On this side of heaven, it’s not a matter of if we are going to fail in hearing the Holy Spirit or being led by the Holy Spirit; it’s a matter of when are we going to fail. I say that not to condone sin. We will fail in our Christian life. We will fail when it comes to hearing the Spirit and being led by the Spirit — and we need to come to grips with that. Jesus saved us knowing that we would. We need to come to grips with the reality that others around us are going to fail — and their failure can result in us getting hurt, just as our failure can result in them getting hurt. (Part 1 available here)
There will — not might — be times when you and I get the leading of the Holy Spirit wrong.
My failure to get the leading of the Holy Spirit right is going to affect you. Your failure to get the leading of the Holy Spirit right is going to affect us. Please don’t misunderstand me when I say this. I’m not saying that to lay some heavy trip on you. I’m saying these things because there is a sense in which we need to give each other permission to fail in regards to being led by the Holy Spirit. In fact, part of learning to be led by the Holy Spirit happens when we fail to rightly discern His leading.
Can you think of a time when you were sure that the Holy Spirit was leading you in a particular way, in a particular course of action — then you stepped out in that thing, and then you found yourself thinking… Uhhh, this is not the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Hopefully, in that moment of failing to get the leading of the Holy Spirit right, we learn what the leading of the Holy Spirit does not sound like, doesn’t look like. That begins to refine our sensitivity to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Please remember — Being led by the Holy Spirit is a lifelong process. We will get it wrong. And because of that, we need to give each other room to fail, cover each other’s failures with love, and by God’s grace, help one another to see how we missed it, got it wrong. THAT is how a community of believers live and breathe!
Here's another discipline we want to foster in our lives to better hear, know and be led by the Holy Spirit — It’s rooted in the fact that God wants to speak to us in the normal course of daily life.
Living ready for God to speak to you.
Our friend Britt Merrick was talking to one of the ladies at Reality Santa Barbara. She’s a woman used radically by God in the realm of intercessory prayer. Because Britt has such deep respect for her, he wanted to know if she had any insight on the way the Holy Spirit can speak to us in the course of a normal day.
She said, “Yeah, I have an example. Last Sunday I was walking to church, and I walked by a piece of trash. I just felt the Holy Spirit tell me to go back and pick it up.”
Britt was thinking, Okay, then what happened? Did the heavens open and a giant sheet come down with all sorts of trash and pollution that needed to be picked up, directing her and challenging her to care for creation? So he pressed her and said, "Then what?"
She said, "Well, I went back, and I just picked it up."
Britt said, "So what was the point of the Spirit telling you to do that? Did He want you to pick up trash?"
She said, "No. That's the way that the Holy Spirit trains me to hear His voice. He will give me what appears to be meaningless, small, suggestions throughout the day, and then I'm always presented with the opportunity to ignore or obey."
Then she said, “You will not be entrusted with more until you're faithful with the little things."
Fallen culture conditions us to respect and expect the spectacular.
That influences the church in a very real way. We are conditioned to confuse the spectacular with the supernatural. The Bible says this:
"Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin" (Zechariah 4:10).
So the Holy Spirit will speak to us in the littlest things to train us to discern His voice and to be obedient. You never know when the habit of the seemingly small acts of obedience will have a life-changing outcome.
You might not think the Holy Spirit is leading you. You might not think He is speaking to you. Listen — If you are a son or a daughter of God, He is leading you. So many times it’s at that moment when you think about someone, and you think, I should pray for them. It is in those moments when we stop and pray that we find our spiritual ears getting fine-tuned to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
HERE'S ANOTHER DISCIPLINE involved in being led by the Holy Spirit:
Wait on the Lord, wait for more clarity.
The weightier or bigger the course of action, the more clarity you want to have before you act. As we wait on the Lord for clarity, it’s all right to ask good questions. Let’s define what we mean by “good questions.” The question Why? is generally not a good question. It’s not a good question because there's hardly ever an answer to that question that will satisfy a human being. Let me ask you a question — When someone you love dies, and you ask that question, will any answer God gives to you change the sense of loss, erase the pain? So we need to ask good questions like, God, what are you doing here? What do you want to show me? How should this thing roll out?
Those kinds of questions are great because many times what we see of the Lord’s leading is not always what it appears to be. Most of you know the story of how the Lord spoke to me about ministry in England. Clear as clear could be: Richard, you are going to minister in England. I took that to mean Valerie and I needed to sell our car and pack our bags because we were moving to England. So we began to make plans to move to England. NEVER happened. But Valerie and I’ve been to England nearly 70 times since then. We have seen thousands of high school kids profess faith in Jesus. We have life-long friends in England that we love and count as family.
Back to what I said earlier — There are inherent dangers and messes in this business of hearing from the Holy Spirit and being led by the Holy Spirit. Here’s how it gets messy. Not everyone around us will always agree with what we believe to be the leading of the Holy Spirit! Amen?
It’s very rare that a legit Christian will say, “I know this isn’t God’s will, but I’m doing this anyway.” Most of the time brothers and sisters will say that as best as they can discern the voice of the leading of the Spirit, they believe they are being led by the Spirit, and they are going to move prayerfully and carefully in that direction. The first is for sure a mess. The second has the potential to be messy.
Here’s where it gets messiest (is that a word?)! It gets really messy when a brother or sister, or you or I, pull the “God told me” card! Has anybody ever done that to you? You hear the person out, and in love you say, I’m not sure that’s the Lord. Then they throw down the trump card — "God told me." There are going to be a lot of times when that is exactly the case.
And here’s how it gets so incredibly messy. When you or I or anyone else use the “God told me card” — what we’re really saying is this: “In no uncertain terms — you may not question me. You may not say anything that opposes my action.” There are times when the “God told me” card negates everything that God has wonderfully designed and put into place to help us truly be led by the Holy Spirit. The “God told me” card can be used to lock out pastoral care — avoid spiritual authority in your life and disengage the purpose of God in community to love us and protect us from ourselves and from the deceitfulness of sin.
What are we to do when faced with that kind of messiness?
The over-riding issue of discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit is the issue of accountability. The spiritual authority and leadership within the local church, the community of men and women within the local church, are God’s divine economy to provide Christ-centered, grace-driven accountability. We are accountable to one another for FIVE things.
. Faithfulness to Scripture
. Authentic Community
The moment you and I claim to have heard the Holy Spirit speak, claim that we are being led by the Holy Spirit, we can expect to be accountable for our motives. Don’t miss this — In any decision, there is always the issue of motives: pride, power, a position, financial gain or the currency of self-gratification. That is so true that James says this concerning our motives in prayer.
"You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3).
Decisions are worship-driven. Remember that sin blinds and then blinds us to our blindness. It is possible for us to be pursuing an idol while claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit. When we are being led by the Holy Spirit, we are driven by the exaltation of Jesus, growth in holiness and the mission of Jesus! It is so important that we be open and accountable for our motives!
In Acts 10, Peter is a great example of this — Peter said, "The Spirit told me..." and then you look at the way he conducted himself, and you see that everything fully lined up with the passion of the Holy Spirit for mission and for the exaltation of Jesus in the saving of souls. It wasn't driven by ego or self-preservation or self-promotion.
This follows from the first. By DIRECTION I mean “the way of the cross.”
"But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.' Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:23-25).
HERE’S THE DEAL — If we claim that we are being led by the Holy Spirit — and especially if we pull the “God told me” card — we should expect someone to objectively look at the trajectory of your decisions. Are you in the way of the cross — is there a denial of self, or is it the way of self?
When you are truly being led by the Holy Spirit, it is going to look like Matthew 16:23-25. The Holy Spirit can and will lead us into places that will cost us. You can’t hold on to your own life, your title, your position and ambitions and claim to be led by the Holy Spirit. That's why we always need to be asking ourselves the question, and be willing for others to ask us the question: Who is this about, and am I willing to go the way of the cross?
Pastors and brothers and sisters in a community of believers have the right to be fruit inspectors. We need our spouse, our kids, our pastors, our brothers and sisters — not to be sin sniffers, but fruit inspectors! That is by God’s design.
When we claim to be led by the Holy Spirit, we should look for evidence, look for fruit, fruit that is glorifying Jesus. Kind of like the famous line in the movie Jerry Maguire — "Show me the fruit!" Fruit that brings glory to Jesus proves the leading of the Holy Spirit because that is the passion of the Holy Spirit. (See how important it was for us to start with the Holy Spirit and what He’s passionate about!) And, by the way, sometimes we see that fruit more clearly in hindsight.
4. FAITHFUL TO SCRIPTURE
When we claim something is from God, we are accountable to scripture, always. The Spirit will never lead us in a way that's contrary to scripture. Listen, millions of Mormons are on their way to hell because they claim to be led into the Mormon church by a feeling. You should expect to be held accountable by your spouse, your family, your brothers and sisters in Christ, and your pastors to be faithful to scripture.
You have been living out your Christian life in a community of believers. You have relational currency. You’re a known commodity in the church. You are relationally connected to the people asking you about what you believe the Lord is leading you to do. They know your falls and failures — and your restoration. They know that you love Jesus; you’re living on mission with Jesus and for Jesus. They know you love the church that was blood-bought by Jesus.
Are you connected? When someone comes into Metro and refuses to be connected with leadership — pick and choose who they will know and what they will let people know about them — that’s not just zero relational currency, that’s red ink on the ledger.
It is possible for us to truly hear from and be led by the Spirit — and the people that are most important to us can say, “I don't see it.” What are we to do?”
Here’s what a lot of people do — and this causes messes. When they do this, there is almost always blood splattered on the wall. They go and begin to lobby others to support them, back their claim. That will always involve putting those who don’t support them in a bad light.
We’re told in the book of James that the wisdom from above is pure and peaceable and willing to yield (James 3:17). When a thing is truly Spirit-led, you can trust the Holy Spirit to show all parties involved. That requires time — which requires patience — or as the KJV says," suffering long!" But the evidence of being led by the Spirit is humility, never haughtiness. That means there will be mutual submission because all parties will recognize that God's on the throne. Because GOD is on the throne, you can wait. Because GOD is on the throne, you don't have to build your case — build a consensus by maligning others. Instead, you pray something like: Holy Spirit, can you show my brothers and sisters? Can you show my pastors (which implies that you actually own them as pastors)? Can you show me?
"If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy (don’t miss this) and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness" (James 3:13-18).
Who is the man or woman truly led by the Holy Spirit? The one who looks most like Jesus! The one who, like Jesus, is gentle, peace-loving, always willing to surrender self for the glory of God.