Saturday, February 26, 2011

Following the Holy Spirit

I know I haven't posted anything for a long time, but I got into a Facebook discussion the other night and apparently the software did not allow enough room for what I was trying to say, so I am going to put it here for whatever good it may do. Some of the things I will say I have said in various places, maybe even in the archives of this blog, but I don't think they have all been said in one place at one time. So here it is.

The discussion didn't start there, but it ended up in a debate over following the Bible vs. following the Holy Spirit. The obvious answer is that we need both. In practice, it is never that easy. The sad truth is, through much of history, the Church at large has neglected and ignored the Holy Spirit. For hundreds of years the Christian world was dominated by a doctrine that the Holy Spirit works only through the written Word. Even Pentecostals and Charismatics have over time declined into a tendency to focus on what the Holy Spirit says through "anointed" preachers, teachers, and "prophets'' rather than each Christian learning to hear what the Holy Spirit has to say themselves. In sixty-one years of life, all but the last two spent in local congregations, I have only seen one local church that made any kind of serious effort to teach ordinary church members how to hear from the Holy Spirit themselves. And I have seen all too many members of the clergy who seem to prefer being the spokesman for the Holy Spirit rather than having Him at work among their people without their supervision. (That's about the kindest way I can put it.)

I am not trying to say we should not read the Bible. We do need a good working knowledge of it: the basic drift of the overall Old Testament story, the life and teachings of Jesus, His death and Resurrection, the life of the early Church from Acts and the Epistles, and so on. But knowledge of the Bible is not the end in itself; it is a means to the real end, knowing its Author. The Jews had hundreds of years to figure out the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah; yet when He came, the ones who had the most trouble recognizing him were the "scribes and Pharisees", the Bible scholars of the day. They had focused on the means so much they missed the real purpose of all their study.

I hate to say it, but human beings are too lazy for their own good. Our fallen human nature does not want to take the time to develop a close personal relationship with the Creator. Left to itself, human nature wants a set of hoops to jump through, so it can feel good about what it has done and then go on and live like it wants to. In church leaders, that fallen human nature tends to look around for hoops to give the members. (After all, it's easier to evaluate how many hoops a given church member has racked up than to get close enough to the person to find out how they actually live.) Read the Bible all the way through in a year? Chalk up a hoop. Memorize the most verses in a contest? Another hoop. Get a pin for a year's perfect attendance at Sunday School? One more hoop.

The problem here is the assumption that knowledge of the Bible is equal to spiritual growth. What if it isn't? One thing that has stuck with me over the years from a college class in Christian education is this quote: "Learning has not taken place until there is change in the life of the learner." If all the Bible you have absorbed does not change the way you live, you haven't really learned it. Or as Jesus Himself advised, "You will know them by their fruit." He is more interested in results in our lives than in credentials from programs and classes.

So far, I've edited out about half of what I had above this line, because I want to focus on the real point: it is possible to follow the Holy Spirit, and learn to hear Him (Yes, "Him," not "it"--the New Testament uses the masculine pronoun, not the neuter). It can be done. But it is not easy. The religious hoops seem to be the easy way, at least at first; but they only lead you to either great frustration, or self-righteousness and pride.

The first step in learning to hear and follow the Holy Spirit is the hardest for us fallen human beings. It can be summed up as "Sit down and shut up!" We want to do things; we want to be leaders; we want to have our say; we want to be in control of the situation. These desires go back to the original temptation that caused Eve and Adam to fall: "You shall be as God." We want to be autonomous; we want to be master of our fate.

And the key to learning to follow the Holy Spirit is to give all that up. "Sit down"--quit doing things on your own and in your own way. "Shut up"--because as long as you are talking, you are not listening to Him. The first thing we must do is surrender our desire to be in control and yield the control to Him. It is hard for us to do, and has to be done again and again, day by day until we learn the habit. We want so much to be in control. But as a very wise pastor I once knew liked to say, "If you can see where you're going, you aren't walking by faith." But when you give up control, you have to trust the One who is in control. The "religious" word for this is "faith." In fact, "trust" is the literal meaning of the Greek word that is usually translated "faith" in the New Testament.

When you trust someone you don't rush in and do things your way; you wait for the one you trust to do it. But most of us rush in and do things and say things without waiting to hear from the Holy Spirit what we should do and say. We have not learned to trust Him. And being what we are, it does take time to learn this pattern of doing things.

I'm going to use an example from my own life for how this can work. I have always been musical; I learned to play guitar as a teenager, I sang in choirs in high school and in church. I started "leading the singing," as we called it back then, when I was seventeen (this was still in the days of organ and piano). And I have led worship in small churches and small groups over the years. At first, I planned it all my way. I might ask the preacher what he was talking about, then sit down with the hymnal and pick songs that worked with his topic if I could. I would have some rousing stuff first, then quieter as the service went on to communion.

But in a small group we were in at the Cincinnati Vineyard, I began to learn a new way. The group met on Thursday evenings. I would start praying for the music on Friday, and keep it up for a few days. Around Monday or Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest, songs would start spontaneously popping into my mind, sometimes three or four in sequence. All I had to do was write down the list, maybe put one group of songs in front of another. And they worked as well, often better, than what I planned myself. The oddest thing of all was the occasional week when the songs did not come. If I didn't receive the music by Wednesday, I would sit down and work it out the old human away, or pull out a list from a few months ago. And invariably the same thing happened: late Wednesday night or sometime Thursday the phone would ring, and the group leader would tell me something had come up and we would not be meeting that week. The Holy Spirit didn't give me the music because we did not need it. If we needed it, He gave it. In a later group, I reached the point where I did not plan anything ahead; I just sat down with my guitar, strummed a few seconds, and the song came into my head and I played and sang as He gave it to me. (It helps if the group has a good-sized body of music they all know--this one did.)

At one time during our years at that Vineyard, my wife and I went through their training to serve on the Prayer Teams, praying for individuals at the end of the services. One of the things we were taught was not to start praying as soon as the person told us their need, but to wait a few moments and ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to pray for the matter. It felt awkward at first (remember what I said above about how we want to rush in and do) but it worked very well as we learned to rely on the Spirit.

This fits with what Jesus told the disciples: "When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say." Luke 12:11-12, NASB Two things: (1) That was not just for them--we are all supposed to be "filled with the Holy Spirit." (2) It is not just for the big "life-and-death" matters; we need to learn it on the little things. If you decide to take up mountain climbing, you do not start by heading for Mt. Everest; you start with smaller mountains closer to home. When you have learned to trust Him in the little things, you will be able to trust Him when the "life-and-death" matters come up.

What about the Bible, then? For starters, it is where we begin to learn about the Holy Spirit. And it can be a way to check what we think we are hearing from the Spirit, especially in the beginning; if what we think we are hearing is at odds with the precepts of the Bible, then we need to wait for Him to clarify the matter. He inspired the human writers of the Bible, and He is available to guide us; but He will not contradict Himself. If there is an apparent contradiction, either we are hearing something else other than the Holy Spirit, or there is something wrong in our understanding of the words of the Bible at that point. Wait and see which it is. And as time goes on, you will come to walk in the reality of what Jesus said, "My sheep know my voice." It becomes easier over time. The real barrier that most of us never pass is to "Sit down and shut up" in the beginning.

1 comment:

ded said...


Enjoyed reading this. I particularly appreciated your quote about if it hasn't changed the way you live...