The Voice of the Holy Spirit
At the meal that has come to be known as the Last Supper, Jesus sat with his disciples as a group for the last time, explaining to them much of what was to come. He predicted his betrayal at the hands of Judas Iscariot. He predicted Peter's denial in the courtyard. And the disciples were, quite understandably, shaken and disturbed. These men had spent years in ministry together, traveling, teaching, performing miracles, learning at the feet of their promised Messiah. They were more than friends. They had become family, as real and powerful as any family we are born into. And their teacher, their leader, their brother, was hours from his death, and it broke their hearts.
Jesus took this moment of despair and offered comfort to his brothers in spirit. "Don't let your hearts be troubled," he said. "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth... You know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you... When the Father sends the Advocate as my representative - that is, the Holy Spirit - he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything that I have told you (John 14:1a, 16-17, 26)."
Some time later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter, the other apostles, and all the believers were gathered in Jerusalem, when the Holy Spirit arrived, just as Jesus had promised. It sounded as though heaven itself were ripping open and the Spirit of God came roaring through like fire, and indeed, something like fire settled on each of the believers, and suddenly all of the believers were filled to bursting with the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit and they could spontaneously speak in other languages! Jews from all across the world heard the noise of the Spirit's arrival and came running to investigate, and were confused and excited by what they saw. Galileans spontaneously speaking Egyptian and Greek and Arabic and Latin and a dozen other languages. Many of the Jews present were hearing the believers speak in their own native languages, languages the believers had never known or spoken in before that moment.
Others among the Jews were skeptical, and thought that what they heard was not language, but the jabbering of a crowd of drunkards. So Peter stepped forward to remind them of something the prophet Joel had said hundreds of years before. Joel brought the word of God to Israel, and this is what God said: "In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants - men and women alike - and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)"
In essence, what Peter was saying was, "This thing that you're seeing happen right now is the outpouring of the Spirit that was promised! This is just the beginning!" And then he shared the gospel with the crowd, and they were convicted. So they asked what they should do, and Peter instructed each of them to turn from their sins and be baptized. And then he said something very interesting. He said, "Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, and to your children, and to those far away - all who have been called by the Lord our God." And that means that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that causes God's people to speak in languages they don't know, and causes them to prophesy, and causes them to have visions and to dream dreams, that outpouring is available to each and every one of us who profess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh and died for the forgiveness of sins.
In fact, when Peter explained this to the Jews in Jerusalem, he was just repeating Jesus himself! In that same conversation at the Last Supper, Jesus told the disciples that they had seen his great works, and "I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it! (John 14:12-14, emphasis added)"
We, as members of Christ's body, have power to do amazing things. The power of the Holy Spirit resides with his presence in each of us, and through it we can perform miracles, that the Son of God might be glorified, and through Him, the Father. But, and this is a big but, it is my firm conviction that our ability to demonstrate the power and presence of the Spirit in us and of the Son with us and of the Father for us is absolutely, necessarily connected to the depth of our relationship with the triune God. The Spirit is within each of us, but his outpouring of power comes when their is commitment and consistency and connection in that intimate presence. And in order to develop that intimacy, we have to know what the voice of the Spirit sounds like.
I believe it's worth noting and clarifying, at this point, that the Spirit does speak to us, or, at the very least, is willing to. For some, this may involve an audible voice. For others, his word and will may appear to us in another way. The voice may not be audible as human voice is audible - but it is a voice. It is personal, and it has language, and complexity, and intention in what it communicates. It is more than a simple nudge for which we fill in the blanks. It is an individualized message given at specific moments in time for our guidance and for the glory of God. Jesus explained to his disciples at the Last Supper that there was more he wanted to tell them, but they weren't ready. "When the Spirit of truth comes," he said, "he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me (John 16:13-14)." Nothing about this statement encourages us to impart any kind of metaphor to Christ's usage of the verbs guide, speak, and tell. He says clearly and plainly that the Holy Spirit will communicate with us in specific language at specific moments in time for specific reasons. And, again, Peter's message at Pentecost assures us that this promise was not just for the disciples in that room, but that the communication of the Holy Spirit is for all believers for all time.
As I sit here writing this, I recognize that this is a long blog post. All my blog posts are long, but this one is especially long. If you're still here, I hope that you'll stick with me. Enough can never be said about the Holy Spirit.
Two more quick points I'd like to make before getting to what the voice of the Holy Spirit sounds like. First, the communication of the Spirit is inherently spiritual, which means that, in some ways, the rules and methods of communication are different from what we're used to. In 1 Corinthians 2, the apostle Paul says, "No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us. When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others. For, 'Who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him?' But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:11-16)."
Second, God is a rule breaker. I would love to be able to offer concrete answers to very reasonable questions, but God will not fit into a box. Just when Carly and I think we have a handle on how and why and when the Spirit speaks to us, we get thrown a spiritual curveball, because the Holy Spirit has infinity at his disposal, and he's not afraid to use it. So, with that in mind, we approach the idea of the voice of the Holy Spirit with a mixture of confidence and humility, knowing beyond doubt that the Holy Spirit does speak to us and that we can understand him, while simultaneously recognizing that the method and nature of his communication can change and that listening for his voice is a life-long learning process.
What we have to offer, then, is our own experience. Carly and I have spent quite a bit of time in the last year practicing what it means to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit, and here are some of the conclusions that we've drawn. We hope to offer these to you as a guideline and a starting point - a place from which to ask, "Spirit of God, is that your voice I'm hearing?"
Thoughts from a direction - I'm a very wordy thinker. My wife's thoughts exist more visually, in colors and images and the juxtaposition of visual ideas. But my brain processes information almost exclusively through language. As a result, I know my own internal voice pretty well. In fact, I know my own voice so well that I'll sometimes have a thought that I can tell immediately isn't mine. I can feel that it was inserted into my consciousness, to the point that I can tell whether it came from the left or the right, from above or below, from in front or behind. Its presence in my mind is distinctly other, and that's a tell-tale sign for me that the Spirit is trying to tell me something.
Reticence - Often when the Spirit is communicating to me, he's instructing me to take some kind of action. To offer some encouragement, to present the gospel, to confront a believer, to deliver a message. And while it may not seem like it on the outside, internally, those kinds of instructions scare me to the core. Selfishly and self-protectively I find myself highly reluctant to obey when I have the thought to move in a direction that I suspect God is pushing me. In those moments, I regularly have to ask the Spirit directly if it's him I'm hearing from, and he almost always says yes.
Frustration of plans - The world isn't perfect, and sometimes things you plan just don't go your way. That's life. But sometimes, it's the Holy Spirit. Here's a recent example. Last night, Carly and I got in bed and decided to watch an episode of Scrubs before we went to sleep. Our plan had been to watch the show, pray, and then sleep. But for no apparent reason, Scrubs would not load. The internet was working fine. The appleTV was functioning correctly. I even restarted it just in case. Hulu would load everything but the episode itself. In moments when you can't execute your plans, especially if you can't discern why, reach out to the Spirit and ask if he's trying to get your attention. In our case, the reason we were delaying prayer was because we didn't want to feel like we were rushing through it just to watch tv, and we didn't want to go to sleep with the noise of the tv being the last thing in our minds and ears. But God had other plans for us, and he frustrated our intentions so that he could draw our attention to himself.
Physical pressure - Sometimes, when the Spirit comes upon me in a powerful way, it brings with it a physical sensation that is somewhat difficult to describe, but I'm going to try. It's as though both sides of my chest are having an incredible pressure applied to them. I feel as though I'm going to explode and be crushed at the same time. It's my physical body responding to a power and a presence that spoke the universe into being. It's intense and overwhelming and it's probably the most definite sign for me that the Holy Spirit is with me and that he has something to say.
Tears - I firmly believe the Holy Spirit dwells in the most intimate part of me - the part He made just for Himself. When He begins to speak in that part of my core being, tears spring to my eyes. Often, I'll notice the tears before I hear the voice. I might be engaging in worship, meditating on His Word, or be in prayer and all of a sudden a swell of tears and then a voice of wisdom.
Impossible knowledge - Sometimes I just know things I couldn't possibly know. In prayer, or often while listening to someone talk, it's like a package is dropped off in my mind. A thought inserted out of no where with detailed information pertaining to that person. Sometimes, I'm supposed to deliver that message (to stir hope, to let them know that not unlike Hagar they serve a God who Sees), more often, I'm to pray on it. My prayers are tailor crafted for people as I let the Spirit guide them.
Need to stop - Our pastor, Kondo Simfukwe, likes to say that the Spirit is the "quintessential gentleman," that is, He will rarely, if ever, force Himself on us. He will continue to show up consistently and quietly until we turn our attention towards Him. But sometimes - especially when I've been seeking Him through out the day - He does tap me on the shoulder. I'll be moving along... driving, reading a book, making dinner... and something in me just says "Stop. Stop right now and listen." That's always the Spirit.
Warmth and vibration - When we first started this process, I envied Paul's experience of a nearly audible voice to the point that I would often talk to the Spirit, and instead of listening, ask Paul what He was saying. It didn't take long for me to hear the Spirit's voice as clearly as Paul did, "I made you a sensate, emotional creature, more so than most. I'm going to speak to you in the way that I made you to listen. Listen with your heart, with your skin, with your emotions. I'll speak to you there." And folks, He does! When the Spirit moves my skin tingles, my chest gets warm, my legs feel like holy jelly. I feel His voice rumble in my chest, even if I can't decipher the exact words. He moves my emotions to react to Him. I'll feel saddened out of the blue, ask for His guidance, and suddenly notice a very sad person He wants me to pray for. This can get tricky... the control freak in me wants to record the rumbly decibel so I know when it's Him, not me. I want to know that I will only feel Him in my left hand, never my right. I want a rubric for discernment. But at some point, I have to trust that God is big enough to lead me through listening to Him speak. And if I constantly pray before thinking, guessing, acting, He will inform my steps. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take (Proverbs 3:5-6)."
We sincerely hope that this has been a valuable read, and we thank you for sticking with us to the end of it. Please post constructive questions and feedback in the comments section below. We relish the opportunity to hear what the Spirit is doing in your life and how he's speaking to you, as well as to help anyone who wants to hear more of his voice!