Holy Spirit as Comforter, Counselor and Helper by Philip Yancey

Holy Spirit as Comforter, Counselor and Helper by Philip Yancey

The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Reaching for the Invisible God” published in 2000.

AS PART OF A musical diversity week, the Chicago Cultural Center invited a local gospel choir representing the Christ Bible Center. Their noon concert, which I attended, attracted predominantly a well-dressed crowd of business people and shoppers from tiny Michigan Avenue.

“Can you believe how God works?” crowed the choir director as he glanced up at the concert hall’s elegant Tiffany dome. “Who would have thought the Holy Spirit would ever get invited into the old public library building!” Most of the audience smiled indulgently, applauded, then settled back to enjoy a rousing hour of lusty voices and swaying bodies.

We got more than we bargained for. The spirited singers had the audience wrapped around their fingers until suddenly, about twenty minutes into the concert, one of the choir members went into an ecstatic fit. Leaping from the last row of risers, he began hopping backwards on one foot across the stage, shouting “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” and speaking in tongues.

The choir kept right on singing as if this sort of thing happened all the time. The audience, however, grew visibly restless. Two silver-haired ladies in fur stoles grabbed their shopping bags and bustled out. Men and women wearing office attire looked at their watches and fidgeted. A sudden epidemic of coughing broke out.

When a few of its members got “slain in the spirit” and fell to the floor like corpses in rigor mortis, the choir lost its audience completely. The choir director seemed almost apologetic at the end as he turned to the faithful few who remained in their seats and said, “Well, you know how it is, you just can’t hem the Spirit in.”


ON THE EVE OF his twenty-eighth birthday Martin Luther King Jr. stood behind the pulpit of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. His home had been firebombed and he was sleeping little, anxious about recent death threats against his family. The future of the Montgomery civil rights campaign looked bleak. King began to pray aloud in the pulpit, and for the first time in his public life a burst of spiritual ecstasy swept over him.

“Lord, I hope no one will have to die as a result of our struggle for freedom in Montgomery,” he prayed. “Certainly I don’t want to die. But if anyone has to die, let it be me.” His mouth remained open, but no more words came from it. He swooned, and other ministers leaped up to help him to his seat. This audience, unlike the one in Chicago, roared enthusiastic approval. The Holy Ghost had come down on the young scholar from Boston University! Amen, hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!

Ever after, King himself felt embarrassed by the episode.


WHEN AN INVISIBLE SPIRIT and a human being connect, strange things may happen. That prospect terrifies some people, embarrasses others, and captivates still others. While directing a series on religion for public television, Mine Eves Have Seen the Glory, Randall Balmer captured on film some spectacular displays of the Spirit’s activity, mainly in Southern churches, mainly African-American. As he later told me, he had to ask himself why we balk at showing spiritual ecstasy on television, a medium which features close-ups of physical ecstasy every night.

As a journalist, I have a tendency to distance myself, to observe my surrounding like some invisible person who does not enter into but glides in and out of the scene, taking notes all the while. That stance may help someone reporting on politics in Washington or covering a war or sporting event, but it definitely does not help someone trying to understand spiritual reality. “It’s dark at the foot of the lighthouse,” says a German proverb.

I sit in a charismatic-style meeting and look around. The music, a few repetitive phrases set to a mediocre composition, jars me but seems to have a mesmerizing effect on others. Their hands lift in the air palms up, their eyes squint shut, their bodies sway. They appear transported to an emotional plane unattainable to me, connecting to something that leaves me behind. Cautiously, I approach these worshipers afterward. “Exactly what happened out there?” I ask. “I want to understand. Can you break it down for me?”

In response to my questions I get blank stares, mumbled phrases, looks of irritation, pity, or condescension. I learn that such journalism is as intrusive as the TV camera that zooms to a close-up of the woman who has just lost her daughter in a house fire. For this reason, I have no desire to reduce spirituality to its constituent parts. Shine a spotlight on activity of the Spirit and it flees.

In the interest of full disclosure, I also must confess that I have little personal experience of the more dramatic manifestations of God’s presence. I have sat in prayer meetings in which everyone around me saw this as a grievous flaw and beseeched the Holy Spirit to come down and fill me. Mostly, I felt intense discomfort. I have also watched as a couple of zealous students tried to exorcise demons from my brother in a piano practice room. These encounters have been rare, however. When I now hear reports of churches ma animal sounds and breaking out in fits of laughter, I remember the discomfort I felt in the Chicago Cultural Center and in that demon-haunted practice room.

I have never spoken in tongues or barked in church, and not once have I been swept up in a public display of spiritual ecstasy like Martin Luther King’s. This may relate to awkward experiences from the past, to my fear of losing control, to spiritual inadequacy, or to a squelching streak of rationality. I do not know. What I do know, however, is that the New Testament writers consistently speak of the “spirit of Christ” and in fact use the phrases “in the Spirit” and “in Christ” almost interchange ably. Therefore, when I want to visualize God’s Spirit—–an oxymoron, I realize—–I turn to Jesus, in whom the unseeable takes on a face.

Jesus said this to the disciples at the Last Supper:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.

Because of Jesus’ life on earth, we have an actual and vivid representation of what a human being connected to God should look like. The “fruits of the Spirit” are in fact the qualities that Jesus showed on earth, and he promised to “abide,” or make his home, in us to nurture those same qualities.


IF I WONDER HOW or in what style God’s Spirit works in me, I need look no further than Jesus for the answer to that as well.

I read a psychiatrist’s study of twenty-five Westerners, thirteen of them missionaries, who were imprisoned and brainwashed by Chinese communists early in Chairman Mao’s regime. The communist jailers took on the task of purging out all wrong thoughts that had been implanted by imperialists and capitalists. To do so, they had to use torturous techniques of coercion. The Westerners were forced to stand, hands tied behind their backs, wearing chains on their legs, for days and even weeks without sleep while their cellmates barraged them with “correct thinking.” A wrong response brought on a beating. It took up to three years to break strong-willed prisoners, but eventually every one of them admitted guilt and signed confessions. Most assisted in the brainwashing of new prisoners. When deported back to the West, the twenty-five former prisoners at first seemed confused, even paranoid, unsure of what to believe. Yet all but a few soon denounced the propaganda of their captors that they had been forced to believe.

Jesus never brainwashed anyone. To the contrary, he depicted the cost of following him in the most realistic terms imaginable (“Take up your cross and follow me”). He never imposed himself on another person but always left room for choice and even rejection. In that same style, any changes God works in a person will come about not as a result of coercion from the outside but by a Spirit working from within, summoning up new life, transforming from the inside out. The words used to describe God’s Spirit—Comforter, Helper, Counselor—imply that change may involve a slow, internal process, with many fits and starts.

After considering the various words used of the Holy Spirit, both in Greek and in English, James Houston summarizes them in the simple word “friend.” A true friend always has my best interest at heart. Sometimes the Spirit must, like a good friend, use tough love to remind me of what needs to change—knowing me from the inside out, God can bring to mind shortcomings I would prefer to overlook. Yet when I feel empty, misunderstood, and lonely, the Spirit offers comfort, calming my anxiety and fear. Most of all, the Spirit reminds me of God’s love, his very presence a token of the fact that I have been graciously adopted as God’s child.

Author Larry Crabb says that we Christians often communicate to each other one of these two solutions: “Do what’s right” or “Fix what’s wrong.” Instead, the New Testament holds up a better way: “Release what’s good.” What’s good is the Holy Spirit, already living in us, with all the resources of God at his command.

When I think of the fear and discomfort summoned up by mentioning the Holy Spirit, I have to laugh at the irony of being spooked by the Comforter. Sometimes I secretly yearn for the spectacular—–fits of ecstasy, miraculous answers to prayer, resurrections, healings—when the Holy Spirit chiefly offers a slow, steady progression toward the end God desires all along: the gradual reconstruction of my fallen self.

As the new millennium rolled around and I was winding up work on this book, I went on a spiritual retreat. The director told me he leads such retreats several times a year, and not once has a participant failed to hear God speak during the four days. We would remain silent, reading only what he assigned, committing to pray at least four hours per day.

I arrived with much skepticism. I had, after all, been spending months on a book that delves into doubt and God’s silence. I expected a full day of restlessness and boredom and maybe a second day of resistance before finally hearing anything like the voice of God, whatever form that might take. Nevertheless, I decided to go along with the program and try my best to listen attentively.

To my great surprise, God started speaking right away. The first afternoon, sitting outside on a moss-covered rock in a forest of evergreens, I started writing in a journal what God might say to me if he dictated a spiritual “action plan” for the rest of my life. The more I listened, the longer grew the list. Here is a mere sampling:

• Question your doubts as much as your faith. By personality, or perhaps as a reaction to a fundamentalist past, I brood on doubts and experience faith in occasional flashes. Isn’t it about time for me to reverse the pattern?

• Do not attempt this journey alone. Find companions who see you as a pilgrim, even a straggler, and not as a guide. Like many Protestants, I easily assume the posture of one person alone with God, a stance which more and more I see as unbiblical. We have little guidance on how to live as a follower alone because God never intended it.

• Allow the good—–natural beauty, your health, encouraging words—to penetrate as deeply as the bad. Why does it take around seventeen encouraging letters from readers to overcome the impact of one caustic, critical one? If I awoke every morning and fell asleep each night bathed in a sense of gratitude and not self-doubt, the hours in-between would doubtless take on a different cast.

• For your own sake, simplify. Eliminate whatever distracts you from God. Among other things, that means a ruthless winnowing of mail, giving catalogs, junk mail, and book club notices no more time than it takes to toss them in the trash. If I ever get the nerve, my television set should probably land there as well. 

• Find something that allows you to feel God’s pleasure. The sprinter Eric Liddell told his sister, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” What makes me feel God’s pleasure? I must identify it and then run.

• Don’t be ashamed. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul told the Romans. Why do I speak in generalities when strangers ask me what I do for a living and then try to pin down what kind of books I write? Why do I mention the secular schools I attended before the Christian ones?

• Remember, those Christians who peeve you so much—–God chose them too. For some reason, I find it much easier to show grace and acceptance toward immoral unbelievers than toward uptight, judgmental Christians. Which, of course, turns me into a different kind of uptight, judgmental Christian.

• Forgive, daily, those who caused the wounds that keep you from wholenessIncreasingly, I find that our wounds are the very things God uses in his service. By harboring blame for those who caused them, I stall the act of redemption that can give the wounds worth and value, and ultimately healing.

“Exactly how did God speak?” you may ask. I never heard an audible voice or saw a vision. Admittedly, these insights did not come from outer space; they were inside me all along, a form of spiritual self-awareness. But here is the point: until I took the time to extract myself from daily routine and commit to long periods of silence, I missed hearing that internal voice. Although God may have been speaking all along, until I opened my ears it made little difference in my life.


ONCE IN ARIZONA I went jogging down a dirt road that wound through the sagebrush and saguaro cacti, and stumbled upon an eating disorder clinic that caters to the wealthy. I veered off my dusty desert trail onto a groomed cinder track which, I soon discovered, was a twelve-step trail. Signs with motivational slogans such as “Expect a miracle!” lined the trail, and as I continued to jog along I found myself proceeding through each step in the AA-based recovery plan. Placards on the trail urged me to confess that my body is out of control and that I am powerless to control my eating habits. For more than a mile, the trail looped through the further steps, on through the need to depend on friends and a Higher Power. Markers placed beside benches at each of the twelve steps encouraged the participants to rest and reflect on their progress.

The trail ended at a cemetery of tiny carved grave markers. I stopped to read each grave, dripping sweat and panting from the desert heat. “Here lies my fear of intimacy,” someone named Donna had written on September 15, just three days before. She had decorated the tombstone in yellow, red, and blue paint. Others had buried such things as cigarettes, an obsession with chocolate, diet pills, a lack of self-discipline, the need to control others, a habit of lying.

I recognized in the graveyard an echo of Christian terminology: dying to self, crucifying the flesh. I also knew that Donna’s fear of intimacy, three days buried, would someday resurrect. Spiritual powers that hold a person in their grip do not simply disappear, nor do they stay dead.

What do I need to bury? I asked myself. If I attended a spiritual disorder clinic and took this walk each day, how many tombstones would I leave along the trail? And how would it change me to comprehend, truly comprehend, that the Higher Power is actually an inner power, living inside me at this minute? Could that power, God’s own Spirit, keep dead those things—–pride, doubt, selfishness, insensitivity to injustice, lust—–that I have tried to crucify and bury so many times before?

Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary recalls being in a meeting with sociologist, Peter Berger. Speaking as a seminary president should, Mouw said that every Christian is called to engage in radical obedience to God’s program of justice, righteousness, and peace.

Berger responded with the observation that I was operating with a rather grandiose notion of radical obedience. Somewhere in a retirement home, he said, there is a Christian woman whose greatest fear in life is that she will make a fool of herself because she will not be able to control her bladder in the cafeteria line. For this woman, the greatest act of radical obedience to Jesus Christ is to place herself in the hands of a loving God every time she goes off to dinner. 

Berger’s point was profound. God calls us to deal with the challenges before us, and often our most “radical” challenges are very “little” ones. The call to radical micro-obedience may mean patiently listening to someone who is boring or irritating, or treating a fellow sinner with a charity that is not easy to muster, or offering detailed advice on a matter that seems trivial to everyone but the person asking for the advice.

C. S. Lewis was surprised to learn that his life after conversion consisted mostly in doing the same things he had done before, only in a new spirit. Eventually he concluded that being a practicing Christian “means that every single act and feeling, every experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, must be referred to God.” It was a matter of learning to live not for himself but for someone else, in the same way an athlete might devote a game to a coach dying of cancer—–or to a lover.

In a play or a movie, the most ordinary events—–walking out to buy a paper, getting into a car, answering the phone—may have momentous implications. The plot hinges on such details, and the audience watches carefully because it does not know which one may prove significant or hold an essential clue. Life with God is like that, for God’s presence gives new potentiality to every single event.

  Whether I battle incontinence, an eating disorder, a fear of intimacy, an attraction to lust and infidelity, or a spirit of bitterness and blame, the good news is that I need not “clean myself up” before approaching God. Just the opposite: in the Spirit, God has found a way to live within me, helping from the inside out. God has not promised a state of constant bliss or a problem-free existence but has promised to be present in the silence and in the dark, to exist alongside us, within us, and for us.


THE EVANGELICAL SUBCULTURE I grew up in emphasized God’s power.

As a child I lived in fear of a God who, like Jehovah of the Old Testament, would use lightning bolts, disease, or other weapons in his arsenal to punish my sin. Later I viewed the Christian life as a venue for God’s more benign power. My brother, after winning a piano competition, would say piously, “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord.” (I, who practiced just as hard, with half the talent, always wondered why the Lord didn’t guide my fingers so skillfully.) Sometimes at prayer meetings I would hear requests like this: “May we have no ideas of our own, no actions of our own. May you do it all through us.” (A cynical friend noted that the prayers were often answered—–those people indeed seemed to have no ideas of their own.)

Ultimately I saw that a constant emphasis on God’s power may lead to the fatalism of extreme Muslims or Hindus, who conclude that we humans need do nothing because the will of God works itself out regardless. Far more impressive is the miracle of God’s condescension, his humble willingness to share power and offer us full partnership in the mission of transforming the world.

I used to feel spiritually inferior because I had not experienced the more spectacular manifestations of the Spirit and could not point to any bona fide “miracles” in my life. Increasingly, though, I have come to see that what I value may differ greatly from what God values, Jesus, often reluctant to perform miracles, considered it progress when he departed earth and entrusted the mission to his flawed disciples. Like a proud parent, God seems to take more delight as a spectator of the bumbling achievements of his stripling children than in any self-display of omnipotence.

From God’s perspective, if I may speculate, the great advance in human history may be what happened at Pentecost, which restored the direct correspondence of spirit to Spirit that had been lost in Eden. I want God to act in direct, impressive, irrefutable ways. He wants to “share power” with the likes of me, accomplishing his work through people, not despite them.

“Take me seriously! Treat me like an adult, not a child!” is the cry of every teenager. God honors that request. He makes me a partner for his work in and through me. He grants me freedom in full knowledge that I will abuse it. He abdicates power to such an extent that he pleads with me not to “grieve” or “quench” his Spirit. God does all this because he wants a mature lover as a partner, not a puppy-love adolescent.

I have already mentioned the analogy of marriage, the most “adult” relationship that most people ever have. (Deep friendships show these same qualities as well.) In marriage two partners can achieve a unity while preserving their freedom and independence. Something new takes shape, a shared identity in which husband and wife both participate. When my wife and I plan a trip, she makes some of the arrangements and I make others; we rarely haggle over who does what because we know that our efforts go toward something that benefits us both.

Even so, as every couple learns, combining two genders in a marriage introduces differences that may take a lifetime to work out. Joining a human being with God involves a whole new category of “incompatibilities.” One partner is invisible, overwhelming, and perfect; the other is visible, weak, and flawed. How can the two possibly get along?

In some ways, the Holy Spirit acts as a kind of resident “marriage counselor” between myself and God. The analogy may seem far-fetched, but remember the New Testament’s words to describe the Spirit: Comforter, Counselor, Helper. The Spirit comforts in moments of distress, calms me in times of confusion, and overcomes my fears. Consistently the Bible presents the Spirit as the invisible inner force, the Go-Between God who assists us in relating to the transcendent Father.

Like every starry-eyed newlywed, Janet and I both learned that the wedding ceremony was just the beginning of the process of making love work. Our marriage has hardly been a place of serenity, void of negative emotions. To the contrary, we are more likely to express feelings of anger and disappointment to each other than to anyone else, even when “outside” forces prompt those feelings. A healthy marriage is not a problem-free place, hut it can be a safe place. We know that we will still love each other the next day and the next, and that despite the strain, our love may well soothe the hurt that caused those feelings in the first place.

When I read the Psalms and Job and Jeremiah, I sense something of the same pattern at work. Notice the angry outbursts, the complaints, the wild accusations against God contained in those books. God offers a “safe place” to express ourselves, even the worst parts of ourselves. I heard little of that blunt honesty in church growing up, which I now see as a spiritual defect, not a strength. Christians, I have noticed, are not immune from the kinds of circumstances that provoked the outbursts in Job and Psalms. Why attempt to hide deep emotions from a God who dwells within, a Spirit who has promised to express on our behalf “groans” for which words fail us?

I will never be able to reduce life with God to a formula for the same reason I cannot reduce my marriage to a formula. It is a living, growing relationship with another free being, very different from me and yet sharing much in common. No relationship has proved more challenging than marriage. I am tempted sometimes to wish for an “old-fashioned” marriage, in which roles and expectations are more clearly spelled out and need not always be negotiated. I sometimes yearn for an intervention from outside which would decisively change one of the characteristics that bring my wife and me pain. So far, that has not happened. We wake up each day and continue the journey on ground that grows incrementally more solid with each step.

Love works that way, with partners visible or invisible. (173-184)


“Those who say that they believe in God and yet neither love nor fear him, do not in fact believe in him but in those who have taught them that God exists. Those who believe that they believe in God, but with out any passion in their heart, any anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God-idea, not in God.”  MIGUEL DE UNAMUNO

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