The question is a difficult one. The answer is bound to lie somewhere between two cultural extremes.
One the one side, we are watching the apostate church develop before our very eyes — entire denominations that deny such things as the virgin birth, the deity and resurrection of Jesus, and the imperative to holiness. In this camp, there is little or no mention of sin — let alone any mention of how our behavior might hinder the work of the Spirit. This view is called License, and it assigns no cost to all the extravagant benefits offered in scripture.
On the other end, we have ultra-strict, brow-beating churches that speak constantly of eternal hellfire and impose extra-biblical constraints on their flocks such as prohibitions against dancing, swimming, wearing makeup, drinking alcohol, etc. While often well-meaning, churches that place these self-styled restrictions on people create heavy burdens that must often be borne alone. Such dogma tends to present God as a scowling celestial judge rather than as a loving Father. The leaders of these churches often show such strong disapproval of personal shortcomings that many parishioners can’t bring themselves to reach out for help. This view is called Legalism, and a common element is the idea that we have to clean ourselves up before we can even approach God.
Many years ago, I tried out a church that was, in actuality, a cult, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Most of the sermons were occasions for berating the members for not working hard enough to win converts and serve the congregation. Prospective members were told they were headed for hell if it was deemed their behavior didn’t qualify as sufficiently holy and dedicated. And even if those things were in place, eternal damnation was only lifted once the new member had been officially baptized by the church, even if he had been baptized at another church. At the time, I didn’t have a strong enough knowledge of scripture to put my finger on the church’s doctrinal errors. However, I decided enough was enough when I was basically ordered to quit my job as a server so I could spend the weekends with the other members of the church.
Even when they are not fraught with crucial doctrinal deficits, legalistic churches can do a great deal of damage. But what of the original question: can the Holy Spirit work in our lives if we are consciously disobeying God? I believe the answer lies in the posture of our hearts. Are we pushing God away, making excuses for our sin? Or are we dealing honestly with him, approaching him with humility and respect?
I believe the Holy Spirit can work powerfully in a life drenched in sin. For one thing, our predicament would be permanent if the Holy Spirit waited for us to clean up before helping us. But he doesn’t. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Furthermore, we can’t even respond to this outpouring without God’s help. Jesus assures us: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (John 6:44). This is sounding a lot like the Holy Spirit steps in through our sin.
I went through a protracted bout of suicidal depression back in the 1990s. It lasted so long that I despaired of ever emerging again. It got to the point where I forgot what it was like to enjoy life experiences. My few remaining pleasures ― food, television and a few other things — had completely lost their flavor. I lived in a social and emotional vacuum and struggled to find energy for the most basic functions.
In the midst of all this, a close friend sat me down and implored me to pray to God. The only problem was that I had given up on God, too. I had blown off my Christian responsibilities and sought comfort in things I knew God disapproved of. In other words, I was sinning. How could I now ask him for help? It seemed like asking to borrow money from a person I had just stolen from.
My friend told me she had been praying a lot for me and had asked God to let me know that he loved me. She said God answered her, “I have. He’s not listening.” It was true. I was in a state of complete paralysis. The only reason I was talking about it at all was because my friend had asked me to.
“My fight is completely gone,” I told her.
“I think God can help you with that,” she answered.
I don’t know why, but I agreed to pray with her and knelt right there in her living room. The depression had even stolen my sadness, but all of a sudden I felt grief for the torpor I had fallen into. I told God I was sorry for abandoning him. Something outside me was empowering me to say and feel things I hadn’t experienced for many months. I began weeping aloud, and with tears rolling down my cheeks, I prayed with increasing fervor: “Lord, I want to live! Let me live again!”
What happened after my prayer was nothing short of spectacular. A few hours later, I noticed that my energy had increased tenfold. With no thought at all, I started tending to long-forgotten chores and thinking about the future with enthusiasm. I was completely at peace and slept soundly all that night.
Over the next few days, I knew something significant had happened to me. I was happy. The world had come to life in full color again. I looked around at people walking and bicycling in the sunshine, and they all seemed wild and fine. I visited my favorite coffee house, the Java Joint, and as I walked in, I was almost bowled over: the rich smells of Espresso and French Roast were sublime. I looked across the café and saw a young woman laughing with her head thrown back, and my heart leapt with joy.
For two entire weeks, I went through each day free from worries, anxiety, fear and anger. I had the constant sense that God was protecting me. Each night, I enjoyed unbroken, restful sleep. All this was a sharp reversal from my experience during the season of depression — and most of my life before and after, for that matter. It was a complete anomaly, and it started that afternoon when I wept and prayed for God to let me live again.
The clincher is that, during those two weeks, I didn’t change anything in my life. All my sinful habits remained. God tended to me without once mentioning any of the things he disapproved of.
Am I saying the Christian doesn’t have to worry about his choices and habits? No. I’m saying that holiness is produced in the Christian as a result of God’s work beforehand. The Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to mind getting his hands dirty. Our repentance doesn’t clear the way for God’s kindness; rather, his kindness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
So to my inquisitive friend: my answer is no! And I hope you and the Holy Spirit have a good visit.