Finding Direction

Does the Holy Spirit speak to you? How good are you at hearing from Him? Would you like to get better? We are meant to know the Holy Spirit but knowing someone begins with communication, in all of its various forms.

Today I want to talk about guidance and direction for your life, because I believe the Holy Spirit really does guide and lead and speak to ordinary human beings like you and me. I want to start by sharing a few things simply as a matter of biblical record. * The Holy Spirit led the children of Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.
* The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness after he was baptized, and literally all through his ministry.
* In the early church, the Holy Spirit spoke to Peter at Cornelius’ home about God’s love for the Gentiles.
* He spoke to Philip and enabled him to engage in a supernatural witnessing encounter with an Ethiopian official.
* He stopped the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus and turned his world upside down.
And the Holy Spirit did not develop laryngitis at the end of the first century. He still speaks to people. Now, it’s kind of a strange thing in our day that it’s almost universally accepted that it’s possible for human beings to talk to God. Everyone’s okay with that one.
But somehow, the idea that God — who, after all, is omniscient, all knowing and all-powerful — might want to speak to us is hard for people to grapple with. The theologian, Lilly Tomlin, put it like this. She said:
Why is it that when we talk to God it’s called prayer, but when God talks to us, it’s called schizophrenia? — Lilly Tomlin
God really does talk to human beings. That’s part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit that we’re studying together. So today I want to spend some time working real hard with you on this idea of the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit.
And then we’re going to look at what this means for you and me.
And I’m planning on really challenging us on this one today. And I want to start with this question that a lot of people have asked me in my role as a pastor over the years. This question is:
“Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit talk to me as clearly as he does to you?”
And the answer is — Because he likes me better.
No, that’s not it. We’re going to look at several places in Scripture. I’ve known some people who, real early in the Christian life, know and understand that God is speaking to them.
There are some people for whom that aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry just seems to come naturally.
I’ll tell you real frankly, I’m not one of them.
In many ways, my natural inclination is to be skeptical — to think, “That’s probably just my own thought.” I’ve had to learn, to some extent, to fight to grow in this part of relating to the Holy Spirit, which is so important. And so this passage we’re going to look at has become very, very precious to me.
It’s 1 Samuel 3, verses 1-10.
The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. [because the Spirit had not been poured out]
One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”
Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ’Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
I want to stop reading there.
Here’s the main point I want to make — God was talking to Samuel, but Samuel did not realize that it was God speaking to him.
We’re told Samuel didn’t even know God yet.
And here’s the point — it is possible for God to communicate with someone, and for that person to not realize that it’s God’s voice. Listening to God is learned behavior. It’s learned behavior. Samuel required what might be called “the ministry of Eli.” He needed someone to help him recognize the voice of the Lord when it came to him. And that’s what I want so much — for that ministry of Eli to take place right here, right now, in your life. You’ll notice Eli’s advice.
He said to Samuel, “You’ll have to be still. You’ll have to go lie down. Quiet your spirit. You’ll have to listen.”
And then he says, “You’ll have to trust.”
In other words, Samuel is going to have to have enough faith to believe that when that voice speaks, that could actually be God speaking to him.
He would have enough faith to dare to believe that God might actually talk to a little boy like Samuel. That’s a lot of faith. He would have to quiet himself. He would have to trust. And then he’d have to respond. Eli says to make this reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
“Your servant, God. You say the word, and I’ll do it. I’m available.”
And I was thinking as I read this passage, what if everyone in our church made that our prayer? — “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Here’s what I find. For many, many people in Christian circles, it feels kind of presumptuous to them.
I’ll put it in the form of this question — isn’t this direct guidance reserved for super saints or high-profile spiritual giants?
There’s another question. Some people say, “Alright, it may be possible that the Holy Spirit really does speak to people and guide them, but isn’t that reserved for a special category in the Christian faith?” I want to look with you at Numbers 22 now, a little earlier on in the Old Testament.
This is a misconception — this idea that God will only speak to certain select leaders.
It’s a misconception that keeps many people from having a truly interactive relationship with God through the Holy Spirit.
So I want to attack this one head-on.
The fact that God speaks to you is no indication of specialness or spiritual superiority or elevated righteousness or importance in the church, because the Lord can speak through anyone.
And we’re about to look at the absolute classic text in that regard. This is the story of a prophet named Balaam.
And enemies of Israel — the princes of Moab — asked him to go with them to curse the people of Israel. Numbers 22:
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.
Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.
Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
[This donkey is not just talking, he’s appealing to reason. — “Now, have I ever done this kind of thing to you before?”
And Balaam says, “Well, you’ve got a point there. That’s an excellent point, donkey.”]
“No,” he said.
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. (Numbers 22:21-31) Now I want you to think about the donkey for a moment.
This is an unusual experience for an animal. What if that donkey had gotten all filled with pride and arrogance?
What if he pranced back to the stable and said to the other animals, “On your knees, creatures, because you’re ordinary dumb beasts of burden. But I’m your spiritual superior. I, a donkey, am the mouthpiece of the Lord.” What if the donkey would have responded in that way?
Well, he would have made an ass of himself. I’m sorry. Please don’t email me. I apologize. Okay, here’s the deal. The idea that guidance from God is available only to a special class of Christians is deadly. It’s just deadly.
The heart of Christianity is that you and I can have a personal relationship with the God of the universe in this life and forever in the life to come. That’s the heart of our faith. Jesus says this about any who would follow him in John 14:23.
My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home in them.
Now, how can there be a personal relationship in any meaningful sense without two-way communication? How can that happen?
Imagine a marriage where all the communication is one-sided. Let me ask you a question.
In a marriage, if one person does all the talking and the other person never says anything, they just sit there like a bump on a log, never revealing their heart, never expressing their true feelings, we’d call that person a — no, not man! We call them a non-communicative person. Now, you have to ask yourself the question. Is God a non-communicative person? Because it’s one or the other.
Either through the Holy Spirit God does lead and guide and prompt and communicate with you, or he doesn’t. There really is no third ground. Dallas Willard has written the best book on this subject that I know. It’s called “Hearing God.”
This is part of what he writes:
A little child’s mother died. He could not be adequately consoled and continued to be troubled, especially at night. He would come in to the room where his father was and ask to sleep with him. He would never rest until he knew, not only that he was with his father, but that his father’s face was turned towards him. He would ask in the dark, “Father, is your face turned toward me now?” And when he was, at last, assured of this, he was at peace and able to sleep.
[And then Dallas writes:]
How lonely life is. We can get by in life with a God who does not speak. Many at least think they do, but it is not much of a life, and it is certainly not the life God intends for all of us. There is all the difference in the world between having a fine, general view that this is our Father’s world, versus having confidence based on experience that the Father’s face, whether in the dark of the night or the brightness of the day, is turned toward us, shining upon us, and that the Father is speaking to us individually.
You see, the God of the Bible is not silent.
* He speaks through nature, which the Psalmist says, “declares his glory, day after day.”
* He speaks through the writers of Scripture, who the Holy Spirit has inspired and causes to breathe life into us.
* He speaks through other followers of Christ who encourage and rebuke and challenge.
* The God of the Bible speaks through burning bushes and little boys and talking donkeys and through a still, small voice.
And that God has not grown silent today.
God does not restrict his voice to spiritual superstars.
And that may be the single most powerful weapon the evil one uses to keep us from a richly interactive life of friendship and partnership and love with God.
God does not restrict his speaking to some subset of Christian celebrities. He’s not that kind of God.
He wants to commune and communicate with you and me. Now, that leads to another question —
How can I recognize God’s voice?
How do I keep from confusing the leadings of the Holy Spirit with my own impulses, or worse yet, with impulses from the evil one? Well, put it in the form of this question — How do you learn to recognize anyone’s voice? It’s by experience.
You hear it again and again, and over time, you come to know that it belongs to a certain person.
Part of knowing a person is recognizing their voice. A voice has a certain tone. It can be warm or grating or frantic or whining.
We come to recognize a voice belongs to someone because the content of what they say has a certain tone or spirit. And there’s certain content that we associate with certain people.
When you know someone really well, you know just the kind of thing they’d say in a certain situation.
Well, Jesus’ followers came to recognize when he was speaking.
In John 10:4, Jesus says this:
When he [the shepherd] has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. Okay, but how do I recognize God’s voice when I don’t hear physical sounds?
Because I believe, for the most part, in our day when God speaks, you don’t hear audible sounds. I want to read Luke 24 to you. And I need to explain one aspect of God’s speaking before I read it.
Think about what communication or speaking to another person is. It’s simply the process of guiding someone’s thoughts. Because I’m speaking right now, because I’m making sounds, you’re having certain thoughts that you would not otherwise have.
But because I’m finite, I have to use physical means to do that. I have to make sounds, and you hear them, and you have certain thoughts.
Or I can write things down, and when you see those sights, then you’ll have certain thoughts.
You hear sounds or read words, and you have thoughts you wouldn’t, otherwise, have. That’s what communication is. Now, because I’m finite, I have to use finite means. But because God is infinite, he doesn’t need to use finite means. God can directly guide your thoughts. It’s possible for you to have a thought — a leading, a prompting — that comes directly from the Holy Spirit, who is with you all the time.
And you may not know it’s from him. So how do you recognize it? Luke 24 is after the resurrection. This is the story of two disciples who are on the road to Emmaus. And Jesus meets up with them, but we’re told in this story that they were kept from recognizing him. So here’s their situation, much like ours is a lot of times.
Jesus is speaking to them, guiding their thoughts, but they didn’t know it was him. They were having these thoughts, the Scriptures were being clarified for them, but they didn’t discern that it was his voice. Now, look at verses 31 and 32.
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, [this is one of the great statements in Scripture] “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:31-32) Alright, so what’s going on here? Well, Jesus’ words always had a certain impact on his follower’s hearts. They’d been experiencing that for three years. Something happened inside them when they would listen to Jesus.
* When Jesus spoke, their hearts were filled with love for God.
* When Jesus spoke, they saw sin for the folly and stupidity and emptiness that it really was.
* When Jesus spoke, they were reminded that servanthood really is the true path to greatness. It really is the best way, because his words were always consistent with Scripture and always so wise.
* When Jesus spoke, he touched their best longings for everything good.
* When Jesus spoke, he made their hearts burn. No one else’s words had that effect on them.
And so they say to each other, “We should have recognized his voice from the way it affected our hearts. We should have known.” Jesus had this impact on his friends when he spoke to them, and he still does when he speaks to you and me. Jesus said to his friends before he left, “I’ll be with you always. You may not see me, but I’ll be there, and you’ll talk to me, and I will speak with you through the Holy Spirit who will come. And you’ll know me by that burning in your heart, because of the impact that my words, my thoughts, have on a human life.” Jesus told us that. So I want, now, to leave the classroom and come over to real life. And I want to ask you to make a covenant today.
Will you say, tomorrow and the next day, all week long, my prayer is going to be, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Now, you’re going to have to do some things to be able to listen to God well.
You’re going to have to get real still. You’re going to have to make concrete plans to get real still. One time when God wanted to speak to Elijah, he had Elijah go out onto a mountain.
And there was all kinds of real noisy activity.
* There was a wind that was so strong that we’re told it shattered the rocks.
* And there was a great earthquake.
* And there was great fire.
But when God spoke, he spoke in a still, small voice.
And usually, that’s what the Holy Spirit does. Very rarely will the Holy Spirit shout to get someone’s attention.
He will speak in a still, small voice.
But if you don’t learn to be still, all the voices that come at you from this world — from social media, from TV, from the place where you work, and all the voices that come at you from within yourself — will prevent you from hearing. So Blue Oaks, I’m asking you to be still this week. And I want to give you a concrete example of how to do this, and then we’ll be done. For me, a real important deal is when I first get up in the morning, I’ll spend some time with God.
I’ll kind of mentally walk through what’s going on in the day.
And I’ll ask him to identify any voices that are inside of me — fear, worry, doubt, concern.
And then, I’ll just empty my mind of whatever is happening in me.
And then I’ll ask God to speak.
And the prayer I’m using these days is — “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And there will be certain times, all through the day, when the Spirit wants to speak to you.
It’s not an every moment deal. It’s real important that you learn to make lots of decisions on your own.
But very often, there will be times when the Spirit wants to speak to you. I was in a conversation this week with a friend, and we were talking about family issues. His kids are grown up.
He was talking to me about how fast the years fly when children are at home. And he said to me these four words. He said, as we were talking about my kids, “Lean into these years.”
That’s a real simple thing — “Lean into these years.”
But something happened inside my heart. I had a real clear sense that the Spirit was speaking to me and that I needed to do some things differently with one of my children. And I was working on this message. I was trying to figure out how to end this message, and I had to decide, would I go be with that child, or would I figure out how to end this message? Alright, would you bow your head and I’m going to pray for you to close. No. I’m kidding. Don’t bow your head.
You thought you were getting out early. You were excited. I’ll let you out early, but let me say this, because it’s a real important deal about leadings. — The Holy Spirit will never lead you in such a way that causes you to dishonor basic, vital commitments. I have a real important commitment to my children.
And I have a real important commitment to my ministry and to this church.
And the Spirit will never cause me to dishonor that.
And if people try to invoke the name of promptings or leadings to dishonor, to disregard, or blow off important commitments they’ve made, that’s a real dangerous thing. There is a way to do both. But God was speaking to me through the words that a friend spoke. Would you make sure you’re listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit when you’re speaking to people. I had a conversation with someone in the courtyard recently. You know how sometimes you can say to someone, “How are you doing?” but you don’t really want to know how they’re doing?
Or you can say it and really want to know.
Well I just had a prompting and I wanted to know.
And we talked and it was real clear that he faced a very important decision.
And it was quite clear what direction would be the most honoring to God.
And we had a fairly brief, but real intense conversation about that.
And a couple days later, we talked again. And it was just so clear that God was in that conversation. Now, does that mean that there’s something special about me?
It means I’m about, at least, as spiritual as Balaam’s donkey.
I’m in the fellowship of Balaam’s donkey. And what a cool deal it would be if we all would be in the fellowship of Balaam’s donkey. In fact, I don’t even quite measure up to that. I could tell you about another time this week, when there were a lot of voices going on in my life and I, kind of, rushed past a prompting that, looking back on it, was quite clear. And I just didn’t even stop to recognize it. I could take you to another time when I had a very clear prompting and I deliberately said, “No.” I just said, “I want to sin.” And so sometimes the Spirit comes and talks to you and me about those moments. Romans 8:16 says:
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
You know, I could take you to a spot on the Pleasanton ridge, where on a real painful day, a number of years ago, that happened for me.
And there wasn’t even a message to do something. But you know, when Paul wrote those words, he really meant something. — The Spirit, himself, really does testify with our spirit. So will you still all the other voices — the voices inside you and the voices all around you?
And would you make this your prayer — “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I want to encourage you today and everyday this week to do that. If you lead a small group, will you talk with the people in your small group about this? I want to ask you to take at least a few minutes the next time your small group meets and just talk about this.
Ask the people in your group:
* How is this going for you?
* Have you been trying it?
* What’s the response been?
* Where has it been difficult?
* Have you made mistakes? Because we will, I guarantee you that. That’s okay. Mistakes are part of learning. Alright, now I want to ask that you just be very still for a moment, and you not think about what you’re going to do next.
Just simply be present and still before God.
Silence all other voices and begin, now, to cultivate a listening heart. Maybe the Spirit wants to whisper to you a mission or calling, maybe conviction for sin, maybe a word of mercy. Maybe he just wants to testify with your spirit that you are God’s child.
Just simply be present and still before God.
Alright, let me pray for you.

Blue Oaks Church
Pleasanton, CA