Hearing the Holy Spirit
Recently my seven year old son asked me, “Daddy, how do you know if the Holy Spirit is telling you something or if it’s just you?”
A week before that a man struck up a conversation with me in a Starbucks and after finding out I was a pastor basically asked me the same question. Although he was an avowed atheist and was trying to make me feel silly for every saying God was “speaking to me,” but the same question nonetheless.
This is an important question for discipleship. In Galatians 5:18 Paul says, “If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.” Even Jesus said the Holy Spirit was going to be a great gift for his disciples.
So what does it mean for the Holy Spirit to speak to you and how is it any different from just having a thought or a “gut” instinct?
I don’t think it’s much different at all. There are times when the Holy Spirit speaks to people that are overwhelming and beyond description. However, much of the time it’s just like having a thought or “gut” instinct–with a couple caveats.
Thoughts and instincts are submitted to the way of Jesus.
When we wonder if we’re hearing from God or if it’s just our wild imagination, the first thing to do is consider if our current thought fits with the way of Jesus. The answer to that could be yes (“I think I should reach out to that homeless person sitting on the corner”), no (“I want to punch that idiot!”), or who knows (“I really feel like I should turn to Lamentations for my Bible reading this morning”).
The more you know the way of Jesus the more the Holy Spirit can use that to direct you. We need to submit our thoughts and instincts to what we know about the way of Jesus through the Scriptures and the Christian community. The Holy Spirit is God so he will not give us thoughts or instincts that contradict the way of Jesus as it has been revealed to us.
We cultivate an ability to hear the Holy Spirit.
Many people complain about never hearing from God, but those same people won’t put down their phones for more than two minutes to try to listen. Hearing the voice of God, and knowing it’s him, takes a great deal of discipline and listening. I have searched for a good way to explain this and don’t have one yet–but when you spend time consistently listening for the Holy Spirit (in submission to the way of Jesus) over time you just gain a sense of when he’s talking and when it’s just you. This is something that must be cultivated over time.
Trust your instincts.
Last week I had the chance to go for a few hours of quiet time in a local park (not something I do nearly enough!). As I sat and tried to focus on God and what he might want to say, I felt like I should turn to Psalms. The easiest things would have been to dismiss it as a fleeting thought passing through my brain. But I turned there, to an unfamiliar Psalm (55), and God spoke powerfully into my life through it. Then I felt like I should turn to Proverbs (probably just me thinking of the next book after Psalms…). I did and again God spoke to me powerfully through it. This happened two more times with two other books. In the midst of reading I even had a sense of when I should keep reading and when I should move on. I just went with it.
Could it all have been my mind–I suppose. But I think in the context of trying to draw near to God the Holy Spirit led me. When we’re doing things that fit with God’s will and trying to listen at the same time we need to trust those thoughts and instincts because there’s a good chance that as we draw near to God he’s drawing near to us (James 4:8).