"And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).
"However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come" (John 16:13).
"For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Romans 8:14).
How does the Holy Spirit lead us? Have we carefully considered that before God? I believe most of us truly want to be led by the Spirit, but we are often confused about how this is done. The statement of Jesus quoted above is critical. He said that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth. That is where the Spirit begins. He reveals truth (embodied in Jesus) to us. So the more we see of Jesus, the more we see of truth. As this revelation grows, we see light to walk in, and we then choose to walk in what God has revealed to us.
What do we sometimes do instead of this? We may be facing a decision and not sure which way to go. Instead of taking hold of the truth God has revealed to us and letting it direct us, we often look for feelings or signs. Sometimes we also talk to other people to get "their view" of things to consider. As we digest all of this, we generally come up with a decision and say that "the Lord is leading me" a certain way. Somehow we "feel" this is what we should do, so we say that the Spirit is leading us. If our leading is questioned by a brother or sister, we can easily become defensive. "The Lord is leading me this way, so why are you questioning me?" Once we make up our mind on a course of action, it seems we are quite capable of finding enough evidence to support that decision and say that it is God. This is dangerous. We are complicated beings, and it is very easy to interpret feelings or desires coupled with the reasoning of our minds as "the leading of the Spirit."
What protection do we have from being misled? "If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority" (John 7:17). Here is the foundation. If we are not committed to do the will of God from the heart, we will not be able to discern truth or the leading of the Spirit. Someone has put it this way: "If you truly want to know God's will in order to do God's will, He will make it clear. But if you only want to know God's will to decide whether or not you are going to do it, you will never know it."
The Spirit always leads us in the purpose, plan, and order of God. He never violates those. God is a God of order, and He is building for eternity. He is not haphazard, going one way one time and another way another time. James describes that kind of action as "being tossed by the waves." Paul describes it by "being led by every wind of doctrine." The Spirit leads in a solid way, moving with purpose toward a goal. If we are truly being led by the Spirit, the characteristic of our life (the fruit of being led by the Spirit) will be just that—moving with purpose toward God's eternal goal in Christ Jesus.
But what about the inner witness? We may have heard testimonies of those who had a "witness" that the Spirit was leading them to do something and was correct. It may have been a small thing, or it may have been dramatic. We may have had our own experience like this. I agree that this is a provision of God. He has promised to write His word "on our hearts and minds." But for this to be a valid experience in God on a continual basis, I believe there are some areas of truth that form a foundation and keep us from being misled.
The first one we have already mentioned—we must be committed to do the will of God, or, to put it in other words, "to live His life." That means that we have dealt with God and allowed God to deal with us. I must know that "I have been crucified with Christ." That is not a small thing. When we encounter Jesus Christ, in the cross we find that God has pronounced judgment on everything we are according to the flesh. Paul says that "we died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God." The reality and grace of God are experienced as we believe God in this matter, but without that foundation, we will find ourselves struggling in our own ability even if we want to do the will of God (similar to Paul's testimony in Romans 7).
Along with this, we need to know that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. This should come at the very beginning of our relationship with God, and is the "normal" Christian life—this is how we live His life. When we submit to Jesus as Lord, He gives the Holy Spirit to enable us to make Him our Lord in experience. Our place is to receive Him and yield to Him, giving Him the place to express God's life through these vessels of clay. A yielded heart, filled and controlled by the Holy Spirit, is essential to being led by the Holy Spirit on a consistent basis.
Another area I believe is critical is that we have allowed the Holy Spirit to discipline our thoughts, emotions, and desires so that we have a quiet heart. If this has not taken place, there may be so many "voices" that we cannot discern the voice of God. This takes time, but God is able, and knows how and where to begin. I am not speaking about a single dramatic event, but a continual leading, being able to discern the "still small voice" of God. "My sheep hear my voice" is the statement of Jesus. It may not be obvious in the beginning, but we must learn the voice of God through exercise and obedience.
Finally, there are the gifts of the Spirit. These touch many areas. There may be a choice before us and the choice does not seem obvious to us. We need wisdom. God has made provision. This is where our brothers and sisters often come in. Are we submitted to one another, open to the grace coming to us through others? A word of counsel coming from a spiritual brother or sister or a word of wisdom coming through another member can be of great help. If our hearts are right before God, we will be able to recognize God coming to us in this manner. Others may be more detached, able to see the situation more objectively than we can. This is part of God's provision and God expects us to avail ourselves of it.
What is the place of the scriptures? Some may believe that the scriptures are really all we need, so we just need to study the scriptures to understand spiritual principles, then apply those principles to the decisions that come before us. However, take note of what the scriptures themselves say they are given for: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Note that nothing is said in this scripture about leading. Why? Because the Holy Spirit (the person of God) has been given to lead us.
What are the scriptures? They are the written record of what God spoke in the past to others. Men recognized the words of God and preserved them for us. They form the basis of our teaching and are essential for the functions quoted above. But we need the Holy Spirit to interpret them and know how to apply them in our situations. Apart from a relationship with God and the leading of the Holy Spirit, it is easy to "twist" them to mean what we want them to mean. "And consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16).
The scriptures are not God. God gave them for our instruction, but we must have a true relationship with God to be able to handle the scriptures properly. One of their essential uses is to judge or correct what we say God is leading us to do today. God will not contradict Himself. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We may find ourselves in circumstances different from those of men in the scriptures, but truth is timeless. If we try to depend on the scriptures in a wrong way, we may find ourselves in the judge's seat, reasoning with our natural minds about the things of God. Instead of this, God wants us to take the lowly place and depend on Him to reveal the things of God to us. God is still speaking by the Spirit. "For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). This is not a reference to the Bible, but to the personal communication of God to our inner man by the Spirit.
If we are truly being led by the Spirit, I believe there will be agreement in the things we have mentioned. The Spirit will lead us in truth (as defined in the person of Jesus). There will be agreement in the scriptures (as interpreted by the Spirit). We will have a clear conscience before God (peace) as we come before Him, and we will have a good witness from other spiritual brothers and sisters. Other things may be helpful, such as circumstances falling into place, but unless we have a good foundation in basic areas, we may not know if the circumstances are an open door to walk through or a hindrance to be overcome. Not every open door is of God. Some are tests to see if we will walk in truth. Only God can show us the difference.