This is the last blog in a series of four that seeks to discover what the Bible really says about the will of God. If you want to read the previous 3 posts click here.
God’s Will or Spicy Mexican Food?
Human beings have the innate desire to unlock the mysteries of the unknown. It’s why we send men and machines into space and into the deep dark recesses of our planet, both on land and in the water. It’s why we dig for fossils and examine rocks. It’s why we have string theories, and theories about black holes. We do these things because we want to define the undefinable, explain the unexplainable, fathom the unfathomable. This is why the idea of God has been so problematic for so many people for so many years. God is not completely definable, not completely explainable, and not completely fathomable – he is God after all – and thus a lot of people dismiss the thought of God as part of a backward way of understanding the world that our scientific advances can now safely discard; or others have decided that talk of God is part of the superstitious nature of our human psyche that we should just accept, but not allow to rule our lives. Even as Christians we have this same desire to qualify things about God, to define him, to fathom his depths and such. In doing so there is always the danger that we leave the realm of what God has revealed about himself with the desire to probe the “secret things” of God (Deut 29:29) – the things that God has chosen not to reveal about himself, or about ourselves. The future is particularly troublesome for us in this regard. We want to know what the future holds, what will happen if I do this or that. We like the freedom of making decisions, but we are often haunted by this same freedom because it could lead us into trouble if we don’t use it properly. So in an effort to eliminate our fears we ‘seek God’s will’ in certain situations and we pray about these same things all the while looking for something that will confirm for us which path we should take. For most of us this involves our emotions or feelings; particularly feelings of peace, ease or rest in our heart and mind. [Note: We have already dealt with the issue of listening prayer in our last blog, so we will not touch on it again] We pray for something and wait for the accompanying peace of God to rest on one of the particular choices that are before us as confirmation of God’s blessing on that direction. As the Eagles have sung, we await that “peaceful easy feeling,” hoping that when we get it God “won’t let me down,” because we have received confirmation of his ‘will’ in this particular situation.
But how do we know if that feeling, of either ease or angst, is from God? How do I know that what I am feeling in my gut is from God, or a result of the double jalapeno burrito I ate the night before? Or more fundamentally, does the Bible tell me that I should expect this kind of confirmation of a decision? Do the Scriptures tell me that the Holy Spirit will work in my heart in this way? Or even more basic, how does the Scripture tell me that he will guide me and lead me as his child? It is the answers to these questions that I will seek to get after here. I will be dealing first with what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit’s leading in the life of a believer, and then will draw some conclusions from these truths that will hopefully deepen our Christian faith. Once again, I remind you, don’t just take my word for what is said here. Be a Berean. Search the Scriptures yourself.
The Scriptures give us many examples of various people who have received direct guidance from the Holy Spirit – he led Jesus into the wilderness (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:1; Mark 1:12); he gave direct words of guidance to people, Philip for example was told to “Go up and join this chariot” (Acts 8:29) and Peter was told to go with 3 men who came to him (Acts 10:19-20; 11:12). We are even told of people who were transported by the Spirit to a different locale (1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16; Acts 8:39-40). Pretty sensational stuff. We must be careful, however, not to think that these experiences of biblical characters are normative for me – that I can expect these things to happen in my life. Simple rules of biblical interpretation will not allow me to move in this direction. These things may happen, but they are the miraculous exception not the rule, even within the pages of Scripture.
The clearest witness of Scripture regarding the leading of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is found in Romans 8. This passage is concerned with the day-to-day guidance by the Holy Spirit or being “led” by the Spirit or “walking” according to the Spirit (Rom 8:4, 14; cf. Eph 5:16, 18). In this passage, Paul is contrasting being led by the Spirit with following the desires of the flesh or the sinful nature. This contrast points to the moment by moment response of our lives to the presence of the Spirit as opposed to the sinfulness of our “flesh” which is always right beside us (Rom 7:21). Now surely what is a large part of being led by the Spirit is a commitment to follow God’s word – his moral law and commands as revealed in Scripture. But I think there is more to these verses than just these things. Since we are emotional as well as intellectual and volitional beings, surely there must be a ‘feeling’ aspect to the guidance of the Spirit; a sense at a inner level that goes beyond, but not contrary to, our intellect. Now it is important for us to see the connections in all of this – the Spirit works in our intellect, our mind, as well as in our emotions, our ‘feeling,’ but not in such a way that we may abandon either one. Two very important caveats to lay down here. First, It seems that the Scriptures do speak about the mind and knowing as more sure, solid and trustworthy than our emotions and feelings. So if we had to choose between what our intellect says, what we can glean from God’s word, and what our ‘heart’ tells us we must always go with the mind. Second, and this is equally important, Scripture NEVER gives us a quantifiable way in which we can know that the Spirit is leading us except that of the moral will of God as revealed in Scripture. This means that we cannot say, “I feel peace (or ease, or joy, or butterflies in the stomach) so I know that the Spirit is leading me thus.” A brief study of peace in Scripture, for example, shows us that peace comes from God (Job 22:21; Isa 26:3), specifically Jesus Christ, and we can only have it when we have accepted the gospel and its implications for our lives. The Spirit brings us peace (as a church or as individuals), because he applies the work of Christ to us. Peace is not a feeling, it is a state of affairs that God has put us in through Jesus Christ which is applied to us by the Holy Spirit. (Look up “peace” in any good Bible dictionary) Remember peace is a fruit of the Spirit the way love, joy, self-control, and patience are. But I regress a bit.
So let’s seek to answer our previously stated question: is there a tangible, subjective, feelable way in which we can expect the Holy Spirit to direct us? The clear biblical answer seems to be, ‘not really’ (how’s that for clear!). While God does guide us, the way the Bible reveals that he does so is different than what we may like or the way our Christian culture has taught us. This may dismay us, but it should actually do the opposite – give us confidence and grow our faith. Let me explain what I mean. The Spirit is living, active and moving in our lives as believers and in the world at large, but how he is doing so is most often part of the secret things to which we have no access, and why he is doing so we have explored earlier – the pursuit of his own glory. Because the Spirit is moving we are to act with discernment when trying to decide what is from God and what is not. True discernment is not based on the subjective, based upon feelings, but has an objective anchor. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 that we need to test prophecies (messages from God to a person), but to do so in such a way that does not quench the Spirit. And John makes us aware that there are many different ‘spirits’ around and that those who deny the incarnation of Christ are actually the antichrist at work (1 John 4:1-3). These Scriptures give us three criteria for how we are to discern the Spirit’s working (See Cole, He Who Gives Life, 274-276). First, there is the Scripture test, meaning that we have to evaluate whatever we feel to be the Spirit’s ‘leading’ against the infallible rule of God’s word. The Spirit witnesses to and through the word and will not witness against it. Remember the Spirit will never contradict himself or the witness of any other member of the Trinity. This leads us to the second test, which is the Christological test. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (John 14-16) and will not lead in any direction that will defame or hinder the name of Christ and the work that he came to do as seen in the gospel. In short, this means that anything that detracts from the glory of Christ in the gospel does NOT come from the spirit. Last, there is the moral test. The Spiritual life is a sanctified life; a life of Spiritual character and morality. Any activity that is a violation of God’s character as the norm for Christian living does NOT come from the Spirit.
Now let’s get even more practical. I have to make an important, potentially life-changing decision; how can I know that the Holy Spirit is leading me in one direction or another? First, the whole idea of “leading” needs to be rethought as discussed above and in previous blogs. The leading of the Holy Spirit has primarily to do with what God has revealed about his character and commands within the pages of Scripture. Remember John 14:25ff; the Holy Spirit witnesses to Christ and to his words. Therefore I must scour the Scriptures and pray intensely for God’s desire in any given situation. Remember the wisdom of the Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (9:10; 1:7; 15:33) Second, we must seek the wisdom of others when we are not sure. The book of Proverbs is filled with encouragements of this nature. Last, and this should be fairly obvious by now, we need to eliminate our desire for a subjective feeling or peace to come over me that confirms one direction over another. This kind of thing is simply not promised to me in Scripture. Peace comes to me as I know, not feel, that I am God’s child and that he has saved me and that I am his. Recall the words of 2 Peter 1:2, “Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” Remember again John 14:25ff: after Jesus says that the Spirit will witness to him and to his words he promises that peace will be the result. Notice what Jesus is saying here – peace comes from knowing the words of God as illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Peace is more objective (knowing a divine state of affairs as true) than it is a subjective feeling. There are three potential problems in thinking that some sort of ‘peace’ or ‘calmness’ confirms the leading of the Holy Spirit. First, as we have already said, this kind of thing is not promised us in Scripture. Second, that peaceful easy feeling may never come, and if it never does, it does NOT mean that you are acting outside of the Spirit’s leading. Go to Scripture. Pray. Seek the wisdom of others. These are far better ways to determine the Spirit’s leading than waiting for a feeling. Last, that peaceful easy feeling may come, but that does not mean the Spirit is leading – it may simply mean I should not order double jalapeno’s on my burrito next time.
Soli Deo Gloria