One of the things I love about studying the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is that it helps me learn how to discern where the Spirit is at work in the world around me. And from my study I have come to conclude that the Spirit is at work in my brain while I’m sleeping. Why?
Present Everywhere, Sustaining Life
As a divine person, there is nowhere we can flee from the presence of the Spirit (Psalm 139:7). Therefore, by the Spirit, God “fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:23) and is “over all, and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). On account of this, Hendrikus Berkhof correctly recognizes that “insofar as the Spirit is the name of God in action, nothing short of the whole creation can be the field of his operation.” This would necessarily include the human brain.
The Spirit is present everywhere sustaining life. Expressing this, Christians have sometimes referred to the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as Sustainer. Likewise, the Nicene Creed, which is regularly affirmed in liturgical churches, affirms that the Spirit is the “Lord, the giver of life.” This, I think, includes within our brains, while we sleep.
The Spirit in the Brain: The Spirit is present everywhere sustaining life.
In a TED talk called “One More Reason to Get a Good Night’s Sleep,” Jeff Iliff, a neuroscientist, explains that while we sleep our brains flush out waste or toxins. More precisely, while we sleep, our brain cells shrink to allow cerebrospinal fluid to flood our brain and remove the protein waste from between the cells in our brains. When we don’t get enough sleep, some of this waste remains in our brains, causing us to feel grumpy or to have a clouded mind.
One might think that what happens in our brains is a “natural” process. But it is not natural, if one means apart from God. Nothing about the human being is “natural” in the sense that we are created and sustained, from start to finish, by God. As Job declared, “the Spirit of God has made me,” and “the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4).
A False Dichotomy
When it comes to issues of science and biology, sometimes people make a false dichotomy by thinking that either God is at work, or “natural processes” are at work in our bodies. It doesn’t, however, have to be an either-or option—both can be true. Similarly, Christians affirm that God is at work knitting each child together in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), even though we learn in health class the natural processes of child development from the point of fertilization, to the development of an embryo, through to a fully formed fetus. Likewise, the Spirit works in and through the natural processes of our brain to renew our brain functions.