Have you ever had the notion pop into your head that you should go and visit someone? Could the Holy Spirit be planting that whisper?
I experienced a loud whisper from the Spirit in work with our sister church body in Haiti. On a trip to a church site damaged by an earthquake, we were envisioning how much better the work of ministering to others and building new houses would go if we had a guest house for visiting teams. I can remember exactly where I was standing when I had this strong urge to pay a significant amount of money to buy property for this guesthouse. The whisper said to talk to a specific woman in our group. So I asked if she would put down the same amount. It was a short exchange: if you do, I will. We did. That initial investment proved crucial in carrying momentum for ministries that flourished from this base.
At Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordon, he came up out of the water and saw a dove descending from heaven and alighting on him. Focus on the image of that dove as the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Now imagine that dove sitting on your shoulder whispering silently into your ear. In workshops, that biblical image has proven very productive for many. To complete it, you have to also imagine the Enemy sitting on your other shoulder whispering thoughts that lead you astray. Which voice will you pay attention to?
I vividly recall a personal encounter with the Spirit when I felt a calling on January 15, 1990, to plant a church and move the family cross country. That kind of personal experience is basic to the traditional understanding of a calling to a specific ministry. Recalling such a loud, convicting whisper is so valuable when encountering discouraging difficulties, especially planting a new church. Remembering this whisper experience reaffirms that this is God’s doing, not just my own.
In the workshops I have done, almost every small group has a person with a whisper story to tell. All listen carefully. One was by a woman coming home from shopping who felt an urge to visit a friend she had not seen in a while. It turns out that woman was baking and needed eggs, which this visitor could provide. That exchange led to a God-focused lengthy discussion of issues they were dealing with. I believe that whisper was the Spirit at work.
In my first workshop on the Holy Spirit, a participant shared a whisper story and was relieved to understand it as a voice from God. He had thought there was something wrong with him. For traditional believers, the realization that God is reaching out to them personally here and now opens up a whole new relationship with God. We were taught that God did mighty things in biblical times, and he talked to specific people. But we weren’t led to the understanding that God wants to talk with his followers now, just like he did then. Whisper stories add new meaning to Paul’s encouragement that we stay in step with the Spirit in our daily living.
Of course, we need to be sure that this is the Spirit at work and not just some crazy idea we want to chase. The basic test is whether this whisper advocates God-pleasing behavior. The Spirit will never prompt what is counter to God’s love and mercy. If the whisper suggests a major personal decision, wisdom lies in the direction of consulting with a few other mature Christians to get their perspective.
Martin Luther learned to be cautious in dealing with Enthusiasts who concluded that the Holy Spirit was calling them to rebel against the civil authorities. They led what is called the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525. The sad result was the slaughter of hundreds of thousands. Theirs was not God-pleasing action. That was not the Holy Spirit leading them on.
Christ’s Spirit is God’s empowering presence. Scripture teaches that the Spirit unleashes real life-changing power, not just some vague spiritual feelings. That’s why care must always be practiced when invoking the Spirit’s presence and power. It helps to distinguish between the Spirit working in my personal life and the Spirit being wished upon others.
For personal applications, be sure to seek the advice of others. That’s why Luther recognized the mutual conversation and encouragement of fellow believers to be the fifth means of God’s grace. When encountering others who are advocating the Spirit’s power for specifics in your life, be cautious. Be doubly cautious about invoking what the Spirit wants in the personal behaviors of others.
Test Those Who Speak in the Name of the Spirit
The first of the four Great Awakenings in American history happened in the 1730s and 40s. Arguably American’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards was involved but grew skeptical as the Awakening worked its way out.
That movement brought great controversy. One side emphasized religious emotions as the essence; feeling the love of God was most important. The other side taught that the heart of true religion is right thinking; emotions are fickle and often lead astray.
Edwards was decidedly Word-oriented. In his writings, he argued against a shallow, human-oriented view of spirituality. He taught to look for the following signs of the Spirit’s indwelling:
Does the presenter have a new spiritual sense and conviction that does not come from self-interest? Check on the wealth of the featured speaker/healer. Evidence of self-interest should raise doubt about the Spirit’s dominance.
Is there a pervasive sense of humility? When the Spirit is at work, he changes hearts to bring a new humility. The Spirit cannot do much with a person who is full of him or herself. Be cautious with someone whose personal life does not reflect a Christlike Spirit. Do they practice what they preach?
Since “emotions” can be a highly charged word in traditional ministry practices, we do better to talk about “affections.” That word is no longer used much in ordinary English. Edwards defined affections as strong inclinations of the soul that are manifested in thinking, feeling and acting. Affection includes a belief held with strong conviction.
Affections can be either good or bad. The difference is the good lead us toward God and the bad away from God. According to Edwards, questionable affections often go along with prideful, show-off quoting of many Scripture passages or self-serving eloquent talk, or passionate praise for God, or pharisaical devotion to religious activities.
Consider this perspective of Martin Luther. According to scholar Simeon Zahl, “affections” and the heart were at the center of Luther’s theology of justification and sanctification. For Luther, right motivation and willingness of the heart were far more important before God than right action. Luther recognized that our affections are indeed transformed by the Spirit of God.
How have you experienced whispers from the Holy Spirit? What has been your experience? How did you know it was the Holy Spirit?