Listen and Cooperate
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
What has God been saying to you lately?
Do you have some nagging thought or feeling that just doesn’t go away? Do you get the impression that God may be trying to get a message to you, but you’re not sure what it is, or can’t bring yourself to believe it—or accept it?
Or, on the other hand, are you frustrated that God doesn’t seem to be speaking much to you at all? You’ve been praying, asking, waiting, but getting nothing back. Nothing. You would really like some guidance, but your prayers don’t seem to produce anything.
You believe, you may even teach and lead others, but you’re struggling with how to lead yourself spiritually. You’d like more help from God, but either you’re not getting it or you don’t know how to recognize what God’s saying to you.
What is the way forward?
Pastor Mike1 loved his church and the people there, but he was unhappy. As a junior member on a large staff, he often felt under-utilized and stymied. There was so much he wanted to do and accomplish, but he just wasn’t able to get there. He kept getting assignments that took his time and energy, but he wasn’t satisfied either with what he was doing or the results. When was he going to be able to really do what he was made to do? When was the church going to set him free to run with his dreams and passions? When was he going to be fully appreciated and entrusted with more responsibility?
By the time Mike entered coaching he was frustrated and discouraged. Why wasn’t God answering his prayers? Why wasn’t God changing his boss and opening doors for him? He was starting to question himself, his calling, and even his confidence in God. His attitude was deteriorating. He was getting more and more angry.
However, through the coaching process, Mike finally realized that others were not the source of his unhappiness. He was. His inability to hear the voice of God was not due to God’s silence but to his resistance to acknowledging what he already knew down deep. The truth was, the Spirit was speaking to him. He was feeling nudges, but since they didn’t line up with what he wanted, he ignored or misinterpreted the signals. The Spirit was preparing Mike to leave that large, affluent suburban church to take a position elsewhere where he could better pursue the dreams God had given him for inner-city ministry. Yet, until Mike was willing to face his attachment to his current church and his anxiety over making the big change, he was going to stay stuck.
A simple path: listening and cooperating
In its most basic form, our ability to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25) comes down to listening for the small voice of God within us and cooperating with the Spirit’s promptings, as a way of life. This is what Spirit-led living is all about, and it applies to every possible aspect of our lives, every day. It’s not magical and rarely astounding. It’s usually straightforward, often subtle, and extremely practical. Still, keeping in step with the Spirit has to be learned—not because it’s complicated or reserved for the highly educated or gifted few, but because it is so natural and simple that some of us can miss the Spirit’s leading while looking for something more dramatic. We lack confidence in the little promptings of God so we flounder looking for something else that may never come.
Others of us can miss the Spirit’s leading because down deep we actually don’t want it. Listening to what threatens us can be very painful or frightening. Either we don’t want to face some unflattering deficiency in our lives, or we can’t bear the thought of having to make changes we don’t want to make. As a result, our minds may work over time to discount or question what we’re feeling and sensing. Something or someone is telling us to open our eyes, to listen to our heart, or to change our behavior; but frankly, we don’t want to. In discerning God’s leading, careful deliberations about important matters are usually wise and needed, but for some of us, we develop a complicated mental process that is little more than a mask for our resistance, stubbornness, or outright rebellion.
In the end, such resistance is exhausting and counterproductive. So much energy is chewed up trying to justify ourselves or to prove why our way of thinking or doing something is actually right or better than whatever the voice emerging from within us is proposing. Our fear of what god might ask us to do blocks our ability and willingness to listen. No matter what the source of the voice, if the idea is a good one, and we resist, we’re usually sorry. We wind up restless, frustrated, disappointed, and generally unhappy. If instead we listen to the voice with an open mind and heart, the result is entirely different. We will usually be led to whatever truth we need to hear in the process of listening carefully.
Listening is at the heart of a living relationship with God
Whether we are adept at hearing God’s voice or not, the teaching of the Bible makes clear that we are all called to learn to listen for the voice of God and to be ready to respond appropriately. Over and over again in literally hundreds of verses in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, believers are told either explicitly or implicitly to “hear” or “listen” to the words of God. Usually the call signals that the prophet or teacher is going to reveal the will of God or give instructions to believers that must be followed.
As one important example, the Hebrew verb shema (“to hear”) appears in one of the most significant Old Testament texts, traditionally known as the Shema2: “Hear, o Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4–5). These verses are foundational in the Judeo-Christian tradition, because they affirm Israel’s belief in one God and introduce the commandment to love God with all one’s being, a directive Jesus later called the greatest commandment of all.3 The points of significance here are, first, that the content of the teaching includes the call to “hear” the Word of God and is not simply an introduction to what follows. To listen to the voice of God is constitutive of a right relationship with God. Then, as a second and equally important point, when one listens to God the most important message one will ever hear will have to do with love. As Spirit-led followers of Christ, we, too, can expect that over and over again the Spirit will lead us to express love for God or love for others. Our primary job is to listen and to follow the love promptings.
Listening to God means listening to Jesus and the Holy Spirit
Starting with the New Testament, Jesus becomes the one we are to listen to. Jesus stands at the center of God’s revelation of himself and of all that is good, right, and true. At Jesus’ baptism, God the Father says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35, italics added).
According to the gospel of John, Jesus spoke of himself as both the good shepherd and the gate, whose sheep “listen to his voice” (10:3). Jesus adds that there are sheep that are not from the same pen who also “listen to my voice” (10:16). When confronted by Pontius Pilate, Jesus declared, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (18:37).
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit takes his place as the day to day guide for believers. Before his death, Jesus spoke of the coming Spirit of truth, who would “teach [them] all things and remind [them] of everything I [Jesus] have said to [them]” (14:17, 26). The implication was that it would be very important for Jesus’ disciples to be listening for the voice of the Spirit, who would be sent by God to tell them what they needed to hear.
At the end of his long upper room discourse, Jesus returns to the subject of the Spirit and its4 important role in the lives of his disciples:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you. (John 16:12–15, italics added)
Jesus was not saying that the Spirit’s role was to guide all followers of all times into new truth, but rather was to help Jesus’ disciples to understand what they could not accept at the time of his earthly ministry, namely who he was and the suffering he had to endure on behalf of the human race. Thus, on one hand, we should not think that the Spirit will be the source of revealing all truth on all subjects on an ongoing basis. Jesus’ promise of the Spirit, as found in John 16, was primarily for his disciples, who would need help to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion and glorification.5 at the same time, the fact that the Spirit was God’s tool for opening their minds, refreshing their memories, and zeroing in on truth for the disciples indicates that these are the kinds of things the Spirit does—not just for the apostles but in anyone with whom the Spirit has contact. Bottom line, when the Spirit speaks, we should expect to hear important truths pertaining to our relationship with god, to the person and work of Christ, and to what it means to follow Christ.
Listening to God today
The key to recognizing the voice of the Spirit, then, is to notice when truth is revealed to us in whatever form it comes, and cooperating means accepting the truth that we hear and acting accordingly. The Spirit usually doesn’t speak to us in an audible voice, though many people have had that extraordinary experience. “Connie,” for example, was a very successful businesswoman, doing many important and interesting things globally, traveling 85,000 miles per year to Europe and throughout the United States. She loved her job and had no interest in doing anything else. Until, that is, she heard god’s voice saying, “go home.” Up to that point, she had been feeling a growing sense of discomfort over the amount of travel required of her. The Holy Spirit had been nudging her, telling her that she was needed at home. But the tipping point came when, on a business trip one night in a hotel room, she heard an audible voice literally telling her to go home. This message confirmed to her that the Holy Spirit had been trying to lead her to make a change, and specifically that she should quit her job and stay close to her family. That experience began months of agony for her as she wrestled with God’s will for her life. To quit or not to quit? She certainly did not wish to leave her highly rewarding job, but she wanted to obey God.
Fortunately, her husband and close friends helped in her discernment process, as the right kind of friends often can. One in particular pointed out how rare it is for anyone to hear God speak to them audibly (for a sane person, that is), and thus she really should listen. Finally, she let go. She yielded. She received from her friends what she needed in order to be able to say “yes” to God. Soon thereafter, when the opportunity to give her notice suddenly presented itself, she took it.
Her boss was shocked. Her husband fell to his knees overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Her kids were thrilled. Connie felt dazed. She wasn’t sure what hit her or what she was going to do around the house all the time, in spite of the fact that she had teenagers and a husband who were happy she would be there. There must be some reason God called her home, but what was it?
Six months later the answer came. Her mother had a serious stroke, and now needs her help daily. Had she kept working, Connie could have quit when her mother had a stroke; but, as she puts it, she might have resented her mother for it. This way, by listening to the Spirit and cooperating in a timely manner, she was not only there and available to care for her mother when she most needed her, but she felt peaceful and even grateful to be able to do so.
You may never have an experience of hearing an audible voice as Connie did or of God speaking to you in dreams or visions as many people experience, but you can certainly expect to hear God’s quiet voice in your mind over and over again throughout your lifetime. This voice provides wisdom, direction, caution, inspiration, reassurance, comfort, and any number of other needed messages to help guide us on our Spirit-led journey. Indeed, as Christian philosopher, university professor, and author, the late Dallas Willard insisted, “from the individual’s [various] experiences of hearing God, the ‘still, small voice’ has a vastly greater role than anything else.”6
Something gets our attention, someone communicates a message we need to hear, or we feel some inner prompting to move in one direction or another. The mode varies depending on the person, the circumstances, and the need, but whatever the manner of the communication, the common denominator will be truth. Every word from the Holy Spirit will have the ring of truth to it—or if it doesn’t at first, it will over time.
Since the birth of the church, followers of Christ have recognized and experienced truth in the reading, preaching, and teaching of Scripture, through which god’s Spirit speaks. We listen for the truth found in words written by Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles; and we also rely on the Spirit to convince us of the truth that we hear. Paul explained to the Corinthians that their faith was not the result of clever speech or argumentation, but came the from the demonstration of the Spirit and power. He may have been referring in part to signs and wonders he performed, but He was also talking about their being convinced internally by the Spirit. In Paul’s context, philosophers of his day and Jewish religious authorities, who relied on self-evident truths, their traditions, or their own rational abilities to determine truth, were rejecting the gospel as foolishness. yet, those who experienced the Spirit in the process of hearing the gospel often became believers and followers of Jesus.7 accordingly, when Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica, he reminded them, “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:10).
Thus, amid all the competing voices, ideologies, religious notions, surging emotions, and other challenges to knowing god and perceiving God’s will, we should expect that God will, in various ways, penetrate the fog and bring truth to us. God may speak to us through dreams, visions, or an audible voice, but most often the Spirit speaks to us through Scripture and whispers truth in our minds in the midst of daily life in order to lead us to Christ, to help us to grow and mature, and to lead us along the spiritual journey.
We should expect the Spirit to speak to us through Scripture both to convince us of general truth and to convict us of particular applications of general truth. Both are important because, in Scripture, we are given theological and ethical teaching applicable to all followers of Christ that provide the intellectual basis for our faith and discipleship. At the same time, the Spirit will often use Scripture to address very personal, specific issues in our lives as well. In the second letter to timothy, we read how extensive and valuable the role of Scripture can be in the spiritual formation of believers:
. . . from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are
able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking,
correcting and training in righteousness, so that the [person] of
God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(2 timothy 3:15–17)
Clearly, there is not just one spiritual purpose for Scripture, just as there is not just one way to access its depth and richness. Bible study, preaching, meditation on Scripture, and devotional readings of Scripture (such as lectio divina),8 among other such spiritual practices, complement one another, all of which are beneficial for the maturing Christian. Each one provides a different vehicle to listen for the voice of the Spirit, and each one contributes something different to our spiritual growth.
Then, in addition to how the Spirit speaks through Scripture, we must learn to rely on the small voice of the Spirit in the midst of daily life. It is through prayer and life circumstances that we develop a deep, personal relationship with God in which the Spirit helps us apply Scriptural truths day to day. An intimate relationship with God, marked by ongoing communion with God in all settings and by listening for the voice of the Spirit amid daily life, is what Brother Lawrence practiced so extensively and led to what is now known as “the practice of the presence of God.”9 But, once again, reading Scripture and filling our lives with spiritual practices are of no value if we are just doing them out of obligation or because we want to be or appear to be religious. For an authentic, life-changing relationship of god to develop, we need to be listening, too.
What Mike experienced in listening
Spiritual life coaching has taught me how transformative prayer can be when we take extended time to listen to God with one another. Over and over again, I’ve seen the Spirit reveal important, personal truths that wind up being just what the other person needs to see or hear. Sometimes it is a powerful image. Other times it is a word of reassurance. Sometimes, a meaningful verse from Scripture will come to mind, or God will bring clarity about what is most needed at this moment in time.
When Mike was willing to let go of his anxiety and really listen to what the Spirit had to say he quickly discovered that he had nothing to be afraid of. In fact, the Spirit wanted to affirm his gifts and abilities in ways that gave him greater confidence to set out in a new direction. He began to find new motivation and power to be the person god had called him to be, even in the midst of an increasingly unsatisfying work context. As time went on, he noticed he was changing. Ahead of one session he wrote, “I think there has been a shift in how I’m living and how I perceive myself. I find myself being the person I want to be rather than just wishing to be that person. [For example] when I wake up and haven’t allowed time to be with god and to pray, I miss that time and find time later in the day.”
In one session, using a guided prayer format I have found to be very helpful, I urged Mike to consciously release his hurts, frustrations, and tension. I asked him to rest in god’s affirmation of him as God’s child, gifted to serve Christ. Then, after a few moments, I suggested he ask the Spirit to show him what he needed to see about his situation, and about what steps he needed to take next.
This could have been a scary prayer for Mike, but he chose to trust God with his fears. When he opened his eyes after a few minutes of silence in the presence of God, a warm smile spread across his face. His eyes lit up. “What did you hear, Mike?” I eagerly inquired. Without any hesitation he replied, “I experienced an overwhelming feeling of hopefulness. I heard God say to me, “you’ve got a bright future. I want to use your giftedness for me and my kingdom.”
Two years later . . .
Recently, when Mike wrote to me to give me permission to use his story, he wanted to let me know again how rewarding it’s been for him to have listened to the Spirit and made the change he felt led to make. He explained, “People often ask me if I’m happy in my new position and church. I usually respond that their question doesn’t get at my motivation for leaving [because] it was really a question of seeking fulfillment rather than happiness. These last two years have been the hardest, most fulfilling two years of my life. I have been stretched and broken more times that I can count but I’m more alive than ever before and seeing God show up in ways I couldn’t have imagined before.”
What might the Spirit say to you?
From the perspective of faith, whenever the voice we hear is the voice of truth, we can receive it as from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will always say something to us that fits with God’s good purposes for our lives. The message will be supportable by Scripture in most cases, either by explicit teaching or by general principles. Our spiritual mentors, mature friends, and godly counselors will be able to help us determine if what we heard is a reliable, trustworthy word.
For many of us, one of the clearest examples of how the Spirit speaks to us is when we hear or feel the call to come to God. The Spirit wakes us up, creates a longing in our hearts, and draws us to god so that we want to be in relationship with God. The voice or calling may be so strong that we feel compelled to listen and respond to the calling.
This kind of experience often marks the conscious beginning of our spiritual journey, such as when we first put our faith in Christ. The inner clarity may come from reading Scripture, a sermon, the words of another Christian, an ah-ha moment of realization, or a voice in our heads. We may become convinced that we cannot do enough good to earn God’s approval or save ourselves, and the prompting inside of us points us to the love of God as our only hope. Or, we may simply want a relationship with our Creator and feel compelled to throw ourselves at the feet of God.
In my case, I was smoking a cigarette on the porch of my parents’ home on a rainy Sunday evening when I was a young teenager. For some reason I told god that if he made it stop raining I would go to church. Before I knew what was happening, a voice in my head as clear as one I might hear if someone were speaking to me audibly said, “Who are you to give conditions to the almighty God?” In that moment, I knew only one response was appropriate. I threw down my cigarette, walked to the church in the rain (which never stopped), and sat down in the back row of the sanctuary just in time for the start of the sermon. By the end, I knew without a doubt that the pastor’s invitation to commit one’s life to Christ was meant for me. I bent the knees of my heart and put my life and trust in Christ that night, and a new relationship with God was born.
For many of us, conversion to faith in God and Christ marks the beginning or at least a significant turning point in our spiritual journey. Regardless of what our experience was exactly, whether we consciously submitted our will to God’s, accepted God’s forgiveness in way that felt real and freeing, put our trust in Jesus as our Savior, embraced God’s love for ourselves personally, yielded to a sudden overwhelming sense of the Spirit’s presence, or something else, a conversion experience usually means we’ve experienced firsthand what truly listening and responding to god is all about. Since that pivotal point, we have learned that we need to keep listening to and responding to the moving of the Holy Spirit as way of life, even if we struggle at times to hear or know how to interpret the voice of God.
To grow in our ability to hear and respond to the Spirit, we need to develop our ability to look for and recognize how God is communicating to us. The Spirit may remind us of some truth in Scripture that we need to remember. We may have a deep sense of knowing what is the right thing to do in a certain situation, perhaps as a word of wisdom or simply as new clarity about what would be loving, generous, kind, and helpful.
How have you experienced God speaking to you over the years? What kinds of messages have you received in the past that might help you as you are struggling to hear god’s voice now? Perhaps god wants to assure you of God’s great love for you. The Spirit may be calling you to spend more time with God or to use your time in prayer and devotion differently. The Spirit may want to tell you that you need to forgive someone, or that you need to forgive yourself.
Perhaps the Spirit wants to show you something God wants you to do. The Spirit may tell you about some changes that are needed in your life. You may need to change your attitude about someone or something. The Spirit may nudge you to reach out to show Christ’s love to someone who is lonely or hurting. There are many things that the Spirit might say to you. What’s most important is that you are listening, and that you stay ready to respond appropriately.
What is an appropriate response?
More than anything else, what God wants from us is our “yes.”
When God told Abraham to leave Haran to travel to an unknown land that God would later show him, Abraham got up and left (Gen 12:1–4). When Joseph was alerted to the will of God in various dreams, he responded by believing that God would bring about what was revealed and by courageously speaking up (Gen 37—41). In fact, nearly every hero in the Bible, or simply anyone held up as an example of faith and faithfulness, did something—not to earn salvation, but as an appropriate response to God’s grace and call on his/her life.
The Bible also contains stories about individuals who initially resist God’s call, but who eventually listen, accept, and wind up serving in significant ways. Moses, for example tried to get out of his calling to deliver his people from slavery by not believing god really could use someone like him. Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exod 3:11). After firing off several more questions, perhaps hoping to avoid this divine assignment, Moses finally resorted to pointing out his inadequacy—his poor verbal skills (exod 4:10). Finally, in spite of his questions, hesitancies, and fears, Moses accepted God’s call, and you know the rest of the story—Israel escaped from Egypt and was taken to the Promised Land.
In the New Testament, we find Jesus saying “yes” to God, the disciples and apostles saying “yes” to Jesus, and the early church saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit in many different ways. as was true in the Old Testament, the New Testament also portrays believers as responding to God’s call on their life by listening and cooperating, obeying, serving, and giving themselves to fulfill God’s will, sometimes at great personal sacrifice, sometimes even death. Mary, for example, is one of the best known models of someone who submitted fully to God’s will, when she famously said to the angel who told her that she would bear God’s son out of wedlock, “I am the Lord’s servant. . . . May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:28).
What’s new in the new testament is that we find that all believers are promised the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, gifted by the Spirit, and led by the Spirit, who helps us to say “yes” to God.10 it is the same Holy Spirit that has been at work in human lives since the beginning of time, including in the lives of Old Testament believers, but since Pentecost, believers are given the Spirit in ways that New Testament writers distinguish from what they had prior to Christ, and in a form that is distinguished from the divine life-force (spirit) in all human beings.11 now, The Holy Spirit’s presence and working are indistinguishable from the faith and faithfulness of believers. a “yes” to God is now both an outflow of God’s grace in an individual’s life (a humble submission to God enabled by God’s grace but experienced as an act of surrender to God’s will) and an intentional, willing participation in a life in the Spirit (again, a response enabled by God’s grace but experienced as an act of the will and disciplined decision to focus on the mind of the Spirit rather than on the mind of the sinful nature). While Old Testament believers also depended on God’s forgiveness, cleansing, and empowerment to live faithfully, New Testament believers have been given the Holy Spirit in keeping with Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant (Jer 31:31–34). With the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all believers, God is no longer seen as an external resource but a constant, internal presence that offers personal intimacy with God and real transformation.12 as a result, a “yes” to God came to realize that god accepted gentile believers because god “gave the Holy Spirit to them,” (acts 15:8), i.e., what God gave them was additional to the breath of god within them that gave them physical life. The Spirit has been given to believers as a guarantee of their salvation (2 Cor 1:22; eph 1:14). Believers in Christ have “received” the Spirit who reveals the gifts of God to them (1 Cor 2:12). Each follower of Christ is given a “manifestation of the Spirit” to build up the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:7). God “sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, and Father’” (gal 4:6). The Spirit, which believers receive as a result of their Christian experience, is a “spirit of adoption,” who prays with and for them (Rom 8:15, nRSV). and critically, Paul taught, only the Holy Spirit can enable believers in Jesus Christ to escape the power of sin (Rom 8:1–6), something made possible because “the Spirit of god lives in [those who are in Christ],” implying that there are those who do not have the Spirit of God (or Christ) living in them (Rom 8:9–11). Now requires not only submission to the will of God (Old Testament standard), but also both a personal relationship with God in Christ and a life of cooperating with the flow of the Spirit on a daily basis (New Testament).
Jesus, of course, modeled one big Spirit-led “yes!” in his devotion to serving God’s purposes, culminating in choosing to endure brutal treatment and martyrdom on the cross. At one point he summed up his self-understanding by declaring, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’ famous words in the garden of Gethsemane, hours before his crucifixion, further demonstrate the extent of his “yes” to God, when he said, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Yet his response to God was not only a submission of his will. It was also a yielding to and dependency on the Spirit’s activity in his life. as Luke’s gospel makes particularly clear, from his conception to his validation at his baptism, his miracles, and many other aspects of ministry, Jesus’ “yes” to God is virtually inseparable from the working, leading, empowering, and filling of the Holy Spirit.13 His life and response to God’s call was thus a precursor to the Spirit-led life all his followers would eventually be called to embrace.
In perhaps his most radical demand on his disciples, Jesus taught that discipleship meant giving one’s whole self in response to his call on their lives. We read in the gospel of Mark:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take
up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will
lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save
it.” (Mark 8:34–35)
speaking of God’s Spirit or the human spirit [Inspired, 162]). Again, while this observation is meaningful, it fails to fully reflect the general portrayal of the Spirit of God as something that is given to believers, i.e., is additional to the spirit God has already placed within every human being. See Fee for a detailed discussion of the ambiguities and issues involved in translating pneuma in Paul (God’s Empowering Presence, 14–28). At the same time, while maintaining a proper distinction between the Holy Spirit and the spirit of life that God gives to all humans, Fee rightly observes that, for Paul, “the believer’s spirit is the place where, by means of God’s own Spirit, the human and divine interface in the believer’s life” (God’s Empowering Presence, 25).
According to tradition, ten of the eleven original disciples (excluding Judas, the one who betrayed him) were eventually martyred as a result of their faith and devotion to Christ.
The apostle Paul both modeled this kind of radical commitment and taught others to do the same. In his own life, his “yes” to God meant obeying Christ’s call to bring the gospel to the Gentiles at great personal sacrifice. at the same time, true to Jesus’ example and the New Testament emphasis on the Spirit-led life, he consistently indicated that God’s working in and through him was the power behind his ability both to carry out his mission and be fruitful in it.14 His willingness to suffer great hardships, including imprisonment, beatings, deprivation, and ultimately martyrdom further demonstrated the extent of his “yes,” as well as his belief that God was powerfully working in his suffering for good and enabling him to endure all things.15 Over time, he continually prayed and sought God’s guidance and provision as he sought to live out his “yes.” His response was consistent: he kept listening and cooperating with however the Spirit led him all along the way.16
In his teaching, Paul insisted that all who are recipients of the grace of God should respond with their own Spirit-led “yes” to God. For example, in moving from eleven chapters on the grace of God generously given to undeserving sinners, Paul begins the ethical portion of his letter to the Romans by saying, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers [and sisters], in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom 12:1).
Listening to the Spirit of God is only the first step in a Spirit-led life. Responding with our “yes” is what completes the interaction and brings our spiritual life alive. God’s grace always precedes our “yes,” but hearing and doing go together, as James points out with particularly pointedness: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jas 1:22, nRSV). The moment of truth for the Spirit-led Christian will not be, “Will I agree with the Spirit in this situation or not?” but, “Will I act on what I’m hearing?”
As followers of Christ, we can expect the Holy Spirit to be working in our lives and leading us in meaningful ways all the time. Our job is to learn how to listen better and to be ready to respond appropriately, even if or especially when we are unsure what the Spirit is saying or if God is speaking to us at all.
The Spirit’s goal is to bring truth to us in ways that draw us closer to God, enlighten our understanding, and actually transform us. The Spirit opens our eyes to see the truth about Christ, shows us how to follow Christ and live out the truths of Scripture in our everyday life, and actually makes us more and more like Christ—or, as Paul put it, “conform[s us] to the likeness of [god’s] son” over time.17 Scripture is often at the center of this transformative process by which we are conformed to the image of Christ.18 By continuing to pray with Scripture, the message we hear often develops and expands as we listen for how to apply what we’ve heard in any number of practical, day-to-day situations. And by our repeated encounters with god through Scripture and in prayer, we are often changed.
The simple path of listening and cooperating calls for reaching out to god from our heart and mind, and making the effort to notice when God is reaching out to us. We will seek out the Holy Spirit as a constant companion, who will show us what we need to see and will inform our thinking and perceptions of what is happening around us. We will ask the Spirit to empower us to act and to respond to others and circumstances in ways that fit with God’s good purposes for us and them.
In other words, listening and cooperating becomes a way of life as we move through each day in close fellowship with god. This is probably what Paul meant when he said we should “pray continually” (1 Thess 5:17)—not that we are always on our knees talking to God, but that we are in continual communion and conversation with God’s Spirit no matter what we are doing. Beyond asking god for something or to do something, we will keep opening ourselves to the Spirit and seeking to draw near to God, mentally and emotionally. God becomes the primary influence in our consciousness. We will have one eye and ear attuned to what is happening around us, and the other eye and ear watching for and listening to whatever God might want to point out to us or to ask us, rather than the other way around.
Listening to and flowing with the Spirit is a step-by-step process in which we are invited to say “yes” for the next thing God is asking us to do or engage in. Then, and usually only then, after we have said “yes” and have followed through on the Spirit’s leading, will we be ready to hear the next timely word or bit of guidance. Our part is to keep listening and be prepared to say “yes.”
Listen and cooperate. Listen and cooperate, in one situation after another. Step by step, a long string of saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit becomes a Spirit-led life.
The place to start is with this present moment.
Your next Spirit-led steps
How are you putting yourself in a position where you can listen better for the voice of the Spirit? How ready are you to respond to what you hear? Spirit-led steps are simply your response to however the Holy Spirit is prompting you in the moment.
Practically, the truth that you need to see or hear may come from reading the Bible, a sermon on Sunday, a book or magazine you picked up, or seemingly out of thin air. The Spirit may speak to you by bringing Scripture to mind just when you need to hear a word of encouragement, of faith, of correction, or something else. You may sense God speaking to you as you pour out your concerns to God in prayer and you suddenly experience peace or are given new perspective on your troubling situation. Often, God speaks to me through my wife. God can use your spouse, your children, a parent, a co-worker, a friend, or anyone else to speak just the word(s) you need to hear. The options are endless. The question is, how well are you listening?
Reflect in writing on the questions and suggestions listed below. I highly recommend using a spiritual journal, dedicated to the exclusive purpose of recording your thoughts, questions, inspirations, and prayers that pertain to your relationship with God.19 No matter what, take some time, create some space, and listen for the voice of God. Ask God to give you the courage you need to truly listen, and the grace to be able to say “yes” to however the Spirit seems to be leading.
- Notice what resonated with you in this chapter. How is the Spirit speaking to you or moving within you at this very moment? In the past few days or weeks?
- How are you responding? How do you want to respond?
- What Spirit-led step(s) will you commit to taking this week?
I am sharing Mike’s story, including direct quotes, with his permission. All the individuals mentioned in this book and their stories (if told in a form potentially recognizable to others) are used with permission. When a name appears in quotation marks the first time I mention it, it means it has been changed to preserve the privacy of the individual. Where I have been given explicit permission to share someone’s name and story, I use that person’s real name without ever using quotation marks around it.
2. Deut 6:4; the verb is also found in Deuteronomy at 4:1; 5:1; 6:3 and 9:1.
3. In its biblical context, the Shema sets the stage for the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy. In Hebrew tradition ever since, the Shema has also formed an important part of the Jewish evening and morning prayer, as part of a confession of faith. Jesus’ teaching on the primacy of love can be found in all of the gospels: Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27. Cf. other New Testament teaching on the importance of love as the primary marker of those who know god and follow Christ, e.g., John 13:34; 1 John 4:21.
4. In the Greek, the word for Spirit/spirit is pneuma, a neuter noun. Thus, apart from any theological considerations, it would be appropriate to translate pronouns for Spirit in non-gendered or impersonal terms, such as “it” or “its,” unless the context clearly suggests otherwise. Further, to avoid what feminist critics rightly view as undue “masculinization” of god, I minimize using masculine pronouns for god and retain the grammatically correct neuter pronouns for Spirit, with the exception of whenever I quote recognized translations of the Bible that retain the traditional masculine pronouns. However, when pneuma refers to the Holy Spirit, there are legitimate reasons why english translations typically translate corresponding pronouns and the subjects of third person singular verbs referring to the Spirit in masculine terms, i.e., as “he,” “his,” or “him.” First, Paul equates the Spirit of Christ with the Holy Spirit, a fact that argues for the personal nature of the Spirit (as opposed to an “it”) and perhaps even the appropriateness of the masculine pronoun, though we should not think of spirit/Spirit as masculine or feminine. Second, classic Christian trinitarian theology has traditionally identified the Spirit as one of the three persons of the trinity and thus not an impersonal force or “it.” Third, occasionally, the biblical writer will use a masculine pronoun in reference to the Spirit (e.g., John 16:12).
5. Levison, Inspired, 150.
6. Willard, Hearing God, 115.
7. See 1 Cor 2:4–14.
8. See Smith, The Word is Very Near You, for a helpful guide among numerous resources available for praying with Scripture.
9. Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God.
10. While there are many examples in the old testament of the Spirit of god empowering, bestowing special skills on, and giving wisdom to individuals, in the new testament the Holy Spirit now functions in every believer’s life in ways that are fundamental to their salvation, relationship with god, and ability to serve god as part of the body of Christ. For a verse by verse exposition of how Paul portrays the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, see Fee, God’s Empowering Presence. In an appendix, Fee also briefly surveys “The Spirit in the old testament” (904–910; cf. Levison, Inspired). Professor Jack Levison has done some of the most extensive research on the Holy Spirit in recent years, writing both on an academic level and for general readers. His careful exegetical work offers a well-conceived, intriguing alternative to a more traditional understanding of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to human existence and to one’s relationship to god. In short, Levison emphasizes the presence of the Spirit in all human life, and posits that what Christians experience through the Holy Spirit is an increased amount of what all humans already have. (See below for more detail on Levison’s views.) While I appreciate his appropriate emphasis on the continuity between the old testament and new testament believers’ experiences of the Holy Spirit, and his careful work to show how the wisdom of the Holy Spirit is indeed available to all human beings, too much emphasis on continuity can obscure the clear distinction the apostle Paul made between those who are in Christ and those who are not, in terms of how the former have received the Spirit in extraordinary and life-changing ways.
11. Jesus said the Spirit would be given to those who ask (Luke 11:13), i.e., the Spirit was something other than what they already possessed. in acts, we’re told that Peter
12. Cf. Levison, whose careful and extensive research on the nature of the human spirit and its relation to god’s spirit, as portrayed in canonical Scripture as well as other ancient religious and philosophical writings, rightly identifies the continuity between the Holy Spirit and the human (god-given) spirit, but leaves one unable, in my opinion, to distinguish adequately between Creator and creature, or between what all humans have in common (apart from Christ and faith) and what Christians have when they receive the Holy Spirit. For example, Levison argues that the full biblical canon offers compelling evidence that “affirms that people who are other than Christian can experience the spirit of god within them from birth as a source of wisdom, knowledge, skill, and holiness” (Levison, Inspired, 66). While this observation rings true in part, it does not do justice to the tone, teaching, and intention of new testament writers (Luke and Paul especially) who differentiate between the experience and capacity of ordinary human beings and that of believers in Christ who are endowed with the Spirit by “receiving” from god what they did not already have (e.g., acts 10:44–47). As another example, Levison does not capitalize “holy spirit,” because, in his opinion, what Christians have traditionally called the Holy Spirit is the same “spirit-breath” that is operative in all human beings. (Biblical writers use the same Hebrew and Greek words, ruach and pneuma, respectively, when
13. See Luke 1:35; 2:27; 3:16, 22; 4:1, 14–21; 10:21.
14. See acts 13:46–48; 15:17; 22:21; 26:15–19; Rom 15:15–19; gal 1:14–17; 2:7–9; cf. 2 tim 4:17.
15. See 2 Cor 1:8–11; 4:7–11; Phil 4:12–13.
16. E. g., see acts 13:1–4; 16:6–10.
17. Rom 8:28–29; 2 Cor 3:18.
18. Mulholland, Shaped by the Word, 30. Mulholland’s book lays out well how Scripture plays a critical role in spiritual formation. On the subject of “spiritual reading” of Scripture (i.e., reading the Bible to be transformed as opposed to just learning about god), see, Peterson, Eat This Book.
19. For a good resource for both the beginner and the experienced journal writer, see Cepero, Journaling.