I am especially cynical about “Holy Spirit leading” language. Too often we use phrases like “God called me to” or “the Holy Spirit led me to” or, my favorite, “the Holy told me to tell you” to abrogate responsibility, follow our own desires carte blanche, recuse ourselves from situations we fear or just don’t prefer, or even control the behaviors of others. In so doing, we shortcut wisdom, amputate freewill, and cause undo stress at discovering God’s will, as if he’s hidden it and we can find it only through a series of secret handshakes.
Oh, we don’t do these things maliciously or even knowingly. We honestly believe that God works through concealed messages that require Holy Spirit decoder rings or that Christianity is like a Bourne movie. But it all becomes suspicious when God seems to change his mind about what we should be doing or when he doesn’t seem to want us to do something uncomfortable or when waiting for “the one” (whether “the one” be a person, career, or ministry) keeps us from ministering to those around us.
You can see why I’m cynical.
But my skepticism created a doubt that we can ever know the Holy Spirit’s work. I continued to believe that we feel the Holy Spirit’s comfort in hardship and grief. I continued to believe that the Holy Spirit labors in us and in the world for God’s kingdom but that we’d only understand what he’s done in hindsight. I distrusted our ability to follow any guidance. It’s all so nebulous, wrapped up in our own desires and fears. In other words, I believed in the Holy Spirit’s power but discounted his guidance. He orchestrates events but we can’t know or follow that.
Then I read Luke and Acts.
There’s more Holy Spirit in Luke’s writings than ABC stores in Waikiki. Trust me, that’s a lot. As in, two per block a lot.
As I read, God reminded me: that Jesus’ fulfilled his journey through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus gave this same Holy Spirit to empower and guide his followers on the Christian journey, and that first-generation believers acted according to the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.
But he also showed me that this guidance came for the purpose of ministry and in the midst of ministry. While Paul was teaching in Antioch, the Holy Spirit called him to overseas work. Paul, along with the community of believers in Antioch, made a plan, and for the most part, Paul ministered according to that plan. On his travels, the Holy Spirit called him to Macedonia, diverting Paul from his original plan. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s guidance did not happen in a vacuum of wisdom and action. God used wisdom, action, and the Holy Spirit to spread his kingdom.
Also, the Holy Spirit’s guidance didn’t seem to lead to a more comfortable lifestyle. He led Jesus into the wilderness to fast for 40 days and be tempted by Satan (don’t worry–I don’t believe this is a model we are to follow but a model Jesus followed). He led Jesus to Jerusalem so that he could die and be abandoned by the Father. He led Paul into a ministry that resulted in rejection, beatings, and imprisonment. The Holy Spirit will not make our lives easier. (Now that I think about it, do I really want to feel called by the Holy Spirit?)
The encouraging thing is we don’t have to decipher the Holy Spirit’s work alone. We do so most often in community through prayer. (I should say we do so always through prayer and most often in community.) As the early church worked out the implications of ministering to the Gentiles, they relied on understanding the Holy Spirit’s work, and they came to this understanding in community. The Holy Spirit’s call to Paul and Barnabas came to a community of believers worshiping and praying together.
Aye, there’s the rub, for we are Americans, taught to revere our independence in action and thought (to say nothing of our pursuit of happiness, but I’ll save that rant for another day). We depend not only on our Creator and Savior but on his body. We submit to one another and together understand God’s revelation.
God revealed his will in Scripture: to continue Christ’s ministry of restoring dignity, freeing the oppressed, and bringing in the outsiders. As we reorient our lives to this purpose, God will empower and guide us through the Holy Spirit.
For me, this starts with an openness to the nudges and promptings of the Holy Spirit. To do so is not to throw wisdom into the sea with cement shoes but to bring together godly wisdom, prayer, and the mystery of the third Person of the Trinity. I don’t believe every choice depends upon hearing from the Holy Spirit, but neither do I doubt our ability to know specific leadings in our lives.
I don’t know that I’m any less of a cynic, but I don’t cringe every time I hear someone use the words “called” or “led.” Not every time.