Living life in the Spirit is a privilege we can experience right now
The thought of the Holy Spirit can seem very obscure to us as we face the many challenges of our lives. Is it possible to know the Spirit in a real and life-changing way? Can we really hope that the Spirit will be our “Comforter,” just as he was the first disciples’ Comforter (John 14:16-18)?
The answer, in short, is “Yes!” The Spirit can work in our lives on a down-to-earth, practical basis, transforming sinful thoughts and habits into a godly and holy life. The Spirit can bring alive your prayer so that you can touch the throne of God, and can enable you “to share in the inmost life of God” (St. John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 8). This Pentecost, may the Spirit of God move in your life, in your family, and in your parish.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, our highest goal in life—our highest calling—is to experience “Life in the Spirit” (CCC, 1699). As lofty as this may sound, life in the Spirit is possible for each one of us because through Christ we can “participate in the light and the power of the divine Spirit” (CCC, 1704). Jesus, who is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), always lived in the Spirit (Luke 4:18). Now, through his death and resurrection, he has given us his Holy Spirit so that we too can live as he lived (Romans 8:15-16). This is the wonder of the gospel: Through faith in Jesus Christ, we can enter into the life of God. We can live a new life!
What Is Life in the Spirit?
Life in the Spirit is the capacity— given to us by God—to follow Jesus’ example (CCC, 1709). What was Jesus’ example? Every day of his life, he sought the power of the Holy Spirit to do his Father’s will. Everything Jesus said and did came from his union with God, a union that only the Spirit could sustain.
As it was for Jesus, so can it be for us as we allow the Spirit to direct our thoughts and actions. We call this “living in the Spirit” because we cannot sustain such a life on our own. We are all sinners. We all need God desperately. The good news is that God invites all of us to experience life in the Spirit. All he asks is that we pray, follow his commands, and check our disposition during the day. In return, he promises to fill us with his Spirit every day.
The key ingredient in our attempts at life in the Spirit is the experiential knowledge that God loves us, that Jesus has saved us, and that the Holy Spirit lives in us. The Holy Spirit in us wants to move us to live each day under his influence, and the only way we will follow him is if we know the love of God that surpasses all fears and anxieties (Romans 8:37-39).
Welcoming the Spirit in Prayer
Prayer—conversation with God—is the first priority of living in the Spirit. We all know that it takes time and commitment to build true and lasting friendships. In the same way, we grow close to God as we spend time in prayer opening our hearts to him and listening to his voice. The more we are committed to prayer, the more we will know what it is like to live in the Father’s heart. Why? Because prayer makes us sensitive to the Holy Spirit.
Throughout his letters, St. Paul encouraged his readers to pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17; see Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:18-20; Philippians 4:4-7). Constant prayer means not only praying every day, but also taking a few moments at different points in our day to turn our hearts to God. Through constant prayer, we give the Holy Spirit freedom to move in us. We come to know what he likes and what he dislikes. We learn how to discern his voice and how to please him.
Constant prayer also makes us sensitive to the word of God and to the Eucharist. Praying with the scriptures opens our minds to God and makes our hearts burn with love for him (Luke 24:32). We all have heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” Spiritually, the more we eat the bread of Christ with prayerful hearts, the more we will think and act like Jesus. Constant prayer—at home or at Mass, whether we are reading the scriptures or driving to work—is our secret to intimacy with God. Prayer, flowing from a pure heart, is the best way we can learn to be led by the Spirit.
The Spirit Softens Our Hearts
As we learn to pray constantly, we will begin to discover changes in our interior disposition. Perhaps we will become more patient. The Spirit may show us areas of sin and lead us to confess them to God and repent. Perhaps we will become less anxious or less prone to anger and resentment. All of this happens because the Holy Spirit is filling us with God’s grace and warming our hearts with his love. Such an infilling moves us to love God in return and to obey him. It gives us a greater confidence that we can share in his life.
Another essential part of living in the Spirit is allowing our thoughts, our decisions, and our emotions to flow from our experience of God. As St. Paul described life in the Spirit, he contrasted it with life “in the flesh”—a life driven by the sinful desires of our fallen nature (Romans 8:8). Paul wrote, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (8:5). In another letter, Paul distinguished the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace—from the work of the flesh—envy, rivalry, lust, and selfishness (Galatians 5:19-23). Paul called the life in the flesh hostility toward God, and life in the Spirit openness and obedience to the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:6-7).
St. Paul taught a simple lesson: Our outward behavior reveals our inner disposition. As we learn to listen to the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves acting in accord with the Holy Spirit during the day. Some of this will occur naturally as our hearts are softened by the Spirit. However, much of this change occurs as we make decisions in the course of the day to obey God’s commands and to follow the promptings of his Spirit.
This is why it is important that we remain close to God and call on the Spirit often during our days. The more opportunities we give God to mold us and shape us in his image, the more we will reflect his love and his power to those around us.
Growing in Discernment
We all know that we are not perfect. We all sin. Perhaps the best way for us to learn whether we are acting in accord with the Spirit is by examining our hearts and our actions. In extreme circumstances, we can easily discern our state. We may be in a foul mood all day or find ourselves caught up in lust or envy. Perhaps we tear down a friend or our spouse through gossip. These are all sure signs that we are far from the Lord and need to turn back to him.
Likewise, there are times when we can easily tell that we are in the Spirit. Perhaps, after having received the Eucharist, we are full of love. We may feel an inner desire to serve God in some parish ministry. Maybe we feel a deep compassion for the poor or the sick, or we find it easier to forgive those who have hurt us.
However, we are also familiar with the countless thoughts, actions, and behavior patterns that fall somewhere in between these two extremes. In these cases, it can be quite difficult to determine whether they are of the Spirit or not. These “gray areas” require the gift of discernment—a gift of the Spirit to help us perceive more clearly what is motivating us. Discernment is a wonderful gift that we can grow in as we practice following the Spirit every day.
The Spirit Says, “Come!”
No matter who we are—rich or poor, intellectual or laborer—God invites you to live close to his heart. This is a privilege that comes as we yield our lives to the Spirit. Living in the Spirit requires that we allow our interior disposition to be formed by the Spirit so that we come to reflect the love and compassion of our heavenly Father.
Five Practical Ways to Look to the Spirit
1. Every morning, ask for a fresh “filling” of the Holy Spirit, and greater sensitivity to, and power from, the Holy Spirit.
2. Take some time to recall and write out those moments in your life when you experienced the Spirit consoling you or teaching you.
3. Share your faith with others. Ask the Spirit for wisdom, courage, and love.
4. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Let the Spirit – the Father of the Poor – give you a deep, generous love for those in need.
5. Pray for unity among believers, because the Spirit imparts gifts and charisms for the whole body of Christ.