Hearing the Holy Spirit

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At our Life Group this week, we picked up on the theme of God sending the Holy Spirit from Sunday’s service.  We focused in on these words from Acts 2:17-18 where Peter quotes the prophet Joel:

   ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young men will see visions,
    and your old men will dream dreams.
18 In those days I will pour out my Spirit
    even on my servants—men and women alike—
    and they will prophesy.

I think the point here is this. The sending of the Holy Spirit would lift a particular judgement on God’s people.  The Old Testament prophets had been told that the people would become like the idols they were enslaved to.

Isaiah 6:9-10 describes them as people who listen but do not hear, look but do not see. Just as their idols were blind, death and mute because they were false gods, so too would the worshippers be. So, a people who are dreaming, seeing visions and prophesying are a people who are able to see what God is doing and showing them, hear what he is saying and speak for him.   

This is one of the reasons why I’m not a cessationist.  Some Christians believe that gifts of the Spirit such as prophecy, tongues, healing were given for a limited time, until the completion of Scripture.  Their concern is to protect Scripture from being undermined.  I think that’s a good concern to have but I think they are wrong in how they try to achieve that.

I think that the approach comes from a misunderstanding which ironically is very close to how modern secularism thinks.  If you think that God only speaks on one or two things – specifically on the Gospel in the Bible and then essentially he leaves us to our own devices, that it’s up to us to reason things out by ourselves, then cessationism makes sense. But it means that you end up in a world where God is pretty much silent and absent.

Yet, that’s not actually how Scripture portrays God’s engagement in his creation. He is not the divine originator who lit the blue touch paper, then stepped back, only to drop by every so often.  Rather, he is the God who is constantly involved, sustaining his creation and revealing things all the time. That’s why Psalm 19 says:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
    The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
    night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
    their voice is never heard.[a]
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
    and their words to all the world.

It’s also why Paul in Romans 1 could say that we are without excuse in our sin because God has clearly spoken and revealed who he is through creation.  It’s not just that God has given us the means to work out through reason and empirical evidence who he is. His revelation presses unavoidably in on us so that when we don’t believe it is because we supress the truth, we suppress the revelation.

So, my starting point is that

  1. God is always speaking
  2. God’s people have had their eyes and ears opened so that they know the shepherd’s voice.

This means that we should be expectant all the time to be seeing what God is showing us and what he is doing, expectant to hear him speaking.

On a quick side note, we talk in terms of two types of revelation. There’s special revelation and general revelation. I think that the mistake that cessationism makes is that it puts prophecy into the first category when only Scripture is special revelation. Meanwhile some charismatics fall into a similar error by suggesting that the difference between scriptural or OT prophecy and prophetic gifts in the church is one of quality, so that prophecy now is fallible.  This makes it sound like God could give us faulty messages. It’s important to remember that God does not make mistakes and doesn’t give us faulty signals.  The problem always lies with our finitude so that we can mishear or misinterpret. 

Special revelation is focused on telling the story of redemption and found only in the Bible. General Revelation is the category which includes everything else that God is revealing through whatever means.  By the way, I think this also means that when we are seeking to discern God’s will for us as a church, we need to give attention and weight when the doctor gives a medical perspective, the engineer or architect brings plans and schematics or the treasurer tells us what the financial situation is. If they are believers, filled with the Spirit then they are thinking God’s thoughts after him just as the person who has a word of knowledge or sees a picture is. 

This should remind us that we will all have different experiences because we are all different.  At our Life Group we found that some people had experienced God showing them in pictures and dreams, others had been aware of an inner voice, of words, some talked about how they were alert to themes that came together and one talked about experiencing particular sensations such as pain in parts of their body when God was leading them to pray for healing. 

I suspect that this reflects how we are naturally. Some of us are more visual thinkers and some of us process words more.  I wouldn’t be surprised either to see that the particular things people hear or see align closely with the things that they prioritise.   Don’t be surprised to discover that medics get led to pray for healing. This encourages us also to see that praying for healing doesn’t conflict with seeking medical treatment.

However, we should also be ready for God to interrupt our normal patterns to get our attention. In fact, I would give particular weight and attention when someone says “I don’t normally…”  For example, personally, my own normal experience is that it’s as I’m engaging day to day in Scripture that something which we might describe as the “nowness” of a text stands out to me.  I believe that this is an important aspect of prophecy. In fact, the Puritans considered preaching to be a form of prophecy and had prophecy meetings where they practiced their preaching.  Even today, we sometimes describe a particular preacher’s ministry as “prophetic” meaning that when they preach, we are particular alert to the relevance, to the “nowness” of what they are saying.

Finally, some practical thoughts:

  1. I think that the best thing we can do is to encourage people to have confidence to share what they think they might be seeing/hearing.  In fact, I’d take the pressure off by encouraging them not to worry about labels, not to add in dramatic introductions. Just to say “this has been on my heart/mind”.   
  2. We do well to separate out reporting what we’ve seen/heard from attempting to interpret it and to apply it.  I would say “Go quick on reporting, slower on interpreting, slower still on applying.” Though where and how we report will depend a little on how fully formed the word is.  If you are still at the stage of working out what it means and how it should be applied, then I’d start small.  Check with a few other people, talk to the elders, maybe share in a small group context and allow others to pitch in.  Be ready to talk it through and hear what others are saying.  Just as a “tongue” requires interpreters to be present, we need to make sure that the public worship gathering isn’t filled with uninterpreted or unapplied things that could lead to confusion.  This of course applies to things like preaching, those of us responsible for proclaiming and teaching Scripture should take time to ensure that what they bring on Sunday to the gathered church is fully formed. 
  3. Everything has to be weighed and tested. This means that we first of all make sure that it is not going against Scripture (God won’t say something different or contradictory to what he has already said).  It also means asking questions like “How does this fit with other things we are seeing/hearing?” And it means asking “is it for all of us? Is it for me? Is it for someone else?”
  4. When it comes to gifts like music and preaching, we can both recognise that people have gifts in those areas and that they should train/practice.  I think we should build space into church life for training and practice in these kinds of things too.
  5. It’s important to have sensitivity about what is shared, how and where.  Make sure that you have permission to share something with another person first.  Be aware about whether it’s something to be relayed publicly or privately. Be careful not to manipulate.   If this is for them from God, then the Holy Spirit will do the work of helping them to hear and grasp it for themselves.
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