Envision, for a moment, the least intelligent animal you can think of.
Alright, show of hands. How many of you were picturing a dog?
My mother-in-law has a dog named Bandit. He’s not the brightest dog in the world—in terms of IQ, he ranks somewhere between a bag of a rocks and a popsicle stick. We affectionately call him Fathead, and unaffectionately call him a lot of other things. He’s the kind of dog that could spend all day barking at a particularly aggressive-looking blade of grass; the kind of dog that falls for the fake throw every. Single. Time. He’s no Einstein, but that’s okay because we never expected him to be. He’s a dog and we love him anyway, fat head and all.
Now imagine how you’d feel if one day you walked into a classroom—let’s say it’s a course on thermonuclear physics, because why not—and as you take a seat among rows and rows of students, you notice that the desk to your left is occupied by a golden retriever. Would your head not just explode? You’d have to assume it was a joke. But no, there he is, waiting patiently for class to begin while he leafs through his thermonuclear physics textbook.
A tale of two spirits
There’s a clear difference between mankind and the animal kingdom in terms of the capacity for understanding. The book of Ecclesiastes differentiates between “the spirit of the sons of men” and “the spirit of the animal” (Ecclesiastes 3:21). It is this “spirit of man” that sets us apart from every other living creature—not an immortal soul, but an element of our being that allows us to function on a different level than the rest of God’s creation. Unlike animals, humans have the capacity to dream, to aspire, to plan, to form opinions, and to communicate feelings, thoughts, and ideas—actions impossible for animals to even comprehend, much less perform.
But what if they could? What if, somehow, a turtle or a moose or a falcon could acquire the same spirit we have? What if they could dream and hope and speak and act—what if they had the capacity to become just like us? What kind of conversations would you have with a dog that could function on a human level? I know Bandit and I would have a good long talk about why we don’t pound on front doors at two in the morning. Imagine being able to explain to a dog not only that it shouldn’t do its business on the carpet, but why it shouldn’t do its business on the carpet. It’s a silly example, but think about it: the only thing a dog can really understand is that if it makes a mess inside the house, it’s going to get in trouble. Beyond a rough conception of cause and effect, it doesn’t have the capacity to fathom why that’s a bad thing.
There’s nothing in the Bible about God planning to give any animal that kind of spirit. The pages of His recorded word say nothing about any plans to improve the mental capability of the animal kingdom. But what those pages do contain is an even more impossible-sounding plan for you and me.
A third Spirit
There’s another Spirit that, up until now, I haven’t talked about. That’s the Spirit of God. Like the spirit in animals and the spirit in man, the Spirit of God denotes a certain level of capability. Animals are limited in their capabilities; mankind is capable of achieving a great deal more; God is limitless. His Spirit is one of infinite power and wisdom with no ends and no beginnings.
That Spirit is the same Spirit God used to create the cosmos—the same Spirit that parted the Red Sea for the Israelites, the Spirit that held the sun in the sky for Joshua, the Spirit that filled a room of believers like a mighty rushing wind. When we repent of our sins and are baptized, God gives us that Spirit.
Pause for a moment and reflect on that. The same Spirit with which God called the entire universe into existence is the same Spirit He gives to us after baptism. Just a moment ago, the idea of an animal having access to the spirit in man seemed so far-fetched and impossible. Is it so small a thing, then, for a human being to have access to the very Spirit of its Creator? For a human being to receive the Spirit of God is far more radical a change than an animal receiving the spirit in man—and yet the Spirit of God exactly what we have been given.
Putting it to use
Having that Spirit is one thing—making sure we put it to use is entirely another. If a dog found itself with the ability to learn, grow, think, and speak like a human being, but decided to spend the rest of its life barking and chasing tennis balls, would it have accomplished anything with that gift? Having an ability accomplishes nothing if we aren’t using that ability—and with that in mind, I’d like to spend the rest of this sermonette examining three ways we can be putting the gift of God’s Spirit to use.
1. Use it to deepen your communication with God
When’s the last time you had a real good conversation with a pet? Probably never, right? We can communicate basic concepts with animals—a dog can let me know when it needs to be let outside, and I can let a dog know that it can have a bite of my steak over my cold dead body—but you’re never going to have a give-and-take conversation with a pet about your thoughts and emotions. There’s a certain capacity you have for processing the world that your pet will never grasp.
Paul explains that “the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit [which] is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:10-12).
Through God’s Spirit, we are able to search out and understand the things of God—knowledge and wisdom that would normally be as far from our understanding as human thoughts are to a dog. With God’s Spirit dwelling in us, the things we are unable to grasp as human beings become within our reach. The more we tap into that Spirit, the easier we will find it to “converse” with God through prayer, study, and fasting.
2. Use it to see beyond the letter of the law
There’s often a distinction made between the letter and the spirit of the law. The letter of the law is God’s explicit command, while the spirit of the law is the reasoning behind that command. For instance, Paul explains in two separate epistles that God’s command to “not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4) is part of an overarching spiritual principle: workers should not be kept from the fruit of their labor (1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18). God never uses these exact words in the original command—the letter of the law—but the spiritual concept is there.
When you first started observing the Sabbath, did it ever seem like a burden to you? Did you ever see it as the day you couldn’t do things, or the day that got in the way of your plans? How do you see it now? Even if you never saw it as a burden, your perception of the day has likely changed over time. The Sabbath is a day of spiritual and physical rest—an opportunity to recharge our batteries and draw closer to our Father in prayer and study. Again, these aren’t words you’ll find in Exodus 20—they’re part of the spirit of the law that we discover through continued adherence to the letter.
Without God’s Spirit, we could conceivably follow the letter of the law flawlessly without ever understanding the bigger spiritual picture. Christ accused the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24). God’s way isn’t a checklist of dos and don’ts—it’s something so much bigger than that. The more we exercise God’s Spirit in obedience to the letter of the law, the better view we get of the beautiful spiritual framework holding it all together.
3. Use it to practice spiritual discernment
Contrary to what the majority of the world would have you believe, there are absolutes in this world. There are rights and there are wrongs. And contrary to what an even larger majority would have you believe, God sets forward those absolutes in His word—in the Bible.
The author of Hebrews wrote, “everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14). Not only has God given us the ability to use His word to discern between good and evil, He has given us the responsibility to do so.
Some absolutes are easy. Don’t murder? That’s not difficult. But don’t even hate your brother? Now we’re getting to the spirit of the law—the harder stuff. It’s one thing to not commit adultery; it’s another thing entirely to keep from lusting. It’s one thing not to steal; it’s harder not to covet.
God gives us His Spirit, access to the mind of Christ, so we can discern these things. So we can look at the standard of His word and say, “Is what I’m about to do right? Is what I’m thinking a Godly thought?” God wants us to be able to discern good and evil and then make sure our actions and thoughts are falling into the right category.
An incredible opportunity
You’ve probably noticed by now that the points have been a progression—none of them stand alone; instead, they build off of each other. The more effectively we communicate with God, the more we’ll grow to understand the spirit behind the law. The more we understand the spirit behind the law, the more accurate we’ll become in our spiritual discernment. Each point improves the foundation for the next, and all of them depend on our use of God’s Spirit.
It would be so mind-boggling to us if we met an animal that could become more like a human being—and yet every day, we human beings have the opportunity to become more like the very God who created us as we submit ourselves to His Spirit. No other creature on earth has ever or will ever be given this opportunity—but you and I have it. Right now, in this very moment, and every day for the rest of our lives, we can build the character and acquire the wisdom that make us so much more than we could ever be on our own.
Brethren, God has provided us with His Spirit. Let’s put it to use.