think of the Spirit purely in spontaneous terms, we’re missing out on the structured nature of the Spirit.
Mine is not an either-or proposition, just as my examples of the creatives above. A person can be both creative and concrete in their approach. And in fact, I would argue that the more successful a creative is, the more they display the structured side of human personality.
But God, structured? Is he even bound by our categories of human personhood?
We must not forget that we were all created in the image of God, so any good personality traits we carry can be traced back to God’s personality.
To make my overall point — that God’s Spirit is both structured and spontaneous — I’ll walk through the Bible passages I brought up before to see how this works out. And I’ll add a few more for good measure.
While prophecy and other manifestations of the Spirit can come spontaneously upon a person, in the biblical records and in my experience, that person, generally speaking, had already been entrenched in the Word and was living a consistent and faithful life. Prophets rehearse the Word many times over and are anchored in the timeless Word even when delivering their timely words.
As Paul said, prophecy requires intentional pursuit, not just passive waiting for something to come to you: “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Plus, we can see the structured nature of God specifically with regard to prophecy a few verses later: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
That’s not to mention other spiritual gifts and manifestations.
These gifts come through the consistent tilling of the spiritual soil of one’s heart.
This reveals that the Spirit has a structured nature, even if the way he manifests appears spontaneous.
2. Philip and Acts 8
Consider the structured nature of Philip’s life in the Spirit surrounding his interactions with the Ethiopian eunuch: Philip was a spirit-filled deacon, assigned to serve tables (Acts 6). The Twelve Apostles said,
It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:2–4)
The Greek term often translated “deacon” can also be translated simply as “servant.” And for Philip and the other deacons appointed in Acts 6, their main job at first was waiting on tables. They were taking care of people physically in a predictable and reliable way — making sure the Greek widows got equal treatment as the Jewish widows.
Philip wasn’t the kind of guy who just “waited for the Spirit.” He was deeply entrenched in the Word and powerful in word and deed. That’s why he was able to unpack Christology in Isaiah so spontaneously to the Ethiopian — because he had practiced preaching so often (see throughout Acts 6–7).
I’ve heard it said that the Holy Spirit can do whatever he wants whenever he wants, with or without our permission. I think that’s true! But in my experience, he often chooses to work with the tools we have at our disposal.
Philip kept preaching in all the towns, not just the ones in which he felt like preaching (Acts 8:40). This reveals his character, that he was disciplined, dedicated, and determined — not the sort to fly by the seat of his pants. He was led by the Spirit within a structured way of life, not just in a spontaneous moment here and there.
We focus on the spontaneous prompting of Philip by the Spirit in this passage.
But what about the regular preaching he did that didn’t involve charioteers and teleportation?
We need a balanced view of the Spirit’s movement, even in those who have wildly spontaneous God stories.
3. Pentecost and Missional Strategy From Acts 1–2
As I referenced above, the Spirit descended on the disciples in Acts 2 at Pentecost, and they spoke in foreign languages to spread the gospel of Jesus, a fairly spontaneous series of events.
But we sometimes forget that this happened at the end of constant and fervent prayer in the upper room. They waited for 40 days after Jesus’ ascension! I wonder if today we eagerly await revival, but we don’t experience it as much because we’re not willing to wait in fervent prayer. I know I can struggle with long prayer, even though I long for an awakening.
Plus, when you look at the expansion of gospel preaching throughout the Roman Empire, Jesus lays out a structured plan in Acts 1:8. This plan moves the Apostles not randomly into every nation but strategically in centrifugal form: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses:
- “in Jerusalem,
- and in all Judea and Samaria,
- and to the ends of the earth.”
This reveals that from the earliest days:
The Spirit sends us on mission in a structured way.
That is, we must wait first.
The apostles had to wait to witness in Jerusalem. This is wild because that’s where they were praying! They had the message and the passion, but they needed to wait for the Spirit’s move.
Then, they were sent to Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth.
In fact, this progression through geographical order aligns with how the story unfolds in Acts 1–28 on a macro level. I describe this in my Acts 1–4 class session and detail it visually in my outline of Acts. Generally, the progression in Acts moves like this:
- Acts 1–7: Witnessing in Jerusalem
- Acts 8–12: Witnessing in Judea and Samaria
- Acts 13–28: Witnessing to the ends of the earth
Even Paul’s missionary journeys #1–4 move centrifugally farther out each time, which reveals strategy from the Spirit.
The missional impulse of the Spirit, while it might seem spontaneous, is undergirded by an intentional, patient, and structured strategy.
4. The Wind in John 3
What about the windy nature of the Spirit in John 3:8? Doesn’t this passage imply the Spirit is spontaneous. Well, yes and no. In this passage, Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
We typically extract from this verse the idea that the Spirit is like wind, but contextually Jesus is saying something specific about wind. That is, he’s not applying all characteristics of the wind to the Spirit, but simply that we don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes.
But that doesn’t mean the Spirit himself moves in random fashion.
Just because “the one being born of the Spirit” can’t tell how the Spirit works, that doesn’t mean the Spirit’s moving is a spur of the moment activity.
In fact, when you look at wind patterns, you see that there is a reason to the way wind flows on a macro level. We don’t fully understand wind scientifically, but we do know that it moves in patterns:
Our not understanding the Spirit’s movements doesn’t make the Spirit spontaneous in the sense of random or haphazard. We forget that pneuma in Greek and ruach in Hebrew can also mean “breath,” which is rhythmic and regular. We breathe in a structured pattern, just like the wind moves in patterns.
People don’t know where the wind comes from or where it’s going, Jesus says, but the wind does! So does the Spirit. So the move of the Spirit in John 3 is not purely spontaneous, even though it may appear that way to us; it also carries with it structure and purpose.
5. Creation in Genesis 1
My favorite example, though, of the combination of the structured and spontaneous natures of the Spirit comes from Genesis 1:2: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” before creation. And then God employed his penultimate creativity to design the world as we know it:
- Day 1: He separated the light from darkness.
- Day 2: He separated the water from water.
- Day 3: He separated the land from the seas.
- Day 4: He filled the land with vegetation.
- Day 5: He filled the water and skies with creatures.
- Day 6: He filled the land with animals and humans.
- Day 7: He rested.
Each day he splashed the canvas of creation with spontaneous creativity.
But we forget that he ordered his creativity by doing only certain activities on certain days. He didn’t create people on Day 1; he didn’t place the stars on Day 6; and he didn’t do anything on Day 7! He had boundaries, and he created within those boundaries.
He segmented and ordered his creativity within structure.
To me, this represents the most beautiful, primal, and cosmic example of how the Spirit of God is both spontaneous and structured.
Implications for Discipleship
My conclusion here — that the personality and work of the Spirit is both structured and spontaneous by nature — holds pointed implications for our lives. I will briefly introduce these, leaving the detailed work for you to do as you continue to contemplate and consider the nature of the Spirit in this way.
1. Our lives as disciples.
As disciples, we can view God’s work in our formation journey as not just spontaneous inspiration from the Spirit that comes and goes.
Instead, the Spirit can also inspire us along the daily grind.
We can rest assured that the Spirit is working in us even when it doesn’t feel a certain way. Spontaneity is usually fun, while structure can feel boring to many of us. So we will recognize that the Spirit can inspire both of these — and we can take joy in both, as well.
This will impact the way we:
- Do our daily devotions in the Word (disciplined and consistent)
- Pray (consistently and not just randomly)
- Prepare for preaching and teaching (thorough preparation, as needed, not just inspiration)
It will also impact the way we plan for discipling others, like our family. Do we structure disciple-making relationships or leave them to the spontaneous leading of the Spirit? Hopefully by now you recognize that the Spirit can lead by helping you structure your plans as well as break your plans to follow his leading. And he never contradicts himself, even though he can change your plans.
2. Our life in the church.
My conclusion here also opens us to a more structured life in the church. We can be open to:
- Pre-written and structured prayers that involve call and response
- Structured elements in worship services and in church calendars (like celebrating Lent and Advent)
- Bodily habits like kneeling for prayer and standing for the reading of the Word
This can also inspire us to have a great strategy for digital marketing and communications in the church. The Spirit can inspire structure as much as he can inspire your response to an altar call.
It’s a both-and view of how God can move among us.
3. Our life together on mission.
Last, I believe that we will better structure our evangelistic efforts in light of this conclusion.
I’ve heard countless times, “God hasn’t called me to be a missionary.” But in my experience:
Missionaries aren’t called from the couch but from the sidewalk.
Even Philip was walking along the road when the Spirit “spontaneously” asked him to go to the Ethiopian eunuch.
What we’re sometimes missing in our missional efforts, if I may submit this to you, is patience and power. Jesus told his disciples that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8). We sort of assume that because we have the indwelling of the Spirit, we also have the active power of the Spirit, but the two are not always the same. We can have the Spirit in general terms but not be filled with the Spirit. Otherwise, why did Paul tell Christians to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18)?
We must seek the power of the indwelling Spirit in order to be successful on mission with the Spirit.
Therefore, we must develop the kind of discipline that tends to precede effective mission, like long and dedicated prayer and fasting (e.g., Acts 2 and 13:1–3).
In fact, I would go as far as to say that just like the artist can limit how far they can go in their career by neglecting consistent practice, so also we can limit how far we can go with mission when we neglect consistent — even structured — devotion to God through the regular rhythms that cultivate deep-rooted spirituality.
On the other side of this, we can thrive in the kingdom by aligning our personality with the moves of the Spirit — both spontaneous and structured.
So by God’s grace, let us go forth in the structure and spontaneity of the Spirit as we experience new levels of power from him!
 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 1.
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