We talk about following the Holy Spirit, but how often do we actually do just that in our day-to-day lives?
Francis and Edith Schaeffer were a Christian couple deeply committed to challenging believers’ assumptions about biblical living and diving into the difficult complexities of Christian living. As Michael S. Hamilton stated in Christianity Today, “Perhaps no intellectual save C. S. Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole.”
Francis’s childhood with a father who only received a third-grade education and a mother who struggled with chronic depression gave him a heart for contending with the tragic, confusing and ignominious aspects of living in a broken world.
He asked the questions most people weren’t willing to touch.
In her book The Tapestry, Edith Schaeffer shares one particular conversation her husband had with her. “’Edith, I wonder what would happen to most churches and Christian work if we awakened tomorrow, and everything concerning the reality and work of the Holy Spirit, and everything concerning prayer, were removed from the Bible. I don’t mean just ignored, but actually cut out—disappeared. I wonder how much difference it would make?’
“We concluded it would not make much difference in many board meetings, committee meetings, decisions and activities.”
If the Holy Spirit were to suddenly vanish from our lives, how long would it take us to notice? We would still have salvation thanks to Christ’s sacrifice. We could still technically pray in the same way that the ancient Israelites did so.
What parts of our everyday lives would actually change if the Spirit was gone?
Having the Spirit Without Listening
David Wilkerson, a man who constantly strove to be in step with the Spirit, once said, “I have been preaching for 55 years now, and I've preached a lot about the Holy Spirit. We know the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, in measure. Not as we should. But we know the doctrine. We talk about the paraclete, the Comforter. We talk about walking in the Spirit, living in the Spirit. We talk about the revelation of the Holy Spirit. We know the terms. But you can know the theology, you can know the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and not know him personally.
“If I were to ask you, ‘Have you received the Holy Spirit?’, many would say, ‘Yes, I have because you can't be saved unless the Holy Spirit opens your heart. It's the work of the Holy Spirit to bring us to Christ.’ …some would say, ‘Well, I know I know the Holy Spirit because I speak with tongues. I see that as an evidence, speaking with tongues.’
“Now, I can say with Paul, I speak with tongues more than you all. Every day, in my daily devotions, I pray in another language and believe that, though I don't understand, the Holy Spirit understands what is being said through my vessel and through my tongue.
“But you see, the Holy Spirit is not received fully…. Our body is a temple of the Holy Ghost. He is not fully received until he's taken his place of ministry.”
It’s disconcerting how often we let our talk about God act as a substitute for actual experience with him. If Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is anything to go by, this isn’t an uncommon problem either.
He tells them, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit…” (Ephesians 5:18, NIV). Apparently, people in that church were living in ways that were indistinguishable from the nonbelievers around them. To combat this, Paul tells them to be filled with the Spirit, but they were already believers. Did they already have the Holy Spirit inside them?
Paul had already commanded them, “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8-10). How often do we turn to God to ‘discern what is pleasing’ to him? Once a day? Once a month?
What if we talked to him hourly, consulting him on any decision, using our God-given reason to make plans and take action but always open to divine redirection?
This sounds so easy, so why don’t we do it more often?
Hearing the Hardest Things
Francis Chan points out, in his book Forgotten God, that if we had never been to church and had only ever read the Bible, we would have some pretty significant expectations for the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit heals people emotionally, mentally and physically. He grants believers the authority to drive out demons. He raises people from the dead. That’s just for starters.
So why does he seem largely nonexistent in the Western church? It’s gone so far that some denominations even argue that supernatural spiritual gifts are no longer part of Christians’ lives. I doubt that any believer in Central Asia who has seen visions of Christ or one in Africa who has witnessed the Lord raise someone from the grave would say that the Spirit doesn’t still move in miraculous ways.
A lot of reasons have been offered for why the Spirit seems absent in the Western church and dynamic in Asian and African church. Many explanations and excuses seem to boil down to anxiety about what the Spirit might do if he did show up.
In study videos on his book, Francis Chan says, “So if God could ask your group to do anything tonight, what do you think he would ask you to do? If you guys were completely surrendered and just said, ‘God, we’ll do anything — all of us agree, we’ll do anything you ask us to do,’ what do you think he’d have you do?
“…could it be that, if you were really open to the Spirit of God, that he might ask you to walk out of that room and do something pretty radical? Are you open to considering that?
“When you look in scripture, how does the Holy Spirit lead people? Think about it. In every Bible story you know, when God was asking someone to do something, did he typically ask them to do something that was comfortable? Or wasn’t it that most of the time he’s leading us into a life of adventure where it may lead to some pain, some discomfort? Because, really, the most comfortable thing you guys could do is stay in that room and talk things through or talk about God’s will for next year.”
What does God want you to do right now? Do you know? If you don’t, how do you find out?
When you find out, will you be willing to do it?
Planning Plus Following the Spirit
Some people are planners. They like to have everything mapped out in advance. Go on a vacation with them, and they will have a running itinerary of every plane transfer, hotel, train and potential lunch stop along the way. Get in the car with them, and they immediately open maps on their phone if there’s the slightest hesitancy about the route to their destination. They probably also have a one year, five year and 10 year plan for their lives too.
Maybe you are that person for whom deviating from ‘the plan’ is super stressful.
A lot of people aren’t wild about life’s unexpected U-turns, but maybe the idea of potentially walking away from a job or a relationship or activities you feel responsible for overseeing gives you intense anxiety.
You’re super great at planning, or you know it’s wise to plan, but how does following the Spirit fit with this discipline (or compulsion) you’ve developed?
Pastor Rusty George explored this idea on his podcast, “If I’m writing a sermon and I sit down and write it on Wednesday, am I not letting the Spirit lead on Sunday because I’m using my notes or I’ve memorized some things to say?”
He urges listeners to consider a few things before they answer. First, which way are we naturally inclined? Are we more of a planner or a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants kind of person? Chances are the Spirit will be nudging us in the opposite direction from our natural inclination. Second, sometimes a well put together plan gives the Spirit more room to work. This may involve doing everything we can and then entrusting it to God, or it may be allowing the Spirit to lead a brainstorming session that allows us to construct a really good plan. Third and most important, check the nudge you’re feeling against the Bible.
Rusty concludes, “Make sure that when you’re trying to walk that balance beam in between following the whims of the Holy Spirit and the planning and structure of how you’re wired, make sure you line it up with what the Word of God says.”
Following the Spirit doesn’t mean throwing planning out the window. It only means we need to plan with him and never let the plan become more important than his call.