The Holy Spirit is pictured in the Bible as descending like a dove, in the accounts of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).
But there is nowhere in the Bible where human believers are pictured as flying like doves. Well, there is Psalm 55:6, but this is an unfulfilled wish rather than a God-given picture. Humans are likened to doves in a few other places in the Old Testament, especially in the Song of Songs, and in Matthew 10:16, but the point of comparison is never flight – except possibly in Hosea 11:11. That is to say, it is nowhere suggested in the Bible that humans will or should fly like doves.
But what we do find several times in the Bible is a promise that believers will fly or soar like eagles. See for example Exodus 19:4 (the Exodus compared with the flight of an eagle); Deuteronomy 32:11 (Israel as a young eagle being taught to fly); Isaiah 40:31 (“those who hope in the LORD … will soar on wings like eagles”); and Revelation 12:13 (the woman, symbolising Israel or the church, is given the wings of an eagle).
There are of course other comparisons with eagles in the Bible. They are not all good ones: for example, the enemies of Israel are as swift as eagles and swoop down like eagles. But the comparisons relating to flight are all good ones, it seems.
So, what is the difference here? Why do believers fly like eagles, and not like doves, whereas the Holy Spirit flies like a dove?
There is in fact surprisingly obvious answer when you compare how eagles and doves fly. I regularly see doves fly off from their perches, and they do this by flapping their wings very hard until they get well off the ground. Even to continue their flight they flap their wings continuously. By contrast, although I don’t see this so often, eagles fly almost without flapping their wings. They simply stretch them out and catch the wind under them. Without a wind they can barely fly. In fact, I understand, albatrosses, which fly in a similar way to eagles, cannot take off or land when there is no wind – as I discovered to my disadvantage when I visited the albatross sanctuary at Dunedin, New Zealand on a calm day, which meant that there were no albatrosses to be seen.
So, the Holy Spirit flies like a dove because he moves by his own effort, in his own strength which is part of his divine nature. But how human believers are to act is compared with the flight of an eagle because it should not be by their own effort or in their own strength, but should be effortless motion, with wings spread to catch every wind of the Holy Spirit. As we catch this wind and as we learn to let it carry us away, not always where we want to go but where the Spirit leads us, we will be able to soar like eagles high in the sky, and to swoop down low to do God’s work in the world.
Too many of us, in our Christian work, try to fly like doves, in our own strength, and wonder why our efforts never get off the ground. Instead we should learn to soar like eagles on the wind of the Holy Spirit.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
(Isaiah 40:30-31, TNIV)