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What Does It Mean to Be Filled with the Spirit?

Paul tells us to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), and we all nod approvingly. It sounds like the sort of thing we should do. But think about it for a moment, and it can sound rather strange. How on earth do you obey a passive verb?

If someone tells me, “Phone your mother,” I can do that. But what if someone says, “Be phoned by your mother?” Now I’m stumped. Not only is it unclear what I am supposed to do next, it’s not even obvious what the instruction means. Yet Paul simply tells the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit.” It can be confusing.

As a result, many Christians aren’t entirely sure what being filled with the Spirit is. Is it an experience we are supposed to have—and, if so, what kind? Is it a series of habits we are supposed to develop—and, if so, which ones? Reformed and conservative believers will often emphasize the habit side, based on the parallel instruction in Colossians to “let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” (3:16). Pentecostal and charismatic types will usually emphasize the experience side, invoking the baptism in the Spirit in the Book of Acts. So which is it: a habit or an experience?

When you’re sailing, is “being filled with the wind” an experience or a habit? Both. Catching the wind on a sailboat is clearly an experience. I vividly remember that first feeling of being seized and carried forward by a mighty power from elsewhere. But it is also a habit. If you don’t put the sails up, pull the mainsheet fast, or adjust the jib, you won’t go anywhere, even if the wind is blowing powerfully.

Sailing, in that sense, is the art of attentive responsiveness to an external power. You rely entirely on the external power to get you anywhere. Sailors never imagine themselves to be powering the boat by their own strength. But you also have to respond attentively to whatever the wind is doing, which comes through cultivating awareness, skill, and good habits.
Being filled with the Spirit involves the same both-and. We pursue the experience of the Holy Spirit - Paul uses the language of filling and drenching, drinking and pouring. We rely entirely on the Spirit’s immeasurable power, rather than our own strength, to get us anywhere. But we also develop habits.

We respond attentively to what he is doing in and through us, a capacity that comes through awareness, skill, and practice. Paul mentions four such habits in subsequent verses: teaching one another, singing, giving thanks, and submitting to one another (Eph. 5:18–21).