Why Most People Miss Out On Being Led By The Spirit
The young man was sitting in my office, excitedly detailing his latest idea for mission and ministry. I tried to listen patiently, but this was the third “great idea” he had presented to me in only a few months, none of which had amounted to anything.
It seemed to him that every good idea that popped into his head must be the leading of the Holy Spirit, but I was starting to suspect that these ideas were birthed more in immature passion rather than a strong sense of God’s leading.
On the other hand, another person I had been working with at the time had such a clear, beautiful “word from the Lord.” A clear promise from God that had been confirmed again and again by our church community, but for some reason she wasn’t taking action on it. She kept coming back to talk more, uncertain of whether she was really being led by the Spirit or not.
One person was eager to take action, but couldn’t wait for a word from God. The other person had heard from God, but was unwilling to take action. Two people with very different kinds of problems, but ultimately they both got the same result: fruitlessness and frustration.
Neither one really being led by the Spirit into a joyful life of responsible discipleship. What’s up with this? How can we help others (and ourselves!) to live a truly interactive life with God, where we are being led by the Spirit into a faithful fruitfulness?
Taking possession of what God has given
Right at the beginning of Deuteronomy, there’s a phrase that names this tension. Moses is reminding the people of Israel of what God has spoken to them, urging them to trust his promise and advance into the promised land.
He says, “See I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers“ (Deut 1:8).
What’s interesting is that God says two things that, at first glance, seem to contradict each other:
- “I have given you this land.”
- “Go in and take possession of the land.”
Well, God, make up your mind! Have you given it to us? Or do we need to take possession of it? The way of faith is a resounding YES to both questions. We learn to be led by the Spirit when we realize that both realities are true.
Promises and commands work together
God gives his people both a promise (“I have given you this land”) and a command (“Go in and take possession of the land”). Both are needed for the people to be successful in their task.
They need to know that God is with them and has made a covenant promise to them. But they also need to take possession of that which God has promised! They can’t just sit back and wait for God to drop it in their lap.
This is still how God works in our lives. This is how we are led by the Spirit. We all need to hear his word and move out in response to that word. We need to hear God speak promises and take possession of those promises.
Our lack of progress in faith typically comes from a failure to embrace both of these realities, focusing instead on one to the exclusion of the other.
- When we hear the promise but don’t take action, we live in fear, and the promise remains unfulfilled.
- When we take action but aren’t really listening for the promise, we live in our flesh, aimlessly kicking in all directions at once and never really bearing fruit.
Here’s a visual aid to help us see what’s going on:
Let’s explore what each of these quadrants look like in more detail.
No promise, no possession: FUTILITY
In the lower-left quadrant, we essentially aren’t even attempting to live a “with-God” life. We don’t hear his word to us or take any action. We are content to simply pursue whatever strikes our fancy at any given moment, submitting to whatever desire makes itself known each moment.
This is the slavery of needing to get what I want. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not living there. The other quadrants are more likely for us to fall into.
Clear promise, but no possession: FEAR
In the upper-left quadrant, God has promised something, we’ve discerned the leading of the Spirit, but we refuse to take possession of it. Usually this is because of fear.
We don’t move out in responding to the promise, because we doubt God’s goodness, or his competence, or his wisdom. We hear God say, “I have given you this land,” but we refuse to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land.
This is what happened to Israel years before. God had promised the land of Canaan to his people, and Moses sent spies into the land to check out the situation. The spies reported back:
- Yes the land is awesome!
- But, the people there a powerful.
Although Caleb tried to urge the people to take possession of the land by reminding them of God’s promises, in the end other voices won out and fear spread throughout the people of God, causing them to stay put rather than take possession.
Ultimately they believed the people in the land were more powerful than God, that God wasn’t able to back up his promise that he had given them the land. In fear they refused to take possession of the promise.
It’s easy for us to fall into the same trap. Instead of submitting to the word God has given us, we submit to the obstacles we see in our way, we submit to our own estimation of what is possible or “realistic.” We hear about “giants in the land” and we refuse to take possession of the promise.
We fail to see our part in God’s work, and the sad result is that, like the Israelites, we wander in the desert of unfulfilled promises. We aren’t led by the Spirit, because we won’t actually move anywhere.
Taking possession, but no promise: FLESH
In the lower-right quadrant, we are attempting to take possession of a land that God hasn’t promised us.
It would be like the Israelites deciding that they should actually be marching into Egypt to take that land. No word from God about it, but it seems like a good idea. If he promised Canaan, why not Egypt too?
In the flesh quadrant, there’s lots of activity, lots of talk about “taking the land for God,” lots of passion and excitement and fervor, but, because we aren’t moving in response to a specific promise from God, we’re operating in the flesh. We look at a situation and assume we know what God would want and go for it, not waiting for a word from God.
This quadrant is called “flesh” because that’s the word the Bible uses to name what humans do in their own strength apart from God. “Flesh” is simply the things we can accomplish with our own intelligence and power.
King Saul is pretty much the poster boy for “flesh” in the Old Testament. He had a really hard time waiting for a word from God, and even when he got one, he’d come up with a way to “improve” it, because he assumed he knew what God meant.
He was always trying to help God out instead of simply obeying the word he had been given, and in the end it meant that God couldn’t work with him.
That’s always the end-result of living in flesh, and that’s why God had to tell Saul that “obedience is better than sacrifice.” Simple responsiveness to God’s word is far better than the most extravagant sacrifices our flesh can produce.
Then there’s the other Saul
Another example of living in the flesh quadrant is the Saul from the New Testament. He saw a new cult springing up around this Jesus person and assumed it blasphemous and needed to be stamped out by any means necessary.
He launched a campaign of terror and persecution against this new cult, believing he was doing God’s will the whole time. Taking possession of the land without really hearing a word from God about it.
He doesn’t discover it’s all flesh until Jesus knocks him off his horse on the way to Damascus. That’s when he starts to realize just how wrong he had been, and how much damage he had done in the name of being on a mission from God.
We end up in the same boat when we attempt to do mission “for God” without reference to what he has promised. We aren’t led by the Spirit, because we’re just not paying attention. We’re too busy doing awesome stuff for God!
This is why I’m always wary when people start using phrases like “taking this city for God,” or “taking our nation back,” or “changing the world.” It’s so easy for those kinds of goals to become fleshly activity, attempting to take possession without really listening for a promise from God, or doing things in God’s way, or deeply understanding God’s goals.
Unless God has given you a specific word, strategy, or promise for your endeavor, your attempts to move out in mission will always end up being flesh, which means they simply won’t bear fruit.
Clear promise + taking possession: FAITH
In the upper-right quadrant, God has given us a clear promise, and we move out to take possession of it in his way and in his time.
This is called faith, and it’s what happens when we hear God’s word and respond. This is when we actually bear fruit, when we see the kingdom advance.
Jericho is a great example. The land had been promised, and the people moved out to take possession of it. They crossed the Jordan and were ready to believe God for victory.
But the way they take possession is very important. At Jericho, they don’t assume they’ll just take possession in any way that suits them. Instead, they continue to listen to the Lord and rely on his strength to accomplish the task.
Instead of simply planning a battle according to known strategies (that would be flesh!), they listen for a word from the Lord. And they get it. But it’s a weird word. “March around the city.” Really, God? Have a parade?
But they move out in response to the word God has given them, and they see God do what only he can do: the walls fall down without the Israelites needing to do much of anything besides march and shout and praise God.
That’s living in faith. It’s not passivity, because they took action. They crossed the Jordan. They marched around the city. They shouted and blew their trumpets. And that activity in response to God’s word is what caused the power to be released to take possession of the land.
Your faith has healed you
It’s the same principle that’s at work in the ministry of Jesus when he says things like “Let it be done to you according to your faith,” or “Your faith has healed you.”
Think about the paralytic who was let down through the roof of a house. His friends bring him for healing, Jesus forgives his sins, and then gives him a command: “Take up your mat and go home.”
The promise of healing is inside the command to take action in the moment, which is an indication of his faith in the promise of healing.
One is almost tempted to think that Jesus is being insensitive to the paralytic. But instead he responds to the word, attempting to activate muscles he hasn’t been able to use for years… and then the miracle happens.
That’s the fruit of living in faith. The miracle always happens as we operate in faith, hearing the word from God, and stepping out in responsive obedience to the word. Believing that God has given us the land, and then taking possession of it.
This is how to live a life led by the Spirit, step by step.
Questions for reflection
- Where are you living in FEAR? Where have you already heard God speak? What have people in your community confirmed? How can you step out in response to that word today?
- Where are you living in FLESH? Where do you need to hear God speak? Where do you suspect that you’re just trying to do “good ideas” in your own strength?
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