Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. (Eph. 5:18-19)
“It was too intense. It almost drove me away. I called my mother, and she said I was being filled with the Holy Spirit. I was like, ‘Does that mean I can never have wine again?’” —Denzel Washington
I am writing to you because I am not the person I used to be. Something happened, in the core of who I am. I have experienced the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. The person I am is so different from the person I would otherwise be, I wouldn't know that person if I were to meet him.
You can't explain this by calling it “religion.” I am not a follower of social conventions or ritual, or easily persuaded by emotion. I am an analytic person; my Myers-Briggs indicator is INTP. I am different because a transforming power came into my life. I have a presence with me at all times. I have an overwhelming experience of this same presence at certain times. It is an experience of love and joy. It is him. It is not like any other feeling I have ever experienced. It is the most fulfilling experience in my life.
I was reading an article written about Denzel Washington, about this same experience he had over 30 years ago. I assume it's the same, because it's similar to my experiences, through the same faith in Jesus Christ. His life was forever changed. Mine was also, and those of uncounted millions across the last 2000 years.
Christianity is not simply an idea. It is the activity of God in the lives of his children. It is not a religion—or at least, it is not intended to be one. It is a series of priorities that start with trusting and obeying God, as he has revealed himself in the pages of scripture. That does imply a way of living, but it is not a list of rules. It is not so much what you do as who you become, and why. In trusting him, he offers something to you. It's more than a promise of life after death, it's his actual presence within us (John 20:22; Acts 2:38-39; John 14:16; Rom. 5:5; 8:9; Eph. 1:13-14). As Paul writes in 2 Cor. 3:17-18, the Spirit brings freedom to the core of who we are, not ritual. The Spirit of God within me is changing me into his own image.
The book of Acts is about the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the first Christians. The best way to describe the gift of the Spirit is power (Acts 1:8). Our experience of him in our lives, at the point we trust God and receive him, should also be power. I do not think the experiences we read about in the first few chapters of Acts are intended to suggest that ours will be identical. This is a kickoff event. But I do believe that the Holy Spirit is so powerful, in all times and for all who believe, that you cannot help but know he is there. Through the Spirit, God can do miraculous works in our lives, if he chooses. I believe he does so choose. We could not have the results of his work within us (Gal. 5:22-23) and not also have a tangible, powerful, and emotional connection to him.
Paul writes in Eph. 5:18-19 that we should not get drunk on wine, but instead be filled with the Spirit. I've heard this explained as two types of “control,” that Paul is saying we should not be controlled by wine but instead be controlled by the Holy Spirit. That isn't the point here (though it is true). We don't normally pursue drunkenness and debauchery for a loss of control, and neither would the readers. We become drunk for the experience of being drunk. That experience can lead to debauchery (corrupt and sexual behavior). If you've been drunk before in the wrong environment, you know things could go that way. Paul is saying the experience we should pursue is of being filled with the Spirit, which leads to worship, song, and praise to God. Paul is not talking about control, he is talking about an experience. If you've had a tangible experience of the Spirit, being overwhelmed by his presence, you know what he means.
Christianity is not an experience to add to your list. That's not how this works. The Spirit is a gift to all who believe. But we need to stop thinking about our faith as a religion and start thinking about it as a powerful, tangible connection to the Lord our God. To experience his filling, you need to submit to him and long for his purposes. You need to stop giving in to bodily habits that undermine his work in your life (Rom. 8:12-16). If you want more of the Spirit, you must offer more of yourself. That is how you become filled. I can assure you, there is no better trade-off.