One of the world’s most beloved Baptist pastors shares how to walk in step with the Holy Spirit’s promptings
Several years ago during a photographic trip, my group had been traveling up a trail for almost three hours, and I began to have a funny feeling that we were going in the wrong direction. I asked the guide about it, and he assured me that everything was fine. Not wanting to be presumptuous, I kept walking. After a few minutes, I noticed that my sense of uneasiness persisted; in fact, it was growing stronger. I pulled out my compass and looked at the map. Sure enough, we were headed away from our intended destination.
It took us close to an hour and a half to return to where we had taken the incorrect turn off the trail. Sadly, this meant that by the time we got to the site, our window for taking photographs was cut short.
The event helped me to realize two valuable lessons. First, when we sense an internal witness encouraging us to take a certain course of action, we should listen. Second, when you and I choose people to guide us, we must be certain they know the path ahead better than we do.
Have you ever felt something alerting you to pay attention or pulling you in a particular direction? Perhaps you were listening to a sermon and you sensed God telling you to follow Him in obedience. Or maybe you walked into a restaurant and were filled with dread, as if you should leave quickly.
If you are a believer, then most likely these feelings were the prompting of the Holy Spirit, who always guides you to understand and accept the Father’s will. He is the One speaking to your heart, warning you about danger and encouraging you to submit to God’s purposes.
Unlike the fellow who accompanied us on that photographic trip, the Holy Spirit is a trustworthy guide who will never lead us astray and knows the path ahead much better than we do. Apart from Him, you and I cannot live a godly life. Galatians 5:16 instructs, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (NASB). The Holy Spirit empowers us to resist sin and obey God. But He does so much more: He also helps us to understand Scripture and enables us to fellowship with the Lord. He will never advise us to do anything that contradicts Scripture.
In fact, of all the professors I had in college, none ever matched the personal instruction I have received from God through the Holy Spirit. In John 14:26, Jesus promised the disciples: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
I remember how powerfully the Lord communicated this to me one night on my knees when I was in graduate school. I was about halfway through the three-year program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and I was beginning to think about my future. I wasn’t certain yet what I would do and deeply wanted advice.
It was one of those nights when I longed to pick up the phone and call the father I never knew (he passed away when I was 9 months old) and tell him what I was thinking. Little did I know how God would use that void in my heart for a father over and over again to draw me to Himself.
That night as I knelt to pray, I had a very strong sense of the Lord’s presence. I did not hear His voice audibly, but His message to me could not have been clearer. He said: “Whatever you accomplish in life will not depend upon your education, your talent or your skill. I have a plan for you, but you will only accomplish it on your knees in complete surrender to Me.”
I have never forgotten that night. And throughout my 55 years of ministry, I have started and ended my days on my knees before God to talk to Him and to listen to what else He has to say.
Our Helper’s Role
What the Father communicated to me that night was the same message that we read in Zechariah 4:6: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.” The Holy Spirit’s presence with us is especially important as we engage in the ultimate conversation of prayer with the Father because He is God’s own Spirit. He teaches us the Lord’s will, how to listen to Him, how to discern His truth and how to have an intimate relationship with Him. He also trains and empowers us to fulfill God’s plans for our lives with the “wisdom from above” (see James 3:17; also 1 Cor. 2:9-13, 16).
The Helper is like an ambassador who unswervingly represents the policies of His homeland and also serves the host nation by translating its messages into the appropriate language. The Holy Spirit faithfully conveys to us the Father’s will in a way we understand, and He represents us before God in a manner worthy of His righteous name.
The apostle Paul wrote, “The Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27, NASB).
What is our weakness in prayer? At times we do not know how to express the full depth of our desires or feelings; nor do we realize what we need. Sometimes we are so exhausted—in spirit, mind and body—that we can hardly muster the energy to open our mouth. There are instances when discouragement has taken such a strong hold of our heart that we cannot imagine a way out of our painful circumstances, and all we can ask is for the Father to help us.
Perhaps this is where Paul found himself. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 he confesses: “We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”
With the lashes, imprisonments and dangers Paul experienced, it is not surprising that he would feel this way (2 Cor. 11:23-29). The apostle faced terrible difficulties during his missionary journeys, including being stoned almost to death at Lystra (Acts 14:19), finding himself at the center of a riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41), and having to leave the beloved churches he had planted to suffer in Jerusalem (Acts 20:17-24). In constant peril, separated from his loved ones, threatened on every side and buffeted by innumerable trials, he had good reason to be disheartened.
Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever been so encumbered by troubles that hopelessness takes over? You struggle to find a reason to keep fighting, but you are so tired and overwhelmed that you just want to give up?
Despite all his adversity, the apostle Paul continued to trust God, and you should too. Be assured that the Helper sees the depths of your difficulties. He translates your feelings more accurately than you can articulate them yourself. And He comforts you with the knowledge that He understands what you need. He also guarantees that your tribulations are not in vain but will build you up in the faith if you respond to Him in obedience.
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