Discerning the Spirit

Discerning the Spirit

This coming Sunday is a significant time in the life of our church. It’s Vision Sunday, where we prayerfully consider and lay out our vision for the coming year and where we feel that God is leading us. I have the immense privilege of preaching on Sunday and articulating the vision that I feel God has laid on my heart for our church.

It’s an exciting time for us as a church. But it’s also a little nerve-wracking as I seek to discern where God is leading and what the Spirit is saying to us as a church for the coming season. What if I have got it wrong? What if I haven’t listened attentively enough? What if my discernment isn’t attuned to God’s purposes? As one person who I was talking to this week put it, “How do you know what God is saying?”

That’s a vital question to have an answer for. Whether it’s thinking of the direction of a church, or the direction of our lives, discerning the Spirit is an important part of the Christian life. So how exactly do we go about it? I think there are three important elements to discerning the Spirit’s direction:

Hear what the Spirit has already said. The Scriptures are always the foundation for hearing the Spirit’s voice and direction. God is always consistent and never contradicts himself. Where God has spoken in his Word, we need to take heed and allow the Spirit to bring those words home to our hearts. Whether we are looking for direction in matters big or small, we start by searching the Scriptures and listening for what God has already made known.

Hear what the Spirit is saying. Sometimes the Bible gives very clear direction for our discernment and decision-making. At other times it gives an understanding of what God’s purposes and character are like, but not a definite direction to take. We then bring the matter to God in prayer, laying our thoughts and choices into his hands and asking for his wisdom. We are attentive to the Spirit’s leading, paying close attention to what he is laying on our hearts. One of the ways in which the Spirit does this is through the gift of His peace. A sense of peace and calm about a decision or direction often comes from God, and a lack of peace is a red flag waved in our potential course of action.

Hear what the Spirit is saying through others. God hasn’t given us the task of seeking his direction alone. Rather, he places us in the community of the church and it is in that community that we listen for his voice. God speaks through the wisdom and insight of others. We may have a sense of peace about a decision, and an understanding of how it agrees with Scripture. If so, it is a good and right to bring it others, to hear what they have to say and to get their sense of peace and agreement with the Word. Many people have sadly gone astray, not from a desire to hear God’s voice, but from a lack of listening with others.

When the church in Jerusalem sent Paul and Barnabas to Antioch with instructions for the church there, they framed their discernment in these words: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” That is a very helpful aim in wanting to discern the Spirit’s direction. Does this seem good to the Holy Spirit, in what he has revealed in Scripture, and in what he is revealing to me? Does it seem good in the eyes of others, especially wise Christian believers who I trust? If so, let’s go forward in humble confidence, continuing to listen closely to the Spirit’s leading.