Led by the Spirit or Filled with Emotion?

One of the biggest problems arising from an erroneous view of the Spirit’s influence on the Christian is the emphasis on inner guidance and direct communication.  It is not uncommon to hear people refer to the Holy Spirit putting something “on their heart” or moving in a powerful way.  Someone recently told me about attending a youth camp where “the Holy Spirit was present everywhere.”  What do they mean by this?

First, it begins with a presupposition that the Spirit is personally, actively involved in their daily lives, indwelling, managing, guiding and speaking (non-verbally) to them.  This is both a comforting and exciting thought, and frankly I wish it were true.  I would love to know that the Spirit was a sort of internal GPS who would steer me in the right direction, protect me from harm, speak to me when I need a lift and correct me when going astray.  With this default outlook, it is then easy to interpret everything that happens as being connected to the Spirit.

There are instances in early church history of the Spirit having direct, verbal communication with someone.  Yet I would submit that these are not normative but part of the “scaffolding” to assist in the building of the church in its initial stages.

1) The Spirit spoke directly to Philip:  “Go near and overtake this chariot” (Ac 8:29).  Note that this is a command and is  simple, clear and objective.  Secondly, this is a directive to an inspired preacher concerning the identity of a seeker who represents a Spirit-guided expansion of the kingdom.  That is, by virtue of Saul’s persecution the church begins to spread from Jerusalem, and Ac 8:4-25 tells of its entrance into Samaria.  The second half of Ac 8, and the anecdote of the treasurer’s conversion, relates the expansion into the northern section of the African continent.  Third, there is no ambiguity to what the Spirit said to Philip, no inner feelings vague inclinations but objective information.  This is consistent with the Spirit’s personal revelations in both old and new testaments. 

2) The Spirit spoke directly to Peter:  “Behold, three men are seeking you.  Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them” (Ac 10:19-20).  Once again, we have a command that is simple, clear and objective.  Like the example above, it concerns the expansion of the kingdom, this time to a new class of potential disciples:  full-fledged Gentiles.  This accounts for the Spirit’s direct involvement, for it is He who is the God-sent comforter to direct the apostles and other key figures in the kingdom’s growth.  While this also is a clear directive, it further is an encouragement to Peter to help him past lingering anti-Gentile prejudices that would hinder his approach to Cornelius.

3) When the Spirit wanted to ramp up the preaching among the Gentiles, He again issued a simple, clear and objective command:  “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Ac 13:2).  It is not as clear in this case who was spoken to, but the information conveyed by the Spirit is unambiguous.  All three of these interactions are specifically related to the global spread of the kingdom; each a watershed moment in its own right.   

These are the only three instances of direct communication by the Spirit to men in the early church.  One other possibility is the prohibition of the Spirit issued to Paul against entering the province of Asia (Ac 16:6), but it is not stated how this message was conveyed.  There are various reasons why these should not be considered normative, yet they confirm to charismatics that the Holy Spirit is still directly engaged with people today.       

Secondly, what people today mean by the Holy Spirit putting something on their heart or guiding them is essentially a feeling or an interpretation of events.  In this they confuse their desires or even prayers about a certain outcome of life with the Spirit’s communication.  This is not an uncommon scenario:  A loved one is in critical condition, and the doctors gather the family and tell them to prepare for the end.  Fervent prayers are offered.  A respected religious figure visits and declares that the Spirit has told him the patient will not die.  Lo and behold, against all odds and medical judgment the patient recovers and all ends well.  The chances of teaching the family that the Spirit does not issue such modern-day prophecies is somewhere between slim and none.

There are several dangers in this view of the Spirit’s activity: 

1) It subordinates what Scripture clearly says to one’s subjective feelings. 

2) It exalts emotion and reflects the post-modern notion of relativism.

3) It opens one to believing or committing error in all good conscience.

4) It encourages hyper-emotionalism in worship.

5) It blinds the mind to truth that is only discerned intellectually.

6) It inhibits intensity of effort in hope that the Spirit will act for us.

In short, we must be wary of the notion of the Holy Spirit leading and guiding our lives and/or communicating with us outside of scripture.

Two passages mention being led by the Spirit:

1) Rom 8:14 – “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”  This passage deserves more attention than we can give it here, but Paul previously said those who “live according to the Spirit [set their minds on] the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5).  He also said, “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (8:9).  The indwelling of the Spirit is closely tied to the leading of the Spirit, which I would submit is accomplished by the revelation of the Spirit (cf. last week’s article).

2) Gal 5:18 – “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Like the previous passage, there is no definitive method or process of leading in this context.  But Paul did begin the epistle with a strong defense of the gospel and issued a grave warning against anyone who would preach a different message than Paul’s (1:6-9).  They received the Spirit “by the hearing of faith” (3:2).  By remaining in the truth of that message they then bear “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22-23).  We have that message today in the new testament revelation inspired by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:10-16).