By R.T. Kendall
I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God. (John 1:32–34)
John the Baptist’s reference to the dove has become a symbol of the Holy Spirit. We see the dove imprinted in stained glass windows in church buildings and we see pictures and paintings of doves in Christian literature and art.
The dove is a very shy bird—a wild bird. You cannot get close to a dove without it flying away. The dove is gentle, loving, and peaceful. It barely makes a sound—only a soft and sweet “coo, coo.” You probably won’t find a dove where there are lots of people or lots of traffic. You will more likely see a dove in a park where there are trees or outside of town.
A pigeon or a dove?
Pigeons and doves are in the same family. Anatomically they are the same—their bones and organs are identical. But temperamentally they are not the same. You cannot train a dove; you can train a pigeon. Doves are gentle; pigeons are boisterous. Doves are loving; pigeons get angry. You will not likely reach down and pick up a dove; but I have a photograph of our son T. R. with four pigeons on each arm and two on his head!
I have observed that many people cannot tell the difference between a pigeon and a dove, just as some do some recognize the authentic Holy Spirit in church. “We had a fantastic service—the Holy Ghost came down in power,” one says. But when you find out more about what happened, you realize it was probably pigeon religion. The pigeon is the counterfeit Holy Spirit. I think that some believe the spiritual gift of discerning the spirits or “distinguish[ing] between spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10) refers mainly to the demonic. But it also means discerning the genuine presence of the Holy Spirit of God.
When the dove flies away
Please reread the Scripture quoted earlier—John 1:32-34. The word “dove” always leaps out. Did you also notice the word “remain”? It is there twice! The Holy Spirit came down on Jesus and “remained” on him. I have to admit that when the Spirit descends on me—and thank God this has happened—he doesn’t remain.
When the Spirit is present, the feeling is wonderful. Indescribable. God is so real. Everything seems in place. You realize that God is in control. You may say to yourself, “After this moment, I will never doubt God again.” But hours later the atmosphere is different. Life goes on. The peace and joy diminish. What happened? Here is what almost certainly happened: the dove flew away. He does not remain. Why did the dove leave? He may need no reason. Isaiah discovered it, and you will also discover it: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself ” (Isa. 45:15). This is one of God’s “ways.” Or perhaps we have grieved him.
Maintaining the abiding presence of the ungrieved Spirit
Maintaining the abiding presence of the ungrieved Spirit is the greatest challenge I have ever experienced in my lifetime. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair. You are doing your best, when suddenly something unpleasant happens. Someone you are with is unreasonable, and you struggle to stay calm and pleasant. You look forward to a picnic, and it rains. You can’t wait for Christmas, but someone doesn’t like the present you gave—or is sick and can’t celebrate with you. You wait in line at the airport for an important engagement and the plane is late—or the flight is canceled.
Paul said not to be “anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6, emphasis mine), but this can seem impossible to do at times. It can seem unfair and unreasonable to try not to be anxious or get angry. But after many years of practicing the presence of God like this, I remind myself that I am so privileged to know the Lord in the first place! I don’t need to understand everything. Like Moses before the burning bush (Ex. 3:5–6 ), there are some things God does not want us to figure out. I have never yet regretted trying too hard to not grieve the Spirit. But I have too often regretted not trying and instead giving in to my natural feelings. Does God not understand? Of course he does.
Abiding in the presence of the ungrieved Spirit pleases God
The Greek word for “abide” and “remain” are the same, deriving from the root word meno. For instance, the Holy Spirit chose to “remain” on Jesus. I think the Spirit came down on him and stayed put, saying, “I like it here; I am at home.” Jesus never—ever— grieved the Holy Spirit. He later told his disciples to “abide”—remain— in him (John 15:7). In this case, we must make the choice to abide. Yes, it is a challenge! It is an act of the will.
What is it like when the Holy Spirit is in us ungrieved?
When the Holy Spirit is ungrieved in me—which is something I want all the time—I usually feel nothing at all. When I pray, read my Bible, sing, and wait before God, I usually feel nothing. But times come—so sweet and impossible to describe—when, for example, a joyful feeling or a thought regarding a verse in the Bible unexpectedly emerges. I then put everything aside, quickly turn to my computer, and start writing! This is how I write sermons—and books.
I had the privilege of knowing Oral Roberts before he died. He once said to me, “Do nothing until you feel the anointing.” I knew what he meant. By the way, Oral prayed for my wife. When he put his hand on her head, she could hardly stand—I had to hold her. The anointing of the Spirit is truly special and powerful.
Why is this subject important? Abiding in the presence of the ungrieved Spirit pleases God. And he pleases those who do this. It is the best way to live.
Adapted from Pleasing God: The Greatest Joy and Highest Honor (Thomas Nelson, 2023)
Pleasing God is a practical resource for Christian living that inspires believers to seek the greatest honor of anyone’s lifetime–to have the privilege of pleasing God.
Christ’s total forgiveness means that we do not have to earn our salvation. When we give our lives to Jesus, we are justified by faith alone. Good works are not required. Prayer is not required. Practicing total forgiveness is not required. Wow–what a gift! But chances are, if you have been born again you want to do good works. You want to pray. You want to forgive and love your enemies. You desire to please God.
In Pleasing God, bestselling author and well-known preacher, R.T. Kendall, unfolds the meaning of persistent faith. Starting with the story of Enoch, Dr. Kendall explores biblical teachings that call believers to “find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).
R. T. Kendall was the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, England, for twenty-five years. He was educated at Trevecca Nazarene University (AB), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv) and Oxford University (DPhil) and has written a number of books, including Total Forgiveness, Holy Fire, and We’ve Never Been This Way Before.