Of all the members of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit needs the best public relations firm.
Although God the Father is mysterious, we can basically understand His roles in creation, as loving father and as a father insistent on right living. Although Jesus is equally mysterious as fully human and fully divine, we can basically understand His roles as teacher, role model, Savior, and powerful ruler of a never-ending kingdom.
But the Holy Spirit? He is the least understood of the Holy Trinity, but is equally as important in our daily lives.
When my children were little, I would explain the Holy Spirit as “the little piece of God that lives in us.” For adults, I can cite scripture showing the Holy Spirit’s roles as advocate (John 14: 26), truthful guide (John 16: 13), sanctifier (2 Thessalonians 2: 13), completer (Romans 8: 26), and so on. But there is hardly a fancy theological explanation much better than “the little piece of God that lives in us.”
Or with us. Because the Holy Spirit does life with us. To do life with us fully, the Holy Spirit needs us to listen. How do we listen? How does the Holy Spirit speak to us?
I have identified seven ways in which I’ve experienced or witnessed the Holy Spirit speaking to humans. You may have experienced one or more of these. There are some that you may never experience. It’s the mystery of the Holy Spirit of how He uses each method to speak to individuals.
Prayer, Conscience and Other People
I'll start with three ways that may be obvious: Prayer, conscience and other people.
Prayer is the classic way to obtain guidance from the Holy Spirit. In prayer, you might experience the dawning of a new thought, a persistent message, a settled feeling, or something else that lets you know the Spirit is working within you. For me, prayer seems to be the time when the Holy Spirit fulfills roles such as truth-teller or sanctifier/perfecter of my soul.
At one point I was unemployed for months and starting to panic. But one day in prayer, the Holy Spirit clearly formed a message in my mind: “You spend too much time worrying. Just follow me every day. That’s what I want from you.”
Not only did accepting this message give me a better focus, but that prayer seemed to stay with me. In future days when I wanted to worry, I experienced somehow a blocking of my worry: one day a distraction, another day a sense of peace. It felt like the Holy Spirit was disabling my worry and enabling my ability to follow daily.
The Holy Spirit works through our conscience to guide our actions each day. If you feel a nudge to help that person over there, that’s the Holy Spirit! I can’t count the number of times that people have said to me, “I saw this stranger, and something told me to go over and speak to them and help them.” I believe that “something” is the Holy Spirit working through our conscience.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit may work through your conscience to lead you to a decision or set you on a path. Although we already had two children, my wife Sara and I were considering adding to our family by adopting. We had sought just the right opportunity but hadn’t found it. Then missionaries from China spoke in our worship service about the plight of abandoned girls in China. Sara was in the choir, while I was sitting with our boys in the congregation. Our eyes locked, and without speaking, we both knew that this was the right opportunity. That was the work of the Holy Spirit, leading us on a long path to just the right person, our daughter Rebecca.
One more example of conscience is in pondering scripture. The Holy Spirit can guide our thoughts to illuminate the passage. I believe this is why you can read a verse for the umpteenth time, but now it delivers fresh meaning, as the Holy Spirit shows how it aligns with your present situation.
Other people can speak truth into our lives. You’ve probably experienced how other people have the perspective and insight to show us ourselves from a different angle. Their words correct and inspire us.
When I was pondering moving Cecil Taylor Ministries from a part-time venture to full time, a participant from one of my prior classes called me out of the blue and asked to meet. Over coffee, he told me that he had a message from the Holy Spirit that I would never make the ministry what it could be without going full time, that God was calling me to do this, and I needed to follow. It was a turning point in my committing fully to ministry.
Shaping Us through Events and Passions
The fourth and fifth ways are shaping us through the events of our lives, and shaping us through our passions.
A friend had gone from being a pastor to a fulltime mother of three. She was feeling useless and wanted to return to ministry. Then an event happened: her oldest child was asked to read at the Christmas play. Even though the boy dealt with stuttering, he accepted! As she sat in the congregation and watched him successfully get through his reading, she felt the Holy Spirit telling her, “Moments like this are why you need to stay at home for now.”
The Holy Spirit shaped my life through my passions on several occasions, once in a dramatic way. I had an opportunity to move to another city to work for a former boss, making the most money of my life. But halfway through a day of interviews, I realized I had zero passion for the job. I immediately went and told my former boss I was done. I felt like if I had no passion, it was a sign from the Holy Spirit to stay put. And I was eventually led in new ways to a job and to other situations that fit me well.
The sixth way is when the Holy Spirit breaks through in what I call “lightning moments” and seems to speak to us in clear, direct ways. This is how I first heard the Holy Spirit’s voice as a young man. I had the opportunity to move back to my college town. I was two years out of college and feeling lost in my new city. I was volunteering with the youth group in my church, but I had no real presence with them. I looked so young, they thought I was another youth!
The decision seemed like a no-brainer, but I decided to pray about it. I heard a voice clearly speaking to me: “That youth group needs you.” I shook it off and decided to pray the next day. Same voice, same message, three days in a row. To the surprise of those around me, I turned down the job, not really knowing why.
That Sunday, as the adult volunteers gathered before the evening youth group meeting, the couple who led the program came in, said, “We’re burned out. You two are in charge now,” pointing to me and another young man, and then walked out.
Yes – that youth group needed me! I ran the program for the next eight months until a youth pastor could be hired, and the whole episode launched me on a 30-year run in youth ministry.
The final way comes after we respond. The Holy Spirit confirms our decision by multiplying our efforts to achieve what the Spirit desires.
As the shepherd of a young adult class, I found myself leading a recovery project, helping a poor congregation whose sanctuary had burned down. There were six of us in all, none of whom could find our way around a Home Depot! We worked with more love than skill! But the Holy Spirit continuously multiplied our efforts, bringing new people and resources to us in surprising ways. Every time I thought we were surely at a dead end, new opportunities and provisioning arose. By the time we were finished, 45 people had contributed more than 1,000 hours of service and had raised more than $15,000.
Let me crystallize these seven ways by sharing the experience of one of my class participants, whom I’ll call Kay. As I taught the seven ways, she revisited her decision to switch careers, and she realized that the Holy Spirit had used all seven ways to speak to her. For example, Kay could clearly recall how events changed her view of life, and her passions began to change, and the Holy Spirit seemed to miraculously guide her toward the right job.
I urge you to watch and listen for the Holy Spirit to speak in these seven ways, directing you into right paths and supporting your efforts when you do.