I know we’ve all heard it at least once in our lives. “I was praying about _________ and God laid your name on my heart.”
Sometimes the words excite me because they fit exactly with something I have been praying through. Other times, however, they leave me with an anxious, unsettled feeling. Something just isn’t quite right. I lack a peace or any sense that I am supposed to move in that direction, but someone I trust spiritually thinks I should. What is the truth?
In detailed fashion, Luke records Paul’s similar experience in the latter chapters of Acts. Paul has sensed the Holy Spirit urging him to return to Jerusalem and then to travel on to Rome. He also knows, however, that suffering and imprisonment await him. As he makes his way back, visiting with and strengthening churches along the way, the believers who love him reveal that the Spirit has been talking to them, too. They also know that chains await Paul, and they don’t like the idea at all.
Both Paul and the other believers hear the same thing from the Lord. The conclusions they each draw, however, oppose each other dramatically. Paul concludes that he has been granted a vision of what is to come to embolden him to push on, boldly facing persecution, imprisonment, and possibly even death for the sake of the Gospel. Everyone else concludes that the foretelling of imprisonment is a warning to Paul that will enable him to avoid the chains by going somewhere else, anywhere else.
Paul goes against the advice of everyone and continues his journey to Jerusalem. He ends up in chains. A couple of years later, he makes it to Rome. There he preaches powerfully, after which, according to tradition, he finds himself released from prison for a short while to pursue more travels before his final imprisonment and ultimate death at the hands of the Romans.
I think we can learn much about listening to the Holy Spirit based on this narrative.
The confirmation of others is critical. Notice that at every stage, the Holy Spirit confirmed the information Paul had heard. We need this desperately! We must surround ourselves with people we trust to be spiritually sensitive to help confirm what we hear from the Lord as we read His Word. They help us determine whether or not what we hear lines up with Scripture. We need each other!
Even so, Paul alone was responsible to seek the wisdom allowing him to act in obedience based on what he heard. It helps when others have knowledge of the messages the Holy Spirit lays on our hearts as we study God’s Word. In the end, though, no one else needs wisdom about that knowledge. They can pray for us to have the wisdom we need, but they cannot seek it for us. In Paul’s situation, the believers confirmed the message, but none of them had to decide what to do with the information to proceed in obedience. That was up to Paul. He alone needed wisdom. Everyone else was free to speculate, allowing emotions or logic to determine their conclusions. Paul alone was bound to something beyond emotions and logic. His obedience required God’s wisdom.
Sometimes we find ourselves on the personal end of the message received from the Holy Spirit. Our obedience is on the line, and we must discern what to do with the information we have. Other times the Spirit allows us to confirm the message given to someone else. How can we distinguish the proper course of action no matter what side we are on?
Hold back on opinion. If the message is ours, we must receive the confirmation from others without latching onto their opinions, emotional responses, or logic. On the other hand, if the message is for someone else, we must learn to just provide confirmation without adding in our opinion. Confirmation, absent of advice and combined with a commitment to pray for wisdom, is the best gift we can give to or receive from a fellow believer.
Wisdom is critical. Remember that the majority is not automatically right, nor is the most spiritual mentor on our list. Sometimes God uses logic and the wisdom of others to confirm a course of action. Other times He leads us to do the opposite of what everyone else thinks we should do. Our growth and obedience depends fully on our ability to obtain wisdom straight from God Himself, not upon deciphering the wisdom and inclination of others.
At times Paul stood up to the majority, standing firm in what he considered to be wisdom from the Lord. Other times, he agreed with the majority, believing that he could best obey God by keeping his actions in line with the popular recommendation. Either way, he took the confirmation and thoughts of others into consideration, but ultimately he knew the decision lay with him. He knew where he needed to go to determine what constituted obedience. He knew that we need each other, working together as the body of Christ to accomplish God’s purposes around us, but he also knew that obedience is personal. If we remember that truth, we too can walk in obedience, no matter what opinions float around us.