(Adapted from The Disciplines of The Holy Spirit by Siang-Yang Tan)
We have been created to be in a listening relationship to God. As we draw near to God, we begin to hear His voice and receive affirmation, encouragement, correction, and direction for our lives. Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice (John 10:14-16). We listen in order to receive guidance! The outcome of a close relationship with God is guidance and invitation into partnership with Him.
Jesus didn’t get up in the morning and say, “What great thing can I do for God today?” He said, “Father, what are you doing today? Show me what you are already doing so I can do it with you. I will do only what I see what you doing” (see John 5:19, 30). Jesus’ secret of guidance was His relationship of dependence on the Father – listening for God’s voice, being observant of His Father’s work, paying attention to His Father’s leading in every circumstance of His life.
Do you believe God talks to people? That He wants to talk to you? Do you think it strange or unusual to hear His voice or to receive regular guidance and direction form Him? Jesus believed that listening was fundamental to the Christian life and a natural consequence of deepening relationship with God. He encouraged believers that if they belonged to God, they should expect to hear from God. He rebuked the unbelieving religious leaders of His day saying, “He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8:47). As we draw near to the One who comes to us to draw us to Himself, we enter into the disciplines of listening and guidance. We learn to hear the Shepard’s voice, to distinguish it from the many voices that compete for our attention, and to know and respond to his wooing and guidance.
Hearing from God is the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes God’s will clear to us as we engage in the discipline of listening and guidance. Jesus promised us His own guidance through the gift of the Holy Spirit. “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). When the Spirit of Truth comes, Jesus says, “He will guide you into all truth. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you: (John 16: 13-14). The truth John speaks of here is not an idea, concept, or doctrine, but a true relationship. To be led into truth is to be led into the same relationship with Jesus that Jesus has with the Father.
G. Campbell Morgan encourages the believer to wait for guidance:
To the individual believer, who is, by the very fact of relationship to Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, there is granted the direct impression of the Spirit of God on the spirit of man, imparting the knowledge of His will in matters of the smallest and greatest importance. This has to be sought and waited for.
The Apostle Paul emphasized that it is the Holy Spirit who reveals the deep things of God to us. We are so affected by our sin and rebellion that we cannot understand the things of God unless the Holy Spirit reveals it. He is our teacher. In reading the Scripture, we must sit before the Holy Spirit and respond to His leading. As we pray, we must expect that answers will come as the Holy Spirit guides us to Scripture, or through circumstances or wise counsel, or through personal words or a divine encounter.
Our Part in Listening and Guidance:
* Let the Spirit build in you a desire to be yielded and obedient to God’s will and plans.
* Starting where you are, seek after God with your whole heart, striving to know him intimately.
* Resolve to want to glorify God and bring honor to His great name in all things in your life.
* Be alert and sensitive at all times for the Spirit’s promptings. Seek guidance from God; watch for it, expect it. Remember that the Holy Spirit is your teacher.
* Take time daily to listen and be in conversation with God. Get in the habit of asking questions like, “What are you doing, Lord? What do you want me to see and understand in my current circumstances?”
* Wait for confirmation. “Test everything” (1Thess. 5:21). God isn’t in a hurry. Trust that He will confirm His will through Scripture, wise counsel, and circumstances.
* Take steps to respond obediently to the guidance you receive; trusting that God will provide confirmation and blessing (See James 1:22; 2:17).
Means of Guidance:
* The Bible, God’s Word – God speaks primarily through His Word, as we read and meditate on it. The Scripture is our standard of measure for all other forms of guidance. What the Spirit guides us into will always be consistent with the teaching of the Bible and will never contradict it. In addition, we must be careful to interpret the Bible accurately.
* Prayer – Conversation with God – Prayer is not just talking to God, but dialogue with God. We listen for, and hear, God’s voice in the midst of prayer.
* Godly Counsel – God often speaks to us through the wise counsel of mature Christian believers – pastors, church elders, leaders, accountability partners, counselors – people who walk closely with God and who know Him intimately.
* Providential Circumstances – God can work through even our most difficult circumstances to guide us in a particular direction.
* Sanctified Common Sense – As we think and engage in theological reflection, and weigh the pros and cons of options open to us, God works through our reason in bringing us to a decision. Even when it seems God has not spoken clearly, there may be times we have to choose an option because it is not possible to wait further. In such cases we need to use our best common sense to choose the alternative that will bring glory to God as the Holy Spirit leads us (1Cor. 10:31).
* Inner Witness and Peace – Generally, the Holy Spirit confirms God’s will to us by giving peace in our hearts (Col. 3:15). However, this does not mean we will always – or immediately – receive peace regarding God’s guidance. There may be anguish or struggle, such as Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane in the process of obeying Gods’ will to go to the cross and die for a sinful world. Jesus prayed and was obedient to God’s leading, but experienced peace only later (Mark 14:32-36; Luke 22: 39-44).
* Inner Promptings of the Holy Spirit – Based on 1Cor 12:8, 10, the Holy Spirit can guide us through factual truths we did not know before and through wisdom or the specific applications of God’s Word or Truth to a particular situation. Such words generally come in the sense of a subjective inner voice, but at times they can seem to be audible words (1Sam. 3:2-14). God has spoken to His people through visions and dreams in the past and certainly can do so in the present (Dan. 2:19; Acts 9:10-16; Acts 10:9-23; 18:9-10).
* Nature – God has revealed Himself generally through nature and His creation. However, there are times when God touches us afresh and guides us through some part of the beauty of His creation – the grandeur of the stars on a clear night or the colors of a sunset.
* Heavenly Visitation, or the “Hand of the Lord” – There are times when God reveals Himself by an angel or special manifestation of Himself (Acts 8:26, 29; 9:3-6; Dan. 9:20-23).
We are meant to be in a listening relationship with God. At any moment, anytime, day or night, in the midst of ministry or the most mundane tasks of living, God can and will speak to us.
Increasingly Aware of God’s Presence
We can grow in listening and guidance until we are “practicing the presence of God,” increasingly aware of His presence and gentle leading in all the circumstances of our living. This kind of living does not happen effortlessly. We must desire it and seek it with all our hearts. It requires choosing a course of action that will draw us into constant communion with God. It means entering strongly into the disciplines of listening and guidance as a crucial means of experiencing deeper intimacy with God and receiving His transforming power. Listening becomes a launching pad for effective service and ministry in partnership with God; guidance brings confidence and peace that we are indeed in relationship with the living God; and hearing God’s voice brings events of the Bible alive for us and allows our faith in the Truth of the Word to rise beyond abstract conviction to heart knowledge of the truth.
The Process of Guidance
Here’s how George Muller sums up the way he entered into a “heart” relationship with God and learned to hear and discern God’s voice:
I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. Having done this, I do not leave the result to feeling or simple impression. If so, I make myself liable to great delusion. I seek the Will of the Holy Spirit through, or in connection with, the Word of God. The Spirit and the Word must be combined. If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word, I lay myself open to great delusions also. If the Holy Ghost guides at all, He will do it according to the Scriptures and never contrary to them.
Next, I take into account providential circumstances. These often plainly indicate God’s will in connection with His Word and Spirit. I ask God in prayer to reveal His Will to me rightly and fully. Thus, 1) through prayer to God, 2) the study of the Word, and 3) reflection, I come to deliberate judgment according to the best of my ability and knowledge, and if my mind is thus at peace, and continues so after two or three more petitions, I proceed accordingly.
We open ourselves to mistakes if we allow the opinions of others to sway us from the clear instructions of Scripture, or if we are impatient in waiting for God’s timing, or when our own wills are so strong we cannot get our hearts ready to respond to the guidance He gives. Guidance from God is seldom a simple occurrence; it is almost a process of listening, testing, and discerning that leads to confident obedience. F.B. Meyer describes the process of guidance as follows:
God’s impressions within and His words without are always corroborated by His providence around, and we should quietly wait until those three focus into one point. If you do not know what you ought to do, stand still until you do, and when the time comes for action, circumstances, like glow-worms, will sparkle along your path, and you will become so sure that you are right, when God’s three witnesses concur, that you could not be surer though an angel beckoned you on.
The Holy Spirit seldom uses all the means of guidance, but usually does bring several together in a process that brings conviction to an individual or group along with confidence to respond in obedience.