Listening for the Spirit (#2)

We are seeking the Lord’s guidance as a congregation and will be coming together for a meeting next week after church. As a part of our preparation I shared last week on Listening for the Spirit – to help us know what this means and how to do it. We are continuing on with this theme today.

Last time I made the point that it’s normal for believers to be led by the Spirit of God. As Paul says in Romans 8:14, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons (children) of God.” This is simply a part of being in relationship with God.

And we also looked at the most common way the Spirit leads us, which is the inward witness of the Spirit. This is when the Spirit doesn’t necessarily speak words, but gives us a deep inner sense of things that goes beyond words; an affirmation or a conviction that teaches and guides us in the way to go.

Today we want to go further on the topic of the Spirit’s leading, and first we look at –

How to receive God’s leading

 That is, how do we get ourselves in a place to hear what God might want to say to us?

First and most basically, listen. If you want to hear what anyone has to say, you have to stop and listen. And the same is true in our relationship with God.

Much of our praying is about talking to or even at God with our needs. Among other things, we also need to have intentional times of listening, where we invite God to speak to us.

We can follow the pattern of Eli’s advice, when he told Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears” – 1 Samuel 3:9. Open your heart to be led, and see what God’s leading might be. God doesn’t always have something specific to say to us, but sometimes he does.

Now the bigger goal is to have a life that is tuned in to God, so that we are always attentive to God’s leading. But certainly we begin by making space in our times of prayer to allow God to speak.

Second, walk in the light you already have.  All of us stumble in many ways, as James says (3:2), but this is different from continuing to walk in known patterns of sin. Where we know God’s will and leading and just choose not to do it.

There is no reason to think that God will say more to you if you haven’t dealt with what he has already told you; what you already know and are choosing not to do. Such sin creates a barrier between us and God (Isaiah 59:2). It damages or even destroys our relationship with God. So set aside your sin and come back close to God once again. As James says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” – James 4:8.

John teaches us that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:9. God’s mercy is wonderful to us. And then it will be true what John says in 1 John 1:7, “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another . . ..” Fellowship means we have an unhindered relationship with God.

Make things right in your relationship to God and draw near.

And finally, submit yourself fully  to God. You may not like God’s leading. Often it is the hard way. Not always, but often. And we don’t want this. We want what is easy and comfortable.

Yet God leads those who actually want to be led; who are willing. So we have to set aside our own agenda, what we think the answer has to be, what we desire. (Not in terms of what Scripture teaches, but in the application of Scripture). Then God can lead us in his way.

Jesus models this for us in the garden of Gethsemane. When seeking God’s will and confirming the path of the cross he says, “Not what I will, but what you will” – Mark 14:36.

Humble yourself before God confessing that you don’t know everything and you really do need God to help and lead you. Remember these words from Proverbs 3:5-7 – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes . . .”

And then say to God, I will do whatever you tell me. This is submission. And this is someone who is ready to be led by God. And someone that God readily leads.

Let’s take a moment to pause for prayer. Maybe you need to draw near to God; maybe you need to submit yourself to God; or maybe you are here this morning ready to listen – so invite God to lead you. We’ll take just a minute.

Next we move to the very important topic of –

How to test any leading you receive

 When you seek to be quiet before the Lord and listen, it can be hard. Maybe you have just experienced this. Our minds are often so full of things – our own thoughts, our inner list of things to do, our own emotions, our own inner voices, our own desires. And also at times wrong thoughts or voices from the evil one. There is a swirl of voices and thoughts. So it can be hard to set all this aside to truly receive God’s leading. We don’t want to accept just our own thoughts as those of God and certainly not the thoughts of the evil one.

So Scripture teaches us to test the spirits:

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 says, “Do not despise prophecies (e.g. words of the Spirit), but test everything; hold fast what is good.”
  • 1 John 4:1 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

There is a sorting process and we keep what is good. This applies to those who speak out words of the Spirit or in our own minds as we listen for the Spirit.

I would like to share with you two ways to do this and the first is that everything must be in line with Scripture; God’s Word to us. God’s written word is what tests any leading we receive. It is definitive and authoritative. So any leading that goes against it, you know it’s wrong.

Deuteronomy 13:1-4 says, “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.”

Here the test is God’s revelation through Moses talking about idolatry. This was the Bible at this time. Anything that leads away from God’s Word is wrong.

But even more specifically, everything must be in line with the New Testament and it’s witness to Jesus. John 1:17-18 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the beloved who is at the Father’s side, who has made him known.” John is teaching us here that Jesus is the full and perfect revelation of God to us. There are things that are different from Old Testament to New Testament, as we see in Matthew 5. And Jesus is the standard. He is the Word of God come in the flesh. And his life and teachings are only found in the writings of the apostolic church preserved for us in the New Testament. No leading of God will go against this.

Second, make sure you recognize the leading as God’s. From my own experience I know that God’s voice is different than my own inner voices or the voice of Satan. These others are often harsh, nagging or condemning. There is nothing redemptive about them. They either tear us down and lead us to despair or they artificially build us up and lead us to pride. They don’t lead us to God and his grace and power to be transformed.

God’s voice is firm, clear, strong, quiet, pure, from the outside of us; from outside of the swirl of voices we can hear.

How do you discern God’s voice? It comes from a lifetime of being in relationship with God. Being immersed in the Scriptures and spending time in God’s presence in prayer and worship helps equip us to know God – who God is and what God sounds like.

For instance, I am not good with identifying voices on a phone. Just a few months ago someone called me and was talking on and I had to say, “now who is this?” Awkward! But I do know by wife’s voice. There is never any doubt there. We have been in close relationship for decades. And the more time we spend with God, the more we will be confident in recognizing his leading in our hearts.

Let me just end by encouraging you to seek after God this week.

  • Put yourself in a place to hear from God
  • And then test whatever leading you might receive

And then we will gather and discern together as a group next week.

Again, our goal for our meeting is to be able to sense what God’s leading is for us as a church. Not just what we think is best – our own opinions or wisdom; not what we think the right answer should be; not what we think others want us to say – but what God is saying to us. My guess is that God will give different ones of us a piece of the puzzle, that as a community we can put together, to show us the way forward. And it may take more than one meeting.

Listening for the Spirit (#1)

As you know, we are seeking the Lord for guidance regarding our future as a congregation. And as a part of this I want to give some teaching this week and next on Listening for the Spirit – to help us know what this means and how to do it. Today, let me begin by saying that –

It’s normal to be led by the Spirit

That is, this isn’t just for certain people like leaders or “saints.” Or perhaps coming from a different direction, you might think that this is the language of those who have gone off the deep end and so you want to stay away from it. No. This is the privilege of all Christians.

It is the Spirit, after all, that gives us life in the first place, for we are born of the Spirit (John 3). But that’s not all. As believers the Spirit of God actually lives in us (Romans 8:9). So there is a closeness and a relationship. And in any relationship there has to be communication. And certainly God does seek to relate to us and guide us by his Spirit dwelling within us.

Romans 8:14 says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons (or children) of God.” You can see here the close connection between our relationship with God and that we are led by the Spirit.

Now the Spirit can lead us in many ways. He can give someone a word to say to the congregation, he can speak a word deep within our heart, or he can move by what I call the “inward witness” of the Spirit. This is when the Spirit doesn’t necessarily speak words, but gives us a deep inner sense of things that goes beyond words; an affirmation or a conviction that teaches and guides us in the way to go. I believe that this inward witness of the Spirit is the most common way that the Spirit leads us and so I want to focus on this today.

The inward witness of the Spirit

There are several places in Scripture where this is talked about. And the first one has to do with how the Spirit works in us to draw us to Jesus. Here we are talking about the process whereby we first became believers.

Jesus said in John 16:8, “When the Spirit comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Spirit speaks in the deepest part of our hearts to show us our sin, and what righteousness looks like and that judgment is coming. He shows us that Jesus is true and that he is the Savior.

This is how salvation works. We don’t just go and seek out God, God seeks us and draws us to himself by the Spirit, by this inward witness of the Spirit within us that teaches us and guides us in the right way. This is how we come to faith.

So simply to be a Christian means you have been led by the Spirit in this way. You know the inward witness of the Spirit.

Another example of the inward witness is when the Spirit affirms in us that we are a Christian. Just after talking about being led by the Spirit, Paul says this in Romans 8:15-16 – “. . . You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God . . .”

In this passage we see that first, we receive the Spirit. And what does the Spirit lead us to do? To cry out “Abba, Father,” which is an expression of our relationship with God; we confess that we are children of God. How can we do this? It’s because the Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” In other words, the Spirit affirms, deep in our hearts, that we are a child of God. And so we can cry out to God our Father.

And this is not just a one-time event when we first believe. Throughout our lives the Spirit works in us to affirm our relationship with God.

To have the assurance of the Spirit means the Spirit is leading you in this way.

Another example of the inward witness is when the Spirit guides us in everyday life. In Ephesians 4:30 Paul says, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” In context he is talking about living the Christian life; the choices we make whether to sin or walk in the way of Christ. And the point is that when we choose sin we grieve or sadden the Spirit who dwells within us, who is affirming that we should choose the way of Christ.

Unless we have become hardened and distant to the Lord this goes on in us regularly. We sense the Spirit deep in our heart either guiding and affirming our choices or convicting us that we are wrong. When we walk in the right path we have the fruit of the Spirit of peace. When we do not, the Spirit is “grieved.”

So simply to walk the Christian life means that the Spirit is, or is seeking to lead you in this way.

But the Spirit doesn’t just lead us as individuals, the Spirit can also lead us as a group; as a church. We see this in the example of the Jerusalem church council of Acts 15. The early church had a huge controversy over how to accept Gentiles as Christians and there was conflict. So the mother church in Jerusalem gathered together, along with the apostles to settle things.

They talked about the issues and heard from various ones, including the apostles Paul and Peter. And then at the end in Acts 15:28 it says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” and then they hand down their decision. It isn’t necessary to get into the issues or what they decided right now. The point is that they testify that the Spirit led them. We don’t know what all this might have meant, but certainly at a minimum they are saying that they feel the Spirit is affirming deep within their hearts, that their decision is right.

And this is what we are seeking as a congregation. Not just what we think is best; not what we think the answer ought to be; not what we think others want us to do – but what does God have to say to us, so that we can be confident in our decision before God and others.

Let me end with –

An encouragement

I share all this to encourage you to listen for the Spirit. As you continue to pray these next weeks and fast on Friday afternoons, listen – expecting to hear from God. What is the Spirit saying to us here at New Providence Mennonite Church? And then we will gather to pray and discern together and make some decisions. If God could lead the believers in Jerusalem in their big decision, God can certainly lead us here as well.

Second, I have shared this with you to remind you that as a Christian you already know what it’s like to be led by the Spirit; the inner witness of the Spirit. It’s not rocket science. We have all been there and we have all done that. We just need to tune in and be sensitive to listen and hear.

And if you would say, I don’t feel like I am really that in touch with the Spirit anymore, let me say it isn’t too late to get in tune with God’s Spirit and listen. And we will talk about some of this next week, Lord willing.