I’m not the most thoughtful person at home. Sometimes I’m very thought-less. Sometimes I act in ways that are unthinking. For example, each Friday I do my family’s laundry. I spend the entire day doing it, although I’m somewhat distracted by answering emails, doing administrative work, rehearsing Sunday’s sermon, and running errands. Inevitably, when I go to put the laundry away, I put it in the wrong spot. The result is that sometimes Jordan’s jeans wind up in Jacob’s closet, Jacob’s shorts wind up in my drawers, Kendra’s socks go to Jordan’s drawers, etc. And for the rest of the week, each morning begins this way: “Chris, where’s my ___? Where did you put my _____? I can find my __________.” In fact, it got so bad that one morning I was at the gym exercising. And it felt bad. I just didn’t feel right. I felt, well, constrained. I looked down, and sure enough, I was wearing a pair of my eleven year old son’s shorts. I had put them in my drawer by mistake and in the darkness and sleep haze of the early morning I had put them on. So, I’m not always very thoughtful at home.
But sometimes I am. For example, a few weeks ago Kendra was working on our finances. She diligently tracks what we spend so we can be the best stewards of the resources God’s given us. But this takes tremendous time and energy. She spends hours each week reconciling our accounts, tracking spending and forecasting what we can do in the future. That night in our office Kendra told me she had just finished that week’s reconciliation. I barely even acknowledged her comment and the work behind and walked away to go do something else. But as I walked away, I suddenly was struck with this thought: “I should tell Kendra how much I appreciate the tremendous work she puts into our finances.” It’s not typical of me to have that thought. I believe the Spirit prompted it. So I turned around and told Kendra how much I appreciate her hard work on our finances. She was very encouraged. And I believe that was the work of the Spirit in the routine of a week-night in the Altrock household.
I’ve sensed that prompting at even more momentous times. A few months ago I was on a conference call with a friend. He had been offered a job in another state and he and his wife were trying to discern whether or not to take it. He had assembled a few of us on the phone to help decide. And as we talked and prayed together, something became clear to all of us, especially to my friend. We all had this same thought: he should not take the job. He should stay where he is. We attributed this guidance to the Holy Spirit. And in the months since he’s made that decision, our conviction that this was the Spirit speaking has deepened. Because my friend has been more fruitful in his current job than ever before.
Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences—times when you felt some prompting and it seemed like it was the Holy Spirit. But how does this work? How might we experience more of these situations? How do we learn to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit?
The book of Acts provides some instruction here. Luke’s book gives us insight from a community of people who often seemed to hear and heed the guidance of the Spirit. This morning we want to learn from this community about how we might better hear and heed the guidance of the Spirit.
I want to supplement what we find in Acts with insight from an additional community. The Jesuits are a group of Christians who have specialized in hearing and heading the Spirit. I’ll use one of their books, God’s Voice Within, to supplement what we find in Acts.
Let’s briefly survey some passages in Acts in which Christians sense the guidance of the Spirit: “And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you….” (Acts 10:19 ESV). Peter has such a connection to God that he is able to hear the Spirit indicating that three men are looking for him. Peter was nudged to this knowledge by the Spirit.
“And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).” (Acts 11:28 ESV) A man named Agabus is given the ability to sense that a natural disaster is about to happen. The Spirit enables Agabus to know about this crisis before it happens.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2 ESV). Somehow in the midst of a time of corporate worship, fasting and prayer, the church as a whole sensed the Spirit urging them to commission Paul and Barnabas to mission work—mission work that would change the world.
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements… (Acts 15:28 ESV) Church leaders have been meeting in Acts 15. They are divided over an issue. Some believe Gentiles (people who are not Jews) should be circumcised, as well as baptized, in order to become Christians. Others argue that Gentiles need not be circumcised. It’s a critical debate. We don’t know exactly how, but in some way the church leaders gain the ability through the Spirit to see the correct answer.
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. (Acts 16:6 ESV) Paul has discerned on his own that God wants him to go to Asia. But he’s wrong. So, through the Spirit, God makes it clear to Paul that he is not to go to Asia, but is to go to Macedonia.
17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:17-24 ESV) Paul explains to the Ephesian elders why he is taking a course of action that is fraught with danger. He is “constrained by the Spirit.” We would say “led” or “driven” by the Spirit.
The book of Acts presents a portrait in which followers of Jesus are able to sense the guidance of the Spirit. The Spirit communicates, the Christians receive that communication, and they follow the guidance of the Spirit.
But how does this work today? I want to provide some partial answers to that question. I’ll share three brief points from these examples.
First, the closer your communion with the Spirit, the clearer your communication from the Spirit. In many of the texts we just walked through, the communication people receive from the Spirit comes in the context of close communion with the Spirit. For example, in Acts 10, Peter is on the roof praying when he receives a vision from God and a prompting from the Spirit. In Acts 13, the church in Antioch is worshiping and fasting when they catch wind of the Spirit who tells them to set apart Paul and Barnabas for mission work. The reason those in Acts had such clear communication from the Spirit is that they had such close communion with the Spirit.
The Jesuits put it this way: Discerning the leading of the Spirit is more about the person you are than the process you follow. While there are some steps to take in order to discern the Spirit’s leading in our lives, those steps are built on a foundation. The foundation is our intimacy with God and his Spirit. Hearing and heeding the Spirit is first and foremost about the kind of person we are and only secondarily about a process we follow. Even if I could give you a 7 step process for discerning the Spirit’s voice in your life, it wouldn’t do any good if you weren’t in very close communion with the Spirit. Hearing from the Spirit is more about the kind of person you are than any kind of process you follow. If you want clearer communication from the Spirit, the place to start is by gaining closer communion with the Spirit.
Some of you need to make radical changes to the quality of your character if you want to better hear the Spirit’s voice. Some of you need to make radical changes to the pace of your life if you want to better hear the Spirit’s voice. Some of you need to significantly increase the time you spend in spiritual disciplines if you want to increase the guidance you receive from the Spirit.
If you want better communication, work for better communion.
Second, the test of a prompting is found in its potential to benefit others, not ourselves. How do we know if some thought we have is from the Spirit? Sometimes we’ll get an idea in our head or a feeling in our heart and we’ll think something like this: “This prompting cannot be from the Spirit, because, if I followed this prompting, it would lead to all kinds of problems.” But the proof of whether something is a prompting of the Spirit is not whether it helps me, but whether it helps others, regardless of the cost to me.
Notice how the leadership of the Spirit in Acts benefits others, but doesn’t always benefit the one to whom the Spirit spoke.
- In Acts 13, when the Spirit prompts the church at Antioch to send out Paul and Barnabas to do mission work, it costs the church a great deal. The church loses the leadership and gifts which Paul and Barnabas brought to the church. But the prompting was not for their benefit. It was for the benefit of all those whom Paul and Barnabas would reach.
- In Acts 15 the church leaders are led by the Spirit to make a risky decision. Fundamentalists among them are calling them to draw lines that the Bible doesn’t draw, saying that Gentiles cannot become Christians unless they are circumcised. But the church leaders, led by the Spirit, go against this legalistic group. It caused tension and conflict. But that prompting was not for the benefit of those church leaders. It was for the benefit of all those Gentiles just waiting to come to Christ.
- In Acts 20 Paul is going to Jerusalem, by the compulsion of the Spirit. This will ultimately result in Paul’s imprisonment. But Paul follows the prompting—not for his sake but for the sake of others.
Often when we are trying to make decisions, we move quickly to eliminate options if those options are going to result in personal conflict or personal sacrifice or some other cost. For some reason we have the sense that the Spirit wouldn’t lead us to do something that would result in things like this. But the real test of whether some proposed action is from the Spirit is not whether it impact us negatively. It’s whether it brings blessing and help to others.
The Jesuits put it this way: True promptings of the Spirit are not driven by worry and fear but by faith and trust. Often we make decisions that are based in worry and fear. Because we are worried that if we do such and such, we’ll fail or we’ll pay a high prices, we don’t do it. Because we are afraid of losing the respect of others or offending others if we do such and such, we don’t do it. But worry and fear should never enter into the process of trying to decide if some prompting is truly from the Spirit. When trying to listen to the Spirit, we have to listen with ears of faith and trust. We have to be willing to say, “I don’t care what happens to me. I just want to follow the Spirit.”
Finally, though a prompting may contradict our preferences, it will align with our passions. This is the positive side of the previous point. As we saw in Acts 16 Paul’s preference is to go to Asia. But the Spirit tells him no. Yet Paul is not deflated. Paul is not discouraged. Why? Because even though the prompting contradicted his preferences, it still connected to the larger passion he had to preach God’s gospel all over the world. Though Asia was his Plan A, and the Spirit pulled him to Plan B, he was still thrilled with Plan B because it was still something that connected with his heart’s desire to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. We see something similar in Acts 20. Prompted by the Spirit, Paul’s going to Jerusalem. It’s going to cause great suffering. That’s certainly not Paul’s preference. Yet he still goes. Why? Because this prompting aligns with his deep passion to finish the race. Though he might prefer not to suffer, he follows the prompting anyway because it still aligns with his hunger to finish the course God has set before him.
The Jesuits put it this way: A genuine prompting of the Spirit will kindle a flame within us rather than deflate us because it is connected to our greater task of bringing glory to God. If something is truly from the Spirit, it may conflict with some of our personal preferences. But it’s still very likely going to connect with some deep passion that God has placed in our heart. And for that matter, it’s still going to give us great joy and fulfillment. In other words, after much prayer and soul-searching, if some prompting we believe is from the Spirit leads to us be depressed and deflated and discouraged, it may not be from God. God’s promptings, though they may conflict with our preferences, will at the same time stir our hearts because they will be connected to his plans for us and his destiny for us.
The Jesuits also put it this way: God wishes to dream in us, not nightmare in us. Many of us are afraid to even try to hear and heed the guidance of the Spirit. Why? Because we have all kinds of nightmares about the kinds of things God’s Spirit might prompt us to do. His Spirit might call us to move to the isolated jungle and tell tribesmen about Jesus. But ultimately, the Spirit’s leadership is not going to result in a nightmare. It may be costly. It may conflict with some preferences. But ultimately, as we submit to the Spirit, we become more aligned with God’s dream for our lives. And that will ultimately only lead to joy and fulfillment.
Gary Haugen is the founder of International Justice Mission, a Christian organization that frees people trapped in sex trafficking. In his book Just Courage he describes God’s calling to start IJM: I vividly remember when I finally had to make a decision to abandon my career at the U.S. Department of Justice to become the first employee of a not-for-profit organization that didn’t yet actually exist called International Justice Mission. I had worked for three years with friends on the idea of IJM and was very excited, in theory, about this dream of following Jesus in the work of justice in the world. But then I had to actually act. I had to walk into the Department of Justice and turn in my badge …. I tried to be very brave and very safe. That is to say, I walked in and asked my bosses for a yearlong leave of absence …. My bosses politely declined. I was suddenly feeling very nervous …. What was I really afraid of? As I thought about it, I feared humiliation. If my little justice ministry idea didn’t work, no one was going to die. If IJM turned out to be a bad idea and collapsed, my kids weren’t going to starve. We’d probably just have to live with my parents for a while until I could find another job, but with my education, odds are I would soon find a job. The fact is, I would be terribly embarrassed. Having told everybody about my great idea, they would know that it was a bad idea or that I was a bad leader. Either way, it would be humiliating. So there it was. My boundary of fear. I sensed God inviting me to an extraordinary adventure of service, but deep inside I was afraid of looking like a fool and a loser. This was actually very helpful to see, because it helped me get past it. When I am [older], do I really want to look back and say, Yeah, I sensed that God was calling me to lead a movement to bring rescue to people who desperately need an advocate in the world, but I was afraid of getting embarrassed and so I never even tried?…
Perhaps you sense God inviting you to an extraordinary adventure of service. Perhaps you sense God’s Spirit nudging you to do something risky, something uncomfortable, something that still has a lot of unknowns. And perhaps, deep inside, you are afraid. Put that fear aside. It’s not from God. Say yes to the Holy Spirit. Say yes to the life portrayed in the Book of Acts. Say yes the greatest adventure of your life.
 Mark E. Thibodeaux SJ. God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will (Kindle Location 1898). Kindle Edition.,
 Gary Haugen, Just Courage (InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 129-130