How do I follow the Holy Spirit?
“But God told me to do it!” Thoughts about how and when God leads
We’ve all heard the news reports: someone carries out a horrific act, and then claims that God told them to do it.
Now we know that it wasn’t God, but somewhere along the way, God’s reputation, and the reputation of the Church, takes a hit.
People who don’t believe in God note that we, Jesus’ followers, are crazy and one-step away from making our own horrific news story.
Add to this situation our own real dilemma. How do we make decisions? How do we know when God is leading, as compared to when we are possibly projecting our desires on God?
There are any number of ways to present this information, so let’s start from this perspective: all human beings are faced with decisions, right? And people make them a variety of ways… seeking guidance from others, making lists of pros and cons, asking Siri or google, and even sometimes by ‘flipping a coin.’
And that’s decision-making without God. How about if we’re trying to follow Him, though? Just how do we navigate the big and small decisions of our lives? How do we hear His voice? How do we know His voice?
Turn to John 10:27 and let’s read: what is it that God’s sheep know?
Below I want to suggest six “steps” to hearing God’s voice and following the Holy Spirit. I don’t say steps because this is something you can easily master, rising in the ranks of Christianity. But I call them steps because… well, sometimes we can get ahead of ourselves in the Christian life. Step 1 is foundational to steps 2-6.
This is a rather self-paced blog. You might want to have your Bible handy. Take your time, consider it prayerfully, and write down your own thoughts...
Step 1: Have a relationship with God.
Some people say we can follow God by “Following all the rules of the Bible”. I wrote HERE about not getting things out of order. The point? You cannot hear or follow someone you don’t know and love.
The reality is that God is looking first and foremost for a relationship with us, and so He seeks to help us—not by demanding compliance to nonsensical rules, but rather by fashioning our lives in a way where they (our lives – body, mind and spirit) are oriented to God. We need to have a relationship with Him.
In John 3 Jesus teaches Nicodemus about “new birth by water and the Spirit”, and that’s something we need, too. What does this mean? You and I aren’t physically born Christians – we are spiritually born Christians when we turn from sin, turn to God and ask Jesus to come into our lives and our hearts.
So, God guides us by His Spirit; but how?
If you followed my Gospel of John series, you will note that I pointed out that when we receive Jesus into our hearts, God gives us a new heart and the Spirit of God lives within us—guiding us along the way. We will begin to want to follow Him. And with our new relationship, what comes next?
Step 2: Know God’s Word
We need to know what God has already done, and we need to understand what God has already said. That means we know our Bibles. God will never lead you contrary to His Word. He cannot contradict Himself—it is not in His nature.
The Bible is God’s Word. How can you use it for your life? Which job should you get? Should you get married? The list is long. One of the dilemmas for Christians is how we “hear” God’s voice. One way we hear it is in Scripture.
I have seen lots of Christians try and use the Bible with non-Christians and it doesn’t always have the same effect. Now don’t misunderstand – God’s Word has led many non-believers to believe. But there are times when the Bible speaks very clearly to believers, but it does not to non-believers. Why? They don’t hear God’s voice. (That is why telling people “doing ‘such and such’ is wrong because the bible says so” rarely convinces them.) Yet the reality is that the Bible is full of wisdom for us. Let’s separate this into General Guidance, and Specific Guidance.
1. General Guidance
The Bible has general guidance about each decision in our lives; what are some of those decisions? How about being married or single, working, and resting? Let’s take them one at a time.
- Marriage – God’s Word reveals that marriage is intended to meet the basic human need of love and companionship (Gen 2:18). It is the basis for joy and celebration (Gen 2:21-25) but it can become a source of tremendous pain and heartbreak (Matthew 5:31-32).
- On the other hand, ‘singleness/celibacy’ is also a Godly lifestyle and it often allows the best means of service to God (1 Corinthians 7:32-38). And yet God in His Word communicates that this lifestyle is not easy (1 Cor. 7:8-9)
- **As I write the above words I am painfully aware that in today’s day and age many people have experienced the pain of broken relationships – so often when we hear God’s Word on these subjects we feel guilt and pain again. I must with the gentlest and yet strongest voice say ‘little children’ God loves you and seeks to forgive and heal you of your wounds. Bring your pain to Him and know with confidence that when we confess our sins to God he forgives them. His Word says that when we come to Him He separates our mistakes as far as the East is from the West. This doesn’t mean the residue of broken relationships doesn’t continue, unfortunately it does. Yet know it is not God punishing you; rather it is the consequence of sin. Also know that God is not a God of the past – if you continue to be haunted by mistakes of the past, bring them to the Cross and leave them, pray to God to guard you heart and mind from reliving them in an unhealthy way. And finally please know that our God is in the business of making all things new – He has plans for you – plans to prosper you.*
- Sorry for the ‘sermon’, but when I talk about God’s design for our lives so many of us have strayed. In 1 Corinthians 7:17 it says to continue with the life the Lord has assigned to us. So right now, God is meeting you right where you are – married or single.
- How about work – what does the bible say? Human work is a part of God’s intent for us (Gen. 2:15) and He encourages us to do our best and to bring our labor to a good conclusion (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
- How about rest – this one probably won’t take much convincing... we all seem to be driven way too much, way too tired, and at times with too little left for God. See Exodus 31:15.
This is just a sampling of the general guidance that the Scriptures contain, and it is one reason why it is important that as God’s children we spend time with Him in His Word.
2. Guidance for Specific Situations
God’s general guidance gives us broad direction, but how can you know the particular direction, e.g. what job should you get, who should you marry? How can we know God’s guidance for our particular situation?
- Again, we need to reflect back on the verse from John, “my sheep know my voice.” When we know God and read His Word – God’s Word will speak to us. Maybe you have had that experience. You’ve been in church hearing a part of the bible read (or you were reading at home)… one that you’ve heard or read many times before… but on this specific day that part of the bible sounds different and connects to a portion of your life. Sometimes it may be a verse that reassures the direction you feel you should take, sometimes it may be a verse that just calms or comforts you, or sometimes it may be the verse really hits you like it never has before.
- It might be easier to explain with a story. You have probably heard the verse that says we cannot serve two masters. For years I had heard and read that verse. I had reconciled that when I worked hard at my job (just like we talked about above – see Eccl. 9:11) I was doing God’s will. My job brought me into contact with lots of people who didn’t know Jesus and sometimes I would get to talk about Him with them. Yet that verse, Matthew 6:24, began to speak very loudly to me. Regardless of how I would go back and look at the verse in its specific context, it really seemed that I needed to serve the Lord in a different way.
Step 3: Check your spirit
Is the Holy Spirit compelling you? Or is it dissatisfaction with a present situation – a grass-is-looking-greener sort of feeling? There are many times in the Bible when God says “flee”—but it has to do with sin—flee sin. Many times, though, He asks us to stay and labor in faith.
And so, another way that God helps guide us is by giving us a compelling spirit for a situation, but remember John 10:27 – do you know His voice?
We get to know God’s voice just like we get to know other people’s voices. When people call you on the telephone, sometimes you know immediately who it is, and other times you don’t. Why? The people whose voices we know are people we are familiar with, have spent time with, and talked with (or in God’s case, prayed to). Be patient, it takes time to know God’s voice. And the Holy Spirit can speak to us in different ways.
The Spirit may overwhelm us when we least expect it: Sometimes the Spirit can be overwhelming; let’s turn to Acts 16:7. We don’t know how Paul and others were actually prevented from entering Bithynia, but we can get a sense that somehow, they were prevented.
The Spirit may compel us during prayer: A compelling spirit is often times an overwhelming sense to call someone or to visit someone, and at times it happens when we are praying; turn to Acts 13:2. Prayer is our time to talk and listen to God; we will talk more about prayer, but God hears and answers our prayers – it is important to allow some time for quiet to listen – consider this hypothetical conversation between a patient and a doctor. Hello doctor, I am so glad to see you, I have a number of things to tell you about. My feet are swollen, I sprained my ankle, my knees have a ‘clicking’ sound, and my back hurts a lot. Sometimes my right wrist gets sore and I have tennis elbow and I get migraine headaches. Thanks for listening, talk to you later. After the patient leaves the doctor thinks to themselves “gee I wish they stayed, I could have helped.” After we ‘talk’ during prayer, leave some quiet to listen: ‘speak Lord for your servant is listening.’
The Spirit changes our desires: I know some folks who don’t want to become Christians because they have a sense that Christianity is about a set of rules that aren’t any fun and that God will ask them to do something they have no desire to do – please turn to Philippians 2:13. In this section of Scripture we see that God will give us the will to do what he asks. Time and again I hear about how people are drawn to do things for God that not only could they never have imagined doing, but also they hadn’t had a desire, but then slowly, over time God led them to want to do this specific activity.
Voices, dreams and visions: Sometimes you might hear people tell you that God spoke to them in a dream or they heard God’s voice audibly – I have had people tell me those things. Unfortunately, we sometimes hear “God told me to” in the news when people create heinous crimes. Let’s remember the following:
God will never by His Spirit compel you to do something against His Word!
Does what you feel compelled to do bring you peace, does it yield Christ like (self-sacrificing servant) love, and does it bring glory to God?
Finally, does it align with counsel that godly people are giving you? (more on this in a moment)
Step 4: Common sense
Yes, believe it or not, God expects you to use common sense. Please note this is step #4 and not step #1. There are times, however, that God will lay something before you that makes perfect sense.
Turn to Psalm 32:8-9. When God saves us, it is from our sin, not from having to think! Let’s try a couple of examples.
Marriage: We know the norm for many (not all) is to be married, and we read in Scripture that being single is a special calling (we discussed this earlier.) But who should we marry?
Common sense would have us ask first (not last, and I will explain why a little later): are we spiritually compatible? Next, are we good friends, or intellectually compatible? And then, are we physically compatible, i.e. are we attracted to each other? (Not to be misunderstood as being sexually intimate before marriage.)
Why should we see if we are spiritually compatible first? Several reasons… here are just three. First (and this is less about common sense, and more about Knowing God’s Word, above), God is consistent throughout the Old and New Testament in the importance of marrying someone who shares faith in Him. Second – and more practically speaking – our spiritual values are what is in us at our core, aren’t they? They define who we are at the deepest level. When we get married, we will face good times and bad. It is during those bad times, when we face trauma and pain, that we go to the core of who we are. It’s hard to think about those bad times when we first meet someone. But years down the road, if who we are is radically different than who our partner is, that is going to make for a difficult time. Third, is that if we jump to physical intimacy or even friendship first, we “short circuit” the natural development of our relationship. Let’s face it, physical intimacy is nice, and often when couples begin this phase of their relationship other parts of their relationship don’t develop – they get consumed with one another. Often times they think they are compatible, or think they are ‘in love’, only to find that after the physical passion begins to lessen that they don’t ‘know each other.’
Which job? Again, we know the Scriptures tell us we should work, but which job?
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 7 again. When you become a Christian, God rarely calls you to abandon something. He won’t call you to leave your husband or wife, and most likely not your job. He may call you to something, but rarely away.
So, which job? Well common sense would ask, what are your gifts? What do you like to do? What has God given you a special ability for? All are good common-sense questions to ask.
Step 5: Get counsel from the saints
By saints, I mean other Christians, people who you trust and who you know to seek God. Don’t go it alone on big decisions. It makes sense to pray with others and seek their advice. In fact, God’s Word recommends this in many places. Turn to Proverbs 12:15, 15:22 and 20:18.
Remember, you are not alone, you are part of the church—part of the Body of Christ. While we are ultimately responsible for the decisions we make – asking for advice is not a sign of weakness.
Step 6: Signs
God is sovereign, and if He can come to earth in the form of a child He can control other things to happen; see Proverbs 16:9. I will tell you that, for me, this is a tough one. I can twist all sorts of circumstantial signs into justification for something I want. That's why I always look to the five previous steps first.
Let me just be clear on this one. There is a difference between noticing signs around you and asking God for a sign. The former seems faithful to me, but the latter not so much. We are not to put God to the test. Sometimes I hear people say they “just want a sign from God.” The Pharisees used to say that to Jesus all the time. So, what do I mean by signs?
Have you ever had anyone tell you that God arranged certain things to happen, that through some strange set of coincidences certain events took place in their lives and this must then be a sign from God? We read about these in the bible.
Let me also tell you a story of a man I met in jail. It was his sixth time incarcerated. Between his fifth and sixth time, he had been on the street for 4 days. During the sixth time in, he came to know who Jesus was. Finally, he understood “what his grandmother had been talking about.” Further he concluded that his grandmother’s prayers of protection had been answered. Why? Well, he had only been out of jail for 4 days when, on the fifth day, the people he had hooked up with were all killed in a drug deal gone bad –but he was alive.
Let me also add a word of “common sense.” I know too many people waiting around for God’s divine intervention who aren’t reading their bible, praying or using their heads. I am not trying to say God can’t intervene; all I am saying is that the other 4 ways are ways God uses, so let’s not ignore them!
I hope and pray that these “steps” have given you some clarification. I know perhaps they (the steps) might seem a little formulaic. And while yes, the order is important, here’s the thing. Can you imagine that God has a plan for you? Can you believe that He wants a relationship with you, that He wants to guide and direct you, for His glory and for your good?
What are you seeking God’s direction for in your life right now?
*The presentation of God guiding 5 different ways each starting with the letter CS comes from the material of Nicki Gumbel of the Alpha Course.