Listening to the Spirit

The best place to start if you’re serious about living a Christian life is in a relationship with a spiritual guide or companion, someone who can listen deeply to you and help you explore your relationship with God. And the first and best spiritual guide we have is the Holy Spirit. Briefly, there are two questions I want to touch on. First, what will that Spirit say to us, what message will it proclaim? And second, how can we be in the best position to hear the Spirit when it speaks?

During his last evening with them, Jesus told his disciples that when the Spirit comes, it “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). Everything Jesus had, everything he taught and modeled by his example, was the gospel, the good news of what God was doing in the world. What the Spirit will speak to us will always be a continuation of the gospel Jesus began to proclaim. And the best and most authentic expressions of the gospel, I believe, are the words of Jesus and of St. Paul.

Jesus began by proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God, this way: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). The time of waiting for the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise is over, and the life with God we’ve been looking forward to in the future is now right in front of us. All we have to do is begin living it. So the Holy Spirit will always call our attention back to what’s right in front of us. Not to an idealized life we hope to have one day but to a life full of light and shadow that’s charged with grace through and through, a life whole and complete here and now. Beautiful and terrible things will happen, yes, and the God we seek will be found fully in all of it. The Spirit will be with us through it all, reassuring us that we already have what we need, what we’re looking for, even when it doesn’t feel that way. The Holy Spirit will always call our attention back to what’s right in front of us.

The Holy Spirit not only calls our attention to what’s right in front of us, it also works to reconcile all that is here and now, all the diverse people, all the contradictions and inconsistencies of life. The second expression of the gospel that I believe is most authentic is found in one of St. Paul’s letters. Describing what God was doing in Christ, Paul wrote that “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). The message entrusted to us, and the message the Holy Spirit will keep repeating and affirming, is a message of reconciliation with God and with our neighbors.

There are some misguided people who use the Christian church as a platform for their message of division, setting some people against others. They apparently have not heard about Christ, who Paul wrote has united everyone, without exception, “and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14). Their message is not the message of the Holy Spirit, and Paul warned us about them. “Watch out,” he wrote, “for people who cause divisions. Stay away from them” (Rom. 16:17 NLT); have nothing to do with them. The Spirit of God has always been breaking down barriers and creating connections between people, has always been drawing us toward reconciliation. And what the Spirit speaks today will always serve the cause of reconciliation.

Applying these two tests – Does it call our attention to what’s right in front of us? And does it speak a message of reconciliation? – will clarify whether what we hear is the voice of the Holy Spirit or the voice of some demonic spirit, or our own ego, or mere popular opinion. But those tests leave us with another question. How can we be in the best position to hear the Spirit when it speaks? About that, I have three suggestions. The best places to hear the Spirit when it speaks are in word, silence, and action.

First, the Spirit speaks to us in the word of God. “When I found your words,” Jeremiah wrote, “I devoured them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, because I bear your name, O Lord God Almighty” (Jer. 15:16). When Jesus was tested in the wilderness, he said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Food sustains our mortal bodies; the word of God sustains life in all its fullness. We open ourselves to hearing the Spirit by immersing ourselves in reading and studying the scriptures daily, and we do that best when we’re in regular conversation with others about what we find there. The Spirit speaks in the word of God.

Second, the Spirit speaks to us in silence. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10)! When Elijah fled to his cave in the wilderness and wondered whether his life was worth living, God spoke to him finally in what the scriptures variously call the sound of sheer silence, or a still, small voice, or a gentle whisper, or a soft, murmuring sound. We’re unlikely to hear the Spirit’s voice when we’re distracted by the cacophony of the life we normally live. We need to get away, symbolically if not really, like Jesus did, to a lonely place where we can listen for God’s Spirit in silence. Poet William Alexander Percy captured our condition perfectly in his poem “Home.”

“I have a need of silence and of stars;
Too much is said too loudly; I am dazed.
The silken sound of whirled infinity
Is lost in voices shouting to be heard.
I once knew men as earnest and less shrill.
An undermeaning that I caught I miss
Among these ears that hear all sounds save silence,
These eyes that see so much but not the sky,
These minds that gain all knowledge but no calm.”

Reserve time every day, in generous amounts, for silence. The Spirit speaks to us in silence.

And third, the Spirit speaks to us in action. “Be doers of the word,” James wrote, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works” (James 1:22; 2:14)? And Paul urged us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), to give our faith roots and form in the laboratory of daily living, letting experience guide our understanding and appreciation of what the Spirit whispers to us. And let your actions be joined with the actions of others, working in a common love for what God is doing in you and through you. The Spirit speaks to us in action.

Whenever you believe you hear the Spirit of God speaking to you, test that Spirit with two questions. Does it draw your attention to what’s right in front of you here and now? And does it lead you toward reconciliation with God and with your neighbors? Listen for the Spirit by immersing yourself in the scriptures, by introducing generous amounts of silence into your daily routine, and by acting to understand and put into practice what the Spirit tells you.

Continuing to hear the Spirit is tied to obedience to the Spirit. The word “spirit” appears in the book of Acts sixty-seven times, and the reason the Spirit is still guiding the church at the end of the story is because the church obeyed the Spirit when it led them at the beginning of the story. If God hasn’t spoken to you in years, maybe it’s because you didn’t obey the last thing God told you to do. Robert Raines, former director of Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania, once returned to his family farm, where he remembered the wonderfully cool, sweet, and refreshing water he drank from the farm’s well when he was a child. When he got to the well and uncovered it, he found it was dry. All the little fissures in the rocks, through which water flowed to feed the well, had filled with silt and dried up from lack of use. Something like that happens with the Spirit; if we don’t listen to it and obey it, it gradually stops communicating with us, and it grows silent. Maybe you were waiting for another option or wanted to explore another path. If you want the Holy Spirit to continue to speak to you, you’ve got to draw on it regularly and obey it when it does speak. May it always be so.

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