Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

How Much Does the Holy Spirit Have You?

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2021 Nov 22

Do you ever wonder how to unleash the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in your life? In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes, “… be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18, NIV). The original Greek phrase “be filled” is grammatically a present imperative—we don’t have a smooth English translation for this except “be filled.” To really get at the idea of the original Greek, you would need to read this verse as “be being filled” or “keep on being filled.” Further, it’s in the passive voice, meaning it’s not “fill yourself up with the Spirit,” but rather “let yourself be filled” or “let the Holy Spirit fill you.”

The Bible teaches that an individual is filled with the Holy Spirit by involving himself or herself in the process that leads to an ongoing, day-in, day-out filling. It’s not a once-for-all experience, but rather an ongoing process. It’s a way of doing life. Whenever we talk of something being filled, we usually have an image of something like a glass being filled with water. Whenever the Bible talks about being filled with the Holy Spirit, that’s not what is means. We are not vessels into which God pours a certain amount of Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a Person, so being filled is a relational issue.

So how do we experience “being filled with the Spirit”? Well, it’s not about levitating or foaming at the mouth. To be filled with the Holy Spirit means that we allow Him to occupy, guide and control ever-increasing areas of our life. It’s a simple idea, but a profound one. The more you follow the Holy Spirit, the more you are filled. And the more you are filled, the more you are led. And the more you follow that lead, the more you are filled again. The entire dynamic is that you live in and by and through the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit, surrendering daily to His leadership and promptings.

When we listen to the words of the Bible and the inner promptings of our own spirit as it is nudged and guided by the Holy Spirit, we are being led to become that which we naturally aren’t—increasingly like Christ. We are led to make choices; to say yes to things or no to things; to do this, but not do that. To feel certain ways, think certain ways, act certain ways. 

How does this work in day-in, day-out life?

I was taking an international flight out of the airport, and it was delayed late into the night. People were irritable and tired, and I was especially frustrated because I was going to be missing a connecting flight that I had to make that was going to throw my whole itinerary in to disarray. Then it was announced that the flight was overbooked and they had to try to bring in another plane, and everyone began jockeying for position to try to get a seat and get on the first plane.

My own mood and spirit were no different than anyone else’s. Maybe worse. It didn’t help that, as I was trying to maneuver my way through the group to ensure I had a seat on the first plane, there was this one guy who was just in my space. He was bumping against me, trying to get ahead and elbow his way to get in front of me. Feeling Jesusy, I was bumping him right back, holding my ground and place in the makeshift line. He glared at me, and I glared right back. 

In truth, there was nowhere for any of us to go.

Then he said, “Look, you keep bumping into me.”

I said: “Well I don’t have anywhere to move! People are bumping me!”

Then I glared again, almost daring him to say anything else. It was a very pastoral moment.

We both eventually made it on the plane, with the guy I had been jostling with just two seats back from where I was seated. After I took my seat, I felt the Holy Spirit just sweep over my conscience, as if saying: “Well Jim, that was mature. I raised you better than this! You were rude and aggressive with that man and reflected nothing of Jesus to him or to anyone else.”

I was so convicted, and at that moment I was also reminded of something I had been reading earlier that day in Scripture: “Love is patient, love is kind and gentle, not quick to anger...” (1 Corinthians 13). So there I was with the Holy Spirit and with Scripture, and it was so clear to me the prompting that I had: “Get up, walk back two seats and apologize to that guy. Get up out of your seat while there is still time, and you go back to him and you apologize.”

I thought, But I don’t want to!

Yet I knew what Scripture said, I knew I had just acted like a jerk, and I had this deep, unmistakable Holy Spirit-generated conviction running through me telling me to get up and go. 

Hit the “pause” button with me for a minute. This truly was a pivotal moment where a lot more was on the line than you might think. I had already taken a step back spiritually over the last 45 minutes, and here was a chance to reclaim ground that I had already lost. In terms of being filled with the Holy Spirit, at that moment I was leaking pretty badly. And that’s what “be being filled” is about—moment by moment, choice by choice, prompting by prompting.

Okay, hit “play.” I got up, walked back the two seats, and suddenly loomed over the man unexpectedly. He flinched. It’s embarrassing to say this, but he probably thought I was coming to do anything but apologize. I leaned over to him and said: “You know, it’s been a long day and we’re all tired, and I really acted like a jerk back there. I’m sorry and I need to ask for your forgiveness.”

Then I held out my hand for a shake.

He was obviously stunned. But he shook my hand and said, “No worries.”

Now this is not a “me being a hero story;” it’s a “me being a jerk story.” It feels like there are a thousand times when I don’t follow the Spirit’s promptings. But the point is that when I do, I am keeping in step with the Spirit. It’s like we’re this big block of granite, and the more that we allow the Holy Spirit as Sculptor to work, chipping away at us, the more the image of Jesus begins to materialize through the stone.

But the work of the Holy Spirit is not just direction and guidance, promptings and convictions. The Holy Spirit provides the raw power, the raw experience of God that we need to follow through. Our effort toward coming to life, becoming more and more like Jesus, is not just a human effort. Had it not been for the power of the Holy Spirit in me I would never have gotten out of my seat and walked back those two rows of seats. So it’s not just human effort. It is our effort combining with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That’s how you unleash the Holy Spirit in your life.

And again, it’s deeply relational.

This is why the Bible talks about grieving the Holy Spirit through our sin. Think about it this way: He’s trying to make you more like Jesus. He’s leading, guiding and prompting you toward that end. When you give in to patterns of sin, or when you leave sin unconfessed and unaddressed in your life, then you are turning the Holy Spirit away, shutting Him out, refusing His work.

You are rejecting Him.

This grieves Him relationally and diminishes His power and presence in your life. This, in turn, forces you to return to states of deadness or to stay dead and never experience the life that could come. We all do this. Yet none of us have to. As the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:

“Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.

“So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body. And ‘don’t sin by letting anger control you.’ Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil.

“If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.

“And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live....

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior.

“Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:21-32, NLT)

The point is simple, but profound: As a follower of Jesus you already have as much of the Holy Spirit as you are ever going to have,

... but how much of you does the Holy Spirit have?

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, After “I Believe”: Everyday Practices for a Vibrant Faith (Baker), order from Amazon.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.