“The spirit of…”

by K.W. Leslie, 18 March
SPIRIT OF… 'spɪ.rɪt əv noun, genitive. A quality considered the defining or typical element in the character of a person, people, or institution.
2. A supernatural being creating or facilitating that element.

Pagans don’t know what spirit is, and their best guess is emotion: Spirit is the feeling you get when a speaker talks about stuff you care about—or stuff that terrifies you. Spirit is the emotions stirred up by a great piece of music or a great work of art. Spirit is the mood in the room when you enter it, and it’ll either make you want to stick around or flee. Spirit is the vibes you feel from a really positive or really negative person. Spirit is the feels.

No surprise, this false definition is all over Christianity. So much so, people think the way you detect the Holy Spirit, or some other evil spirit, is by our feelings. If the spirit of a room is all dark and creepy, it means there’s an evil spirit in there, trying to tempt or mislead you; your feelings are how you supernaturally discerned this. Conversely if the spirit of a room is all bright and cheerful, it’s the Holy Spirit, or some ministering angel, or maybe even Jesus making an appearance, visible or not.

To be fair, your emotions are a clue… that something’s affecting your emotions. But it’s naïve to assume the effector is always a spirit. It might just be you had a really good lunch. Or you had a bad day, you’re now in a place you don’t wanna be, and you’re looking for any excuse to leave. Or there’s something about a person’s behavior that really bugs you, and you can’t put your finger on it… and it’s his cologne, but you don’t currently remember your least favorite gym teacher used to reek of it, and your “bad vibes” are really just part of a bad memory. This is where natural discernment has to be practiced.

But it’s much easier to practice no discernment whatsoever, and leap to the conclusion, “I feel funny—because the room is haunted.” Yeah, you don’t know that.

Anyway this is where we come up with the Christianese meaning of “the spirit of” anything: They read the emotion in a room—or project their own emotions on the entire room—and conclude there’s a spirit causing the room to feel this way. Could be Jesus; could be Satan.

“Spirit of” in the bible.

The reason people refer to feelings and influences as “the spirit of” anything, is because humanity got that phrase from the bible. Yep, it’s in there; we find it 126 times in the King James Version—and yeah, that includes “spirit of God” and “spirit of the LORD” and individual people’s spirits. But we also find these:

  • “the spirit of antichrist” 1Jn 4.3
  • “the spirit of bondage” Ro 8.15
  • “the spirit of deep sleep” Is 29.10
  • “a spirit of divination” Ac 16.16
  • “the spirit of error” 1Jn 4.6
  • “the spirit of faith” 2Co 4.13
  • “the spirit of fear” 2Ti 1.7
  • “the spirit of glory” 1Pe 4.14
  • “the spirit of grace” Zc 12.10, He 10.29
  • “the spirit of heaviness” Is 61.3
  • “the spirit of holiness” Ro 1.4
  • “the spirit of the humble” Is 57.15
  • “the spirit of infirmity” Lk 13.11
  • “the spirit of jealousy” Nu 5.14, 30
  • “the spirit of judgment” Is 4.4, 28.6
  • “the spirit of life” Ro 8.2, Rv 11.11
  • “the spirit of meekness” 1Co 4.21, Ga 6.1
  • “the spirit of prophecy” Rv 19.10
  • “the spirit of truth” Jn 14.17, 15.26, 16.13, 1Jn 4.6
  • “the spirit of [one’s] understanding” Jb 20.3
  • “the spirit of slumber” Ro 11.8
  • “the spirit of whoredoms” Ho 4.12, 5.4
  • “the spirit of wisdom” Dt 34.9, Ep 1.17
  • “the spirit of the world” 1Co 2.12

And of course Jesus’s rebuke to his students:

Luke 9.54-56 KJV
54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? 55 But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. 56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.

So are these spirits all separate supernatural beings, meant to influence us in one direction or the other? Were James and John suggesting mass murder ’cause they were demon-influenced, even demonized?

Nah. When God gives me “the spirit of wisdom,” it doesn’t mean an actual spirit climbs into my head, works me like a meat puppet, and makes me able to say clever things, or figure out complicated math problems, or realize threatening to bisect a baby will tell me which whore is his mother. 1Ki 3.16-28 It means he gives me a wise attitude: He makes it so I appreciate wisdom, and seek it, instead of presuming I’m an expert ’cause I read some websites.

When the authors of scripture do mean literal spirits, they usually mean the Holy Spirit—who is the spirit of wisdom, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the LORD, Is 11.2 help, truth, Jn 15.26 and of course the fruit of the Spirit. And yeah, in other instances they debatably might mean tempters like the devil, who wanna mislead us.

But for the most part they’re talking attitudes. Same as everybody else! If you have “school spirit,” it means you have a positive attitude towards your school. And if you have “the spirit of prophecy,” it generally means you’re pro-prophecy: You wanna hear from God, share what you heard, hear what others heard from God, and encourage people to engage with prophets. You’re certainly not gonna be anti-prophecy.

Those who fear those “spirits of.”

Problem is, certain dark Christians believe every evil behavior or attitude has an evil spirit bound to it, and every single time you see that attitude, it means this particular critter has got its hooks into you. The “spirit of lust” has an actual, honest-to-not-so-goodness lust demon at the back of it, following you around, making you horny. Sound ridiculous? It is. But they really do believe it.

And it’s not even an idea from the scriptures or Christianity; it’s borrowed from pagan religions. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed everything, everything, had its very own god. Including negative stuff: Fobos the god of fear, Eris the god of arguments, Deimos the god of terror, Eros the god of lust, and so forth. These dark Christians believe the Greco-Roman pagans were on to something. So anything evil which crops up in their lives—rebellion, idolatry, sexual problems, gluttony (well okay, Americans usually ignore gluttony)—has a dark lord who’s claimed it as their kingdom, and if you fall into that particular evil, it’s got you.

Too many such Christians don’t make any real distinction being tempted by these dark forces, and being possessed by them. Even though most Christians (myself included) don’t believe Christians can be demonized—if the Holy Spirit indwells us, no devil’s possibly gonna nudge him aside and take over. These Christians claim to believe the same thing, but their workaround is to say these devils may not be in us, but they’re sorta… kinda… on us. Like a jockey riding a horse. So in order to get these devils off us, they do pretty much the same things an exorcist would.

And these dark Christians spend a crazy amount of time “fighting” evil spirits. Anything that comes up in their lives: It’s an evil spirit; time to do another exorcism. Every time they take a moral inventory and notice a failing in their lives: Yep, time for another exorcism.

Okay. If curing people of our various sin and self-control problems consisted of nothing more than a good exorcism, we should see tons of healthy, functional Christians in their churches! But no. They tend to be just as messed up as before—and in utter denial, because they really do think their exorcism quick-fix cured ’em.

The reason it doesn’t work is—duh—evil spirits aren’t the problem. We are. Human evil comes from the human heart, not some evil spirit. Mk 7.15 All evil spirits can do is tempt. We’re the ones with free will, who can either give in to the temptation, or quit making excuses and resist it. These “spirits” are in reality our own spirits, bent towards evil, or striving towards good. So whenever a human has the “spirit of” something, properly it describes our own spirit. Not another one.

Keep these definitions separate.

“The spirit of” all sorts of things has little to nothing do with actual spirit beings. They largely have to do with attitudes and feelings. That’s where we Christians regularly confuse the two, and mix up the definition of “spirit.” Let’s try not to.

Keeping ’em straight is simple: The spirit of an abstract concept—like jealousy, like wisdom, like rebellion, like faith—is a feeling. The spirit of a concrete being—the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the spirit of a man, the spirit of the king—is a person. The “spirit of the room” is how everyone in the room generally feels; the Spirit of the Almighty is the LORD himself.

To be fair to those folks who think every spirit of something is an evil spirit: Yeah, it’s entirely possible there are evil spirits which think of themselves as specialists in particular forms of emotional manipulation. Certainly there are humans who do. So it’s not hard to imagine a devil which thinks likewise. But tempters are simply that: Tempters. Resist ’em and they go away. Jm 4.7 The real being to worry about, would be any human who personally identifies with a certain sort of evil. A man who thinks of himself as “an agent of chaos” doesn’t so much have a spirit of chaos as he is a spirit of chaos: There’s no spirit-being making him mess with people, destroy relationships, and wreck things. He’s chaos. It’s all him.

But just as we humans can have these evil attitudes and emotions, we can likewise adopt the good attitudes and emotions. We can adopt a spirit of faith, fr’instance. It’s not so much the Holy Spirit in us, making us trust God, as it is we trust God. We learn to think that way and act on it. We have the Spirit’s encouragement, but we have to act. Free will, remember? So let’s exercise it, and develop our spirits in a godly direction.