We know that the Holy Spirit was given to lead and guide and comfort us (Acts 1:5; John 14:16, 26). But how do we know if the prompting we feel inwardly is from the Holy Spirit, or just a product of our own thoughts? How do we discern between the influence of the Holy Spirit and the influences of culture, friends, and family? How can we really recognize the Holy Spirit's guidance?
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ (Job 33:4; Romans 8:9). He is one with the Father and the Son, and speaks in harmony with them. He will not say anything that God would not say. The Bible is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, the Holy Spirit will not contradict the Bible. As we meditate on the Scriptures, study them and read them, the Holy Spirit will speak to our hearts (John 16:12–14; John 14:26). Furthermore, intimate knowledge of the voice of God is gained through exposure to what He has written, and we will easily recognize the Holy Spirit's voice if we recognize it from reading the Bible.
Those who believe in Christ have been reborn in the Holy Spirit (John 3:3–8) and by that rebirth we enter the kingdom of God. We become new creatures in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17). The natural heart is "desperately sick" and deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9) but the heart that, by God's regenerative power, turns and trusts in God becomes itself trustworthy—because it no longer follows itself, but God (Proverbs 3:5–6). It has become new (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Jesus said that the people who trust God would be like sheep, who recognize the voice of their Shepherd and follow Him. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27). He also pointed out that they will not follow a stranger, because of his unfamiliar voice (John 10:5).
Our minds also are informed by the Holy Spirit. Paul taught the Corinthians that the truth could not be accessed by human wisdom, but only by God's power (1 Corinthians 2:3–5). Those who love God have the Spirit, who "searches everything, even the depths of God" (1 Corinthians 2:10). Just as the thoughts of a man are only understood by that man, the thoughts of God are only understood by the Holy Spirit—and also by believers, because we have "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16). The Holy Spirit enlightens the mind and makes it possible for us to discern truth that the natural man cannot (1 Corinthians 2:14).
If then we have new hearts which trust in God, and we have God's promise to teach us by the Spirit (John 14:26; Luke 12:12), and if we are connected to the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:7–12), we can relax in the knowledge that He is governing our lives and simply walk in that trust. A big part of walking in trust is to know the Bible, which is the source of God's wisdom. We should follow the advice of Proverbs, which says: "My son, do not lose sight of these—keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble" (Proverbs 3:21–23).
There are some things that Scripture does not inform us about directly. Questions like "who should I marry?" or "where should I work?" and things of that nature are often puzzling for Christians as we seek God's guidance. But again, if we have hearts and minds which are regenerated and connected to God, and are truly and wholeheartedly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, any desire that a believer has, or any path he or she chooses (provided it does not go against Scripture or pursue what is sinful) can be trusted as God's plan. This may seem simple, but it is often the most difficult thing to do. We fear that we will make a wrong choice, or do the wrong thing, or choose the wrong way, and that God will punish us for it. When painful things happen, we are tempted to think "see, this is because I didn't follow the Spirit!" But that is not His nature. When painful things happen as the result of a legitimate choice, we are often simply being led into discipline because of God's love for us (Hebrews 12:5–11). "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).
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