During a particularly difficult season of ministry, I felt the Spirit calling me to dig in and fight for joy. But Sunday after Sunday I sensed a thick and sinister darkness. When I stepped up to preach, it felt like a devil’s bony finger was pointing directly in my face.
After preaching my heart out a visitor walked up to me and said, “God wants you to know that your joy is your weapon.” Then she walked away. I did not know this woman, and she knew nothing of my circumstances. Yet, her timing was undeniably providential. Her word from the Spirit filled me with encouragement, like a finger pointing me to the Fountain of joy.
Perhaps you’ve had an experience in which you felt the Holy Spirit prompting you to do or say something. Or perhaps you’re very suspicious of this kind of thing? How do we discern if our thoughts are from the Spirit?
A Subjective Task
Scripture recognizes a degree of subjectivity in discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading. Advising Gentile churches, the elders of the Jerusalem church wrote that their counsel “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28). Regarding instruction to widows who want to remarry, Paul concludes they are better off to remain single. In support he writes, “And I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7:40).
He did not say, this is God’s will (as he does in 1 Thess 4:5) or record his inspired words without qualification. He “thought” he had the Spirit’s leading but wasn’t one hundred percent certain. What should we conclude? This advice is wise but not warranted in every case. Paul knew discerning the Spirit’s leading and counsel can be a subjective task, yet an important task nonetheless. He demonstrates considerable dependence upon the uninspired prompts of the Spirit throughout his missionary travels.
However, the only error-free source for the Spirit’s speech is Scripture, and even that should be read carefully. Exploring the Spirit’s more subjective communication should be done with more caution. We can use several “tests” to discern if our thoughts are actually from the Spirit.om
First, we can apply the Scripture test. Sometimes people confuse their own voice with the voice of the Holy Spirit.
I was talking with someone one day who told me he had a prompting from the Spirit: God had told him to divorce his wife. I followed up by asking why he felt he should divorce his wife. He rattled off a number of reasons, but not one of them constituted biblical grounds for divorce. His prompting clearly wasn’t a prompting of the Spirit because the Spirit does not violate Scripture’s teaching. His motives weren’t godly and his aim not biblical.
The husband I described earlier did just this. He should have used the Scripture test. If he had, it would have been clear the Spirit had already spoken on the matter, and obeying him would have saved himself and his poor wife a lot of heartache. Whenever a so-called “prompt” or spiritual impression contradicts Scripture, we must always go with the Bible.
Second, we can use the wisdom test. Sometimes our impressions lack wisdom. It’s not uncommon to hear people say the Holy Spirit told them to do something, like quit their job while not having another source of income to support their family. When confronting this lack of wisdom I’ve heard various objections such as, “God will never let me down.”
Think about what would have happened if Jesus used similar reasoning when Satan tempted him with fame to jump off the highest point of the temple. However, instead of saying, “God will never let me down,” Jesus said, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Lk 4:12). “God will never let me down” reasoning puts us—not God—in charge, treating him like a corporate sponsor for any wild-haired idea we may have. We must be cautious of using over-spiritualizing our reasoning, using God to endorse our agenda. In this case, it would have been wise to consider his wisdom in 1 Timothy 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
In zeal, I hear Christians sometimes say God is calling them to sell their house and move overseas for missions. And yet, when I ask if they’ve made disciples in America, they come up short. These “prompts” fail the wisdom test. While it’s certainly possible for the Spirit to impress on us a change of job, home, or country, it’s important we screen our impressions with wisdom. There is safety in an abundance of counselors (Prov 11:14), so we should make important decisions in community. Humbly seek out respected spiritual leaders before taking the leap.
Finally, we should consider the ministry test. Whenever we start a sentence with, “The Spirit told me . . .” we’re on fallible ground. Nevertheless, the Bible does show us examples of people being prompted by the Holy Spirit to do various things. The interesting thing about these prompts is that they are typically ministry-minded things, like when the Spirit prompted Philip to witness to the Ethiopian eunuch, Peter to share the gospel with the household of Cornelius, and Paul to spread the gospel in various cities. The ministry test, evaluates a prompt based on an “others first” ministry orientation.
When I moved to a new city to plant a church, I had to office out of coffee shops the first few years. Occasionally, before I left the house or while I was driving, I would pray and ask the Holy Spirit to direct me to a coffee shop where I could meet people he was calling into the kingdom. Sometimes I would get the sense that I was supposed to go to a specific shop, and other times I wouldn’t. When I did receive a prompt for a specific place, I often ended up having an evangelistic conversation with someone.
Several of these turned into long-term relationships, with some of them coming to Christ. But there were also times when I ended up at a place and simply worked.
I’d be willing to bet that just about any time we are prompted to share the gospel or meet a need, it’s likely the Holy Spirit. I’m so glad the women who ministered a word of joy to me, in a difficult season, heeded the Holy Spirit.
Adapted from Here in Spirit