How do we learn to follow the Spirit?

There are some things you just can’t Google.

When it comes to life’s major decisions, we often stand at a crossroads and look around wondering what we should do. If we are followers of Jesus, this comes with the added desire to follow “God’s will for my life.” We have to decide whether or not to go to college, who to marry, where to find a job—and a whole host of other major life decisions.

How do we honor God with our decision making? How do we learn to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Graham Cole’s extensive study of the Holy Spirit offers three basic “tests” for our decisions, which I’ll summarize below as a set of questions.


First, does our potential decision match up with Scripture? Naturally, if we are going to follow God’s leading, we should ensure that our decisions match the character of God revealed in the Bible.

But can’t the Holy Spirit speak to us today? Can’t the Spirit speak to us in new ways, regardless of what He may have communicated in the past?

Yes and no. The Holy Spirit does absolutely speak to us today. But He does so most directly through the Word of God. In the New Testament, three distinct writers tell us that the Spirit speaks through God’s word today.

  • Jesus:

When debating some religious leaders about the resurrection, Jesus quotes the text of Exodus to make His point. But He does so by saying: “[H]ave you not read what was said to you by God” (Matthew 22:31)? Ah, we should say; Jesus is telling the folks of His day that God spoke to them through Moses, even though Exodus was written something like 1500 years prior (!).

  • Paul

Paul says something similar. He talks to the Corinthians about Israel’s history, and argues that “these things happened to them [Israel] as an example, but they were clearly written down for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

  • Hebrews

Finally, the writer of Hebrews applies Psalm 95 to the lives of his readers. He quotes Psalm 95, prefacing it by saying: “as the Holy Spirit says” (Hebrews 3:7), and that God “appoints a specific day, ‘Today,’ saying through David” (Hebrews 4:7). It’s easy to overlook that in both these verses, the writer is using the present tense. We could just as accurately translate the text to say that “the Holy Spirit is saying [through David].”

For Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews, the Bible isn’t just an ancient book; it is the contemporary means by which God communicates to His people. So does the Spirit speak to us today? Yes; at least through His Word. But the Spirit will never, ever speak in such a way as to contradict the Bible, because the Bible is the present Word of God in our lives today.


Secondly, we need to ask whether our decision will serve to magnify the name and reputation of Jesus in our lives and communities.

Recall that part of the Spirit’s job is to testify to Jesus (John 15:26). So if we follow the Spirit’s leading, others will see how our lives radiate the character of Jesus. That is, does our decision seek to serve others, or primarily ourselves? Does our decision enable us to serve as Christ’s witnesses in our communities? Will our decisions increase our dependence on God, or on ourselves?


Finally, our decisions should honor the values of the community to which we belong, the Church. Now, we have to be careful here, because unlike the Word of God the Church isn’t always right. Still, it’s not for nothing that Solomon once wrote that “with many advisors a plan succeeds” (Proverbs 15:22). Paul refers to the Church as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church represents a complex web of relationships, and these relationships overlap and reinforce each other. If the people in our lives disagree with our decisions, then perhaps this is a sign that we should at least consider alternatives.


Ultimately, though, we must recognize that our desire to “find God’s will” is determined more by our culture than we might realize. We assume that there’s some set path that we should take and if we miss it, we’ve failed. But there’s a reason God’s word tells us that “we are the potter, and [God] is the clay” (Isaiah 64:8). God shapes and molds us in time as we learn and grow in Him.

J.I. Packer says something helpful:

“That God has a comprehensive, foreordained purpose and plan for all of world history, form the greatest events to the smallest, and that this includes a specific, detailed intention for the life of every human being, is to my mind beyond doubt: the Bible is clear on it. That his intention, once you become a Christian, is comparable to an itinerary drawn up for you by a travel agent, where everything depends on you being in the right place at the right time to board the plane or train or bus or boat or whatever and where the itinerary is ruined once you miss one of the preplanned connections, is, by contrast, a sad misconception.”[1]

Trying to “discern God’s will” is a good impulse, to be sure. But if this desire turns to worry, it can paralyze us and prevent us from following God in the day-to-day. God has a plan for us. Let’s trust Him and step forward.


[1] J.I. Packer, “The Ministry of the Spirit in Discerning the Will of God.”

1 thought on “How do we learn to follow the Spirit?

  1. Chris great teaching this week and especially today
    Double check your Isaiah reference regardin the potter and the clay
    Todays teaching is so clear take the next step, search and obey his Word, seek council in community and focus on living a life that glorifies our one and true King
    Thank you for your faithfullness to God

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