I grew up in church. I rarely missed a week Sunday school or youth group. I was raised on VeggieTales and Christian radio, and I loved it. (I’ll sing every word of something from “Silly Songs with Larry” later, if you’d like.) But as a pre-teen and teenager, I became increasingly worried about the question of “making my faith my own.”
I knew I believed in God. I’d long ago asked Jesus to guide me as the center of my life. But what if I was a only a Christian because my parents and grandparents were? How did I know my faith was true for me?
Evangelicals, more than other Christian traditions, tend to emphasize the emotional aspect of our relationship with God. Raised in Protestant evangelical culture, I heard many powerful and emotional conversion stories. While that illuminates a very real part of who God is and how God can interact with the world, it’s only one of the many different ways we can experience the Holy Spirit. If our churches focus too heavily on it, that can present an unrealistic view of who God is.
I hadn’t ever had one of those powerful conversion experiences. God hadn’t ever met me in my deepest despair and rescued me from suffering. I’d never experienced an overnight transformation. But that’s okay, because powerful emotional encounters are only one example of how God can work — and many people never experience them in flashy, visible ways.
As a teenager, I wanted so badly to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.
I wanted to feel a sense of God’s power as I sang worship music. I wanted to feel the Holy Spirit in the room when I prayed for something important. I wanted to hear God’s voice directing and guiding my life — showing me God’s plan for me life — where to go to college, what sort of career God had picked for me, and what other choices God wanted me to make.
But that didn’t happen. God didn’t speak audibly. I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit sometimes — mostly in big worship concerts — but not many other times. God didn’t speak from above and give me divine turn-by-turn navigation for my life. Sometimes, my mom told me, God’s answer to our prayer for help making big life decisions is simply to let us choose for ourselves. God rarely ever mandates our life decisions clearly, she told me. As long as we pray, seek God’s will, and honestly listen – it’s okay to make the decision we think is best, if the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem offering guidance.
Since I was young, I’ve always been more interested in faith, God, and spiritual things. This made my mom proud, so she loved reminding me about it. “But if I’m more inclined towards the spiritual,” I wondered, “why can’t I feel the Holy Spirit more?”
“I was raised in the church. How do I make my faith my own? How do I feel the Holy Sprint in my life, actively?”
This became one of my favorite questions to ask. but I don’t remember ever hearing an answer that satisfied me. “Everyone’s faith journey is different,” I was often told. “Just wait, and keep following God in your daily life. Have patience. God’s timing isn’t our timing.”
With that probably-true, but frustratingly vague non-answer, I sighed in exasperation and continued my Christian life: going to Sunday school every week, reading Christian devotionals, and listening to Christian radio.
But I wanted more.
I wanted to feel the Holy Spirit powerfully, and nobody had a good answer for how to do that.
It’s almost 20 years later (see: that whole “waiting” thing everybody kept talking about) and I feel confident that I finally have a solid answer to why I couldn’t feel the Holy Spirit’s power.
This may seem blunt, but it was hard to feel the Holy Spirit moving actively in my life because the world hadn’t hurt me yet. The pain and sorrow that is present in our broken, dark world hadn’t hit me.
It wasn’t until I encountered the very real hurt and darkness that is our reality in this life that I was able to feel the Holy Spirit in those ways — powerfully, providing deep comfort when I’ve wanted it most. I’ve sensed the Holy Spirit’s guidance, wisdom, and powerful healing. I’ve felt it in real, raw, flip-your-world around ways. But I had to experience some really uncomfortable, painful things first.
This looks different for each person, and come in varying levels of intensity. For me, it’s been things like deaths in my church or community. Or big health challenges. Or relationships with people who hurt me, or who shake and challenge my worldview in deeply unsettling ways.
In my teen and college years, I was terrified of experiencing pain. I didn’t want to suffer. I was glad I’d never experienced the death of a loved one. I was happy that the world hadn’t significantly hurt me yet. I wanted to stay as safe and pain-free as possible.
And you know what? I wouldn’t trade the pain, doubt, and uncertainty I’ve experienced for anything. I worried, for so long, if I’d be strong enough to handle it. And I’m still standing. With friends and family support, wise counsel, and lots of chasing after Christ, I’ve made it through. Experiencing pain, uncertainty, and darkness have been the most growing and amazing part of my faith journey. I know that not starting to experience the pain of this world until later in life was a huge privilege, and I’m well aware that not everyone gets this luxury.
Our world hurts some people at lot earlier than it hurts others. I definitely went through challenging times as a teenager, but it wasn’t until later that I felt deeply hurt by things in the world that were out of my control.
To quote C.S. Lewis in his book, The Problem of Pain, “[it’s] hard …to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terribly saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God in an interruption.”
Nobody’s saying those interruptions don’t suck. They’re miserable, pretty much always.
But the times when I’ve been in the most pain have been the times I’ve felt God’s presence the most. I don’t go looking to experience pain, but as I approach my third decade of existence, enough has happened to show me that in this life, we will experience pain. God’s kingdom hasn’t come yet. Satan still has reign in our world for now, and like it or not, bad things are going to happen to us.
If you haven’t been hurt by the world yet, that’s okay. It’s a wonderful gift, and something to appreciate. But when the world does end up hurting you — that’s a part of life. When you feel lost, confused, or hopeless, run towards God — not away from God. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with God or to speak your doubt. So many Christians are terrified of doubt, but I’ve felt the Holy Spirit’s power or presence through the process of facing and working through deep doubt.
Don’t be afraid to ask God the tough questions.
God is God — I’m pretty sure the Creator of the universe can handle your questions. God can take it. Question, cry, yell, but don’t turn your back on God. Seek to understand God better: through studying the Bible, learning from Christian leaders, and making an effort to live more like Jesus did.
Explore what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
That’s the other huge realization about faith I wish I could have come to sooner. I wish I would have figured out earlier how to stop being so focused on diving into Christian pop culture — to the best-selling devotionals for teen girls, to songs performed by Christian pop singers with frosted tips or glittery eye shadow — and to spend more time exploring ways I could be living like Jesus did.
- Spending time with those on the margins.
- Bringing food to people who are hungry (people in homelessness, recovering from surgery, people at youth group … or just a friend who might want some encouraging).
- Sharing things I have with people who don’t have them.
- Finding ways to support the refugees who were moving in to various apartments complexes around my city.
That’s where I’ve seen God at work. That’s why I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the midst of my personal pain, and any interactions with others, as I’ve stepped out of my familiar bubble, and made an effort to serve in the world around me.
I’ve felt the presence of the Holy Spirit
…in the high school where I volunteer: a school for youth on the margins, with significantly fewer resources, many at risk of falling through the cracks.
I’ve felt the Holy Spirit
… on the few beautiful occasions where I’ve been able to pray with the teachers — and here how they pray for their students. They know their student’s stories. They pray to God for each one, individually, lifting up their hopes, fears, pain, and heartbreak to God, asking the Lord to guide each one, and give them a future of resilience and hope. I’ve watched them gather to pray around a young man struggling with a past that will make graduating high school a Herculean feat, surrounded by too many people trying to tear him down.
That sort of community — one who invests in students intellectually, spiritually, physically (with food and supplies, when needed) and emotionally — is such a powerful example of what it looks like when patient, prayerful, faithful people seek to live life, in community, and act how Jesus did when he was on earth.
I’ve felt the Holy Spirit
…when I’ve prayed with co-workers, for my office, particularly when we’re facing difficult circumstances: walking around to each desk, praying for each person, asking God to work powerfully in their lives and in the lives of their family, praying for peace and strength among whatever pain they’re facing.
I’ve felt the Holy Spirit
… during Communion. It’s an experience I’ve had many, many times a deep, emotional response that sometimes brings me to tears (but it only started happening after I’d wrestled through months of deep doubt and uncertainty in my faith).
I’ve felt the Holy Spirit
… during Communion the Sunday after my Grandpa died: surrounded by my friends, eating together, remembering Christ’s sacrificial and redemptive death together. In the midst of sadness and loss, I’d never felt so secure in my belief in heaven. (And that’s something I’ve definitely doubted and questioned, so to feel so secure and surrounded by love, I ended up sobbing. And I don’t cry easily.) For all my questions, fears, and doubts … taking Communion at that moment, and remembering Christ’s death, I’d never felt so surrounded by a spirit of peace, comfort, and love.
I’ve felt the Holy Spirit
…when serving Communion on the day after a young woman at church unexpectedly died. I’m well aware that our world isn’t fair. It is terrible and feels hopeless sometimes. But taking Communion together — not even 12 hours after her death — we were together. Eating together. Crying together. Remembering this pain, and other painful memories that jumped at the chance to claw their way forward.
We were experiencing the darkness of the world, while at the same time remembering the body and blood of Christ. We were tasting a physical reminder that the battle has already been won. Death has already been beaten. God’s beautiful eternity is coming … but it’s not here yet.
So we wait. And cry. And eat together.
Knowing that God’s future is not here yet, but it’s coming. As we wait, we’ll do as much as we can to live — and love, and value, and give — like Jesus did when he was on earth.
I feel the Holy Spirit when God is displaying healing power, but also in times of waiting: those beautiful in between moments when we’re asking God to rescue or heal, but knowing God hasn’t acted yet.
God isn’t a vending machine. We can’t just insert dollar bills and receive a guaranteed outcome. God might not answer our prayer like we expect. But God will always be there. And God will always be working in our world, whether or not we understand God’s process or God’s ways.
How do you make your faith your own?
- Wait. Seeds don’t grow into trees overnight. Even a seed planted a birth won’t be fully mature in your teenage years, or as a young adult. Growing and maturing takes time.
- Chase after God: pray, read the Bible, learn from wise Christians.
- Don’t get caught up in looking “Christian” enough, buying Christian products, or comparing yourself to other Christians. Faith isn’t an image to carefully curate. It’s choosing to see the world through Jesus’ eyes — acting like he did, and seeing/treating other people like he would. So:
- Try — every day — to figure out how you can live, and treat people, more like Jesus did.
- When the world hurts you, don’t run away from God. Run to God. Pray, cry, question, talk to people who care about you. God will find you.
God explains it in Jeremiah 29: 11-14:
11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.”
Everyone’s faith journey is different.
Everyone experiences God differently. But when we ask Jesus to be the center of our lives — when we commit to follow him — God sends the Holy Spirit to be with each of us.
The more we invest in growing our faith, the easier it is to hear the Holy Spirit’s leading and guidance. But if you haven’t had those huge powerful moments yet, just wait. They’re coming.