by Anna Madsen

I’m not saying that I’ve had a lot of “aha” moments in life, but here’s one that happened for sure: My late mentor and professor, Walter Bouman, taught us that the key for some sort of understanding of “Holy Spirit” might be less “Spirit” and more “Holy.”

Spirit, he said, is a hard one to grasp, because it is, indeed, nebulous. The word “nebulous” comes from a Latin word mean­ing “mist.” It’s no coincidence that nebulae are clouds of gas and dust in the heavens!

Think, even, of the older term for Holy Spirit. It was Holy Ghost— still is, in German, namely die heilige Geist!

Whatever else you can say about ghosts, they are creepy because they’re nebulous. You can’t clearly see them; they are vaguely about you; they are not graspable.

In fact, Walt pointed out, the sign language symbol for the Holy Spirit extends the left hand flat out while the right hand pinches the center of the palm and then spirals up and away.

The point he wanted to make is this: Left alone, the word “spirit” is, in fact, nebulous. It isn’t clear to what it refers.

But if you have an adjective in front of it, suddenly the word “spir­it” becomes more distinct.

For example, there’s a wide difference between Christmas spirit, community spirit, teen spirit and team spirit. And mob spirit is a certain malevolent twist on matters.

In other words, you can’t un­derstand the intent and meaning of the word “spirit” without the benefit of an adjective before it.

A spirit set apart

So the word “Holy” matters.

When we talk about the Spirit in the context of our Christian faith, we are not then thinking primarily about Christmas/community/teen/team/mob spirit.

We are referring to the Holy Spirit.

The Hebrew word for “holy” is kodesh, and the Greek is hagios. You may have heard, for example, of a “hagiography,” or a biography written about a saint.

Holy means, quite literally, to “set apart.”

Those who follow God are holy people, “set apart” because of their faithfulness to God.

When we consider the Holy Spirit, we get a good idea of what God understands by “Holy” when we set the texts from two biblical chapters beside one another: Gala­tians 5 (“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”) and Ephesians 4 (“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin”).

It might seem a bit strange to pull in Ephesians 4, but bear with me. Galatians 5 paints a picture of how “it,” and how we, should be: loving and joyful; peaceful, patient and kind; generous, faithful, gen­tle; and not unbridled, unhinged or unbearably obnoxious.

That sounds really good. Lilt­ing even. And I’m all for it. But left there, the potential implications of this text make me cringe, at least for women, and certainly if I’m writing a column about the Holy Spirit for a publication intended largely for women.

Two reasons: First, that de­scribes a historical and yet persistent cultural norm for women; one that has encouraged women to be passively pleasant. Noble as each of these elements of holiness (as perhaps we could call them) are, col­lectively they describe how women have been taught to be, often to their personal and professional detriment.

Consider for a moment how these words may strike you dif­ferently if you picture them being addressed to a man, and then to a woman—perhaps even men and women whom you can imagine with faces you know!

Expressions of love

I thought of this contrast when asked to write an article this month about the Holy Spirit’s call to us to love even someone whom we don’t like. I love that theme. It’s resonant, not least of all, with a needed call to our society. But my first, most last­ing response urged me to nuance the notion.

These fruits of the Holy Spirit, as described in Galatians 5, are right and good and an ideal for which we should all strive.

But it is precisely texts like these which, left there, also leave women in abusive relationships, in conflicted and compromised situations, in a state of passively accepting as the norm that which shouldn’t even be the exception.

So another word to pick apart, in addition to “holy,” is “love.” In Greek, there are three primary no­tions of love: eros, philia and agape.

Eros is fairly clear: it is intense and passionate love for another. The sexual element might make some grin and nod and blush, but it isn’t just that: a biologist can have an erotic love for the amoeba under her microscope, say, and an English pro­fessor can have an erotic love for a character she’s studying. Erotic love is a curious, deep love for something that you crave to know more—and yes, even in the biblical sense.

Philia-love is affectionate, familiar love; think Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love.” It’s the fond love that we have for siblings and close friends.

And then there’s agape. That one always makes me grin a bit, for when I taught at a college, the word showed up on a quiz I gave. Two students (who were called to many things, but the study of religion might not have been one of them) wrote, “mouth wide open.”

But no, agape is not expressed facial amazement.

It is, however, amazing, for it is the expression of love born out of re­spect that someone is worthy of love, for that someone is a child of God.

That someone, by the way, can even be you.

And so when we read that text about the fruits of the Spirit, we can see it as a call to the way that we are to be toward others, but we should also read it as a way that others are to be toward us, and how we are to be toward ourselves.

The Bracketed Response

If you hold that thought for a moment, let’s turn back to that text from Ephesians 4, namely the one that asks us to speak truth, and the one that gives us freedom to be angry but not to sin.

I have to tell you, fully aware of my blatant bias, that I have amaz­ing kids. Karl and Else gift me with gladness and delight every single day. On a rare occasion, though, it is possible that they have messed up. When that occurs, they know The Bracketed Response they’ll get from me: I love you; what were you thinking?!?!?; I love you.

They know that my anger is expressed precisely because I love them, because I respect them, and because I know therefore that they are called to be, and capable of being, better than whatever their infraction demonstrated.

They also know, however, that they love me, and that I love me. Given that, we have a mu­tuality and a reciprocity of love and respect. Certain actions and behaviors are simply not okay when there is love supposedly present. In our little family of three, philia and agape are in play, and yet the same is true in a lover-relationship when erotic love is part of the dynamic.

Offense and hurt and harm are not welcome in any of these relationships, and when they are manifest anyway, there is reason for righteous anger.

Just ask Ephesians 4.

We can and should speak truth when the fruits of the Spirit are endangered, and when the people of the Spirit are endangered.

There is permission for Holy Anger. In fact, we have a mentor in Jesus for it. I would not want to pay to repair those tables in front of the temple, for example.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we engage in the destruction of property.

But I am wanting to say that there is room, not to mention permission and example, in our faith tradition, and in our faith, for anger as an expression of love—love for the other, love for the risked relationship and love for one’s self.

Not only are these notions key for thinking about our most inti­mate familial and personal relation­ships (including our relationship with ourselves), but they are also es­sential as we engage in the political and social upheaval of these days.

There is reason for anger, born out of agape love for the Least of These who are being threatened, and out of agape love for those causing the harm.

Anger that is flippant or simply mean is not welcome.

But anger that, as Martin Lu­ther said, “calls a thing what it is,” is, I would argue, holy.

And it is of the Holy Spirit.

For the Holy Spirit, I do be­lieve, calls us to love, which is no simple thing, no fickle thing, no saccharine thing.

It is a hard thing.

But interestingly, it helps if we recall that she does not call us to like everyone. Instead, she calls us to love everyone.

I’m fairly sure that God does not like everyone: I like to think that this might be why “patience” is listed in the Galatians text!

But I’m convinced that God loves everyone deeply. And because God loves us all deeply, God’s Word can sometimes be heard through The Bracketed Response: I love you; what were you thinking?!?!?; I love you.

And because we are holy people of God, set-apart but in the world nonetheless, we are ambassadors of this same Bracketed Response to our loved ones, to our culture and society and politicians, and even to ourselves: I love you; what were you thinking?!?!?; I love you.

When we do that, we call our­selves back to the best intentions and understandings of the Holy Spirit fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are not bland fruits, nor are they artificially sweetened fake fruits.

No, they are hearty, sustaining, healthy fruits of holiness.

Offer them, take a bite yourself and savor the Holy Spirit of God.

The Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen is a freelance theologian and proud mama to daughter, Else, and son, Karl. She and her children recently moved to Two Harbors, Minnesota, to steward her work there with OMG: Center for Theological Conversation ( and to enjoy seeing the occasional moose and bear in their woods.

This article is excerpted from the November 2017 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.