The Holy Spirit passes on Jesus’ words as clearly as Jesus passed on the Father’s. We should be able to hear Jesus’ voice as clearly today as his disciples did two thousand years ago and— since we see things in light of the resurrection— understand his message better. Of course, Christians have often abused the promise of hearing God’s voice, hearing instead only what they wanted or expected to hear. What objective guidelines can help us learn sensitivity to the Spirit and enable us to hear God’s direction accurately?
First of all, the Spirit does not come to testify about himself; He comes to testify about Jesus (John 15:26; 16:14). He brings to our remembrance and explains what Jesus has already said (14:2 6). What the Spirit teaches us is therefore consistent with the character of the biblical Jesus, the Jesus who came in the flesh (1 John 4:2). The more we know about Jesus from the Bible, the more prepared we are to recognize the voice of his Spirit when he speaks to us. Knowing God well enough to recognize what he would say on a given topic can often inform us what God is saying, because God is always true to his character. But be warned: those who take Scripture out of context thereby render themselves susceptible to hearing God’s voice quite wrongly.
Second, the Spirit does not come merely to show us details such as where to find someone’s lost property, although the Spirit is surely capable of doing such things and sometimes does them (1 Sam. 9:6-20). Nor does the Spirit come just to teach us which sweater to put on (especially when it is obvious which one matches) or which dessert to take in the cafeteria line. The Spirit does, however, guide us in evangelism or in encouraging one another (for example, Acts 8:29; 10:19; 11:12.) The Spirit also comes to reveal God’s heart to us, and God’s heart is defined in this context as love (John 13:34-35; 15:9-14, 17). To walk in Christian love is to know God’s heart (1 John 4:7-8; see also Jer. 22:16).
Third, it helps if we have fellowship with others who also are seeking to obey God’s Spirit. In the Old Testament, older prophets mentored younger prophets (1 Sam. 19:20; 2 Kings 2:3-8). And among first-generation prophets in the early church, Paul instructed the prophets to evaluate each others’ prophecies, to keep themselves and the church on target (1 Cor. 14:29). Spiritual mentors or peers who are mature in their relationship with God and whose present walk with God we can trust can seek God with us and provide us a “safety net” of sorts.
If we feel that the Spirit is leading us to do something, but recognize that much is at stake if we are wrong, we may do well to talk the matter over with other mature Christians. Proverbs advised rulers that wisdom rests in a multitude of counselors, and that advice remains valid for us as well. In the end, we may not always settle on the counsel others have given us— like us, they too are fallible— but if they are diligent students of the Scriptures and persons of prayer, we should humbly consider their counsel. God sometimes shows us things for the church that others may not yet see; at the same time, God may well have shown some of our brothers and sisters things we have not yet seen. I have a few spiritual mentors and peers whose counsel I especially treasure and whose wisdom time has consistently (though not always) vindicated.
Many of us as young Christians were intrigued by the frequent experience of supernatural guidance from the Holy Spirit. While most of us who have learned to hear the Spirit in that way still experience such guidance regularly today, after a number of years, sensitivity to the Spirit’s guidance in that form becomes almost second nature and thus becomes less of a focus than it once was. Nor is this guidance, exciting as it may be to one discovering it for the first time, always the most important form of guidance God’s Spirit gives us.
By this method of hearing the Spirit, we might help someone in need, because the Spirit specifically directed us to do so. But many of us have also learned to hear God’s Spirit exegetically, as the Spirit has spoken in the Scriptures. By hearing the Spirit’s voice in Scripture, we might help that same person in need simply because Scripture commands us to do so. But perhaps the deepest sensitivity to the Spirit comes when we learn to bear the Spirit’s fruit in our lives when our hearts become so full of God’s heart that we help that person in need because God’s love within us leaves us no alter native. All three forms of guidance derive from the Spirit and from Scripture. Yet where needs clearly exist, God’s character that we have discovered by means of Scripture and the Spirit is sufficient to guide us even when we have no other specific leading of the Spirit or scriptural mandate, provided neither the Spirit nor the Bible argues against it. It is when the Spirit has written the Bible’s teaching in our heart that we become most truly people of the Spirit.
(Adapted from Three Crucial Questions About the Holy Spirit, published by Baker Books.)