Christians talk a lot about being “filled with the Spirit,” but what does that actually mean? And how is it accomplished?
Paul’s command to “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18 is intriguing. The form of the verb “filled” that Paul uses is what’s called a present passive imperative. Without getting nerdy, that means it’s a command that we are to obey in the present tense (present + imperative). But the odd thing is that it’s in the passive voice. We are commanded to “be filled.” Are you seeing the significance? Paul is commanding us to be doing something that must be done to us.
This raises an important question: How do I receive something that is outside of my control? If it’s the Spirit who fills me, then why is Paul directing that command to me?
I find this deeply mysterious and often frustrating. It’s easier if there’s a procedure I can follow, something I can simply do to fulfill this command. But it seems more mysterious than this—a realization that should not surprise us when we are discussing the workings of the Spirit.
James K. A. Smith is often helpful with this sort of thing. In the following quotation, Smith is exploring French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of how a person “falls” asleep. Smith suggests that this account might help us in thinking about being filled with the Spirit:
“I cannot ‘choose’ to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. ‘I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there’ (PP 189). I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed—but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. ‘I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep “comes,” settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be” (PP 189–90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome. What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls ‘habitations of the Spirit’ precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?”
Smith is suggesting that our embodied practices (“liturgies” is Smith’s broad term for these practices, whether they be “sacred” or “secular”) might prepare us to receive the Spirit’s filling. We ourselves are not doing the filling—that is the Spirit’s work. But by engaging in specific embodied practices—the eating and drinking of communion, the posture of our knees on the floor in prayer, the raising of our hands in worship, the use of our vocal cords in praying, singing, or reading Scripture—we are training our bodies, and thus our whole selves, to be receptive to the Spirit’s filling. The power of our bodies and of embodied practices (liturgies, broadly conceived) is the subject of Smith’s book (and an important earlier book), and he convincingly argues that human beings do not primarily consist of the thoughts in our heads, but of the desires—the love—that fills our being and is directed at objects around us.
Could it be that just as sleep “settles on the imitation of itself which I have been offering to it,” so our obedience to practices like singing to one another, giving thanks verbally, and performing acts of mutual submission actually make us receptive to the Spirit’s filling in our lives? These activities are listed, after all, along with the command to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5.
We could try so hard to be filled with the Spirit, and in a certain sense we should. Be the sleep analogy helps me to step into the mystery a bit. As Smith says, “Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome.”
Smith’s analogy does not lessen the mystery of being filled with the Spirit for me. I still can’t say that I know precisely what to do. But I find the analogy helpful, and I find myself motivated to actively welcome the Spirit, to engage in those postures that make me receptive to the gift.
 Smith uses the abbreviation “PP” to refer to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962).
 James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013) 65.
[…] constant novelty. Nor is repetition the opposite of vitality. In his excellent and important book Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes a case for repetition as a central part of our […]