Decisions and the Leading of the Spirit

September 20th, 2008

I recently talked about the difficulty of articulating how we are led by the Spirit–that it’s very easy to say too much or too little or to say things poorly.  Well, I’m going to give it a shot.  🙂

(Incidentally, this was one of the first topics I posted about.)

This entry will mostly be copied from the same comment section as my recent entry on audible voices & scripture.  (Both came from Dan Phillips’ post on general & special revelation. We also started talking about science & religion. The whole thread is good food for thought, even where I don’t quite agree.) After the copy-and-paste, I’ll add some further thoughts.

Carrie, a contributor to the Beggars All Reformation blog, said,

I was also reminded of most of the Evangelicals I know who walk around “feeling like God lead them…”. It seems to get to a point where all revelation becomes personal and extra-biblical and I’m just not sure how I feel about that.

I replied,


On the subjective “leading of the Holy Spirit”:

Greg Koukl’s mp3s on Decision-Making and the Will of God are wonderful for that topic.

A fairly straight-forward conclusion is that the Bible does not teach us to expect subjective internal promptings from the Spirit as any kind of normative guide. Nor does the Bible model for us a mode of decision-making where we examine our hearts for communication from God telling us what to do. It does present decision-making using (1) the clear commands of Scripture, (2) principles of Wisdom (Imagine making all your decisions steeped in the wisdom of Proverbs!), (3) counsel between believers, and (4) careful consideration.

This does not mean that the Spirit does not lead us–rather, it describes how the Spirit leads us. (It might not be a comprehensive description, but it’s in the right direction.)

Now… The Bible also teaches us that the Spirit convicts us in our conscience, changes our hearts, renews our minds, creates/empowers spiritual gifts in us, and works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. We ought to expect that the work of the Spirit will affect our feelings, perhaps in difficult-to-articulate ways. Nor should we ignore those subjective feelings–we ought to ask, “Why am I feeling this way? Is this my conscience convicting me? Am I subconsciously picking up on something that I haven’t consciously noted? Is this just my own fear? Was it just a random thought that struck me? Etc.” (For that matter, if you experience a spontaneous urge to pray for someone, and it turns out that the person really needed that prayer at the time–well, I don’t doubt in retrospect that God was moving you to pray.)

It’s just that we don’t have any kind of promise that those feelings are the work of the Spirit. Scripture does not teach us to identify those feelings as the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Bringing this back to Dan’s post–as we examine anything subjective within ourselves, we ought to be always checking our perceptions against God’s inerrant, transcendent, verbal revelation. Including the principles of wisdom contained therein.

If you’re used to thinking in terms of hearing God’s voice in your heart as you make decisions, then you may react with disagreement or doubt when I say that “the Bible does not teach us to expect subjective internal promptings from the Spirit as any kind of normative guide.”  If so, I want to say a couple things:

1.) Testing My Claim

I made a claim, but I didn’t really back it up, did I?  I wouldn’t want you to take my word for it.  Rather, I hope that you’ll be asking the question, “What has God told us about hearing his voice?  How are we supposed to think about the internal feelings/promptings/etc?  What does the Bible teach about making decisions?”  (If you’re interested, I really do recommend those mp3s that I linked to. Koukl does a good job of looking at various relevant parts of the Bible.)

I don’t expect that everyone will end up agreeing with me exactly, but it’s super-important to think through some of the concerns that come up.

2.) What the Spirit Does Do.

If you’re responding with skepticism, I suspect that we don’t disagree nearly as much as you might think.  If it looks like I’m denying the experiences you’ve had with God, please know:  I absolutely affirm the Spirit’s active involvement in our hearts and minds and lives.   (Koukl has a similar clarification. I think he does a pretty good job.)

Here goes:

In general, when it comes language like “God speaking”, I want to use it in ways that the Bible does.  And when I think about the Spirit leading us, I want to know how the Bible talks about that.  I don’t see the Bible using language like “hearing God’s voice” to describe a personal, inner direction from the Spirit.

I absolutely believe that the Spirit convicts us in our conscience, changes our hearts, renews our minds, creates/empowers spiritual gifts in us, gives us wisdom, and works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  I can understand why people think of that activity as “speaking”.  I’m hesitant to use that language because “God’s very words” are absolutely authoritative–I don’t want to flippantly call something “God speaking”.  Especially when it’s so subjective and so close to guessing.  People sometimes say “God led me to this” or “God told me this,” and they start relying on that as though it’s a promise of Scripture–and sometimes they are very hurt if it turns out they were mistaken.  The Spirit is at work in us, but I don’t want to presume I’m correctly identifying that my feelings are totally from him.  (Unless, of course, it’s something that is also in Scripture.)

So, suppose I’m right, and you’re wrongly using the phrase “God spoke”–but if you’re applying it to things that God does do, then I don’t want to say “God doesn’t speak”.  I want to affirm the work that the Spirit does do, learn to talk about it in helpful ways, and learn to seek His help more!

In a nutshell:

  1. We should be very cautious about saying “God said”.  That’s a big claim.
  2. I don’t think the Bible uses “the voice of God” language the way that modern Christians often do.
  3. The Spirit is active in leading us–through the Scriptures, through wise counsel, through wise consideration & thinking, and in subtle ways that we might not recognize or might not be able to articulate.
  4. Humbly seek God’s help.  And ask him to teach us to seek and depend on him in mature, wise ways.  Ask him to grow us beyond where we’re at.
  5. Pray, pray, pray for wisdom.

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One Response to “Decisions and the Leading of the Spirit”

  1. Carrie says:

    Well said and I agree.

    I don’t deny that the Spirit leads, but I do doubt that leading is always so obvious and clear as some people claim. Plus I have seen so many of these people be wrong, so clearly God wasn’t speaking then.