For many believers, distinguishing between one’s feelings and the leading of the Holy Spirit can be very difficult. It is easy to confuse a deep emotional state with something influenced or guided by the Holy Spirit. Often this happens even to very well-meaning Christians. We can yearn so much to be “in the will of God” that in a desperate search for supernatural direction, we fall victim to letting our emotions take over.
I remember a friend in college who was convinced that God told him he was going to marry a certain girl. As expected, this did not happen. It was his infatuation with this girl that led him to confuse his emotions with the movement of the Holy Spirit. My intention is not to isolate it or highlight the specific problem. Rather, I want to point out how easily we can confuse the two. Generally speaking, the charismatic movement is another example. Many well-meaning Christians are guided by emotional experiences. Learning to discern the feelings of the Holy Spirit is an important lesson for every Christian.
This begs the question: How can Christians correctly discern feelings from genuine works of the Holy Spirit? To find the answer, I think we must first remember that the works of the Holy Spirit are ultimately elements of our sanctification (which is firmly rooted in our justification). Both justification and sanctification are the works of a sovereign God – not of man. The whole process of salvation is Trinitarian. If we are to make distinctions about the process of salvation, we can think of God the Father as the initiator and planner, Christ as the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the helper and enforcer. He applies the gospel of truth to our hearts and sanctifies us. In John 17, when Christ prays for all believers, He says, “Sanctify them in truth; your word is the truth. This is a fundamental role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. It is important to remember this in the context of the whole process.
Many mistakenly isolate the role of the Holy Spirit in terms of gifts and experiences, and fail to perform deep works of sanctification in the soul of the believer. The Holy Spirit provides spiritual gifts to believers, but even these are given for the purpose of sanctification and the application of the Word of God. If we remember 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about the different types of spiritual gifts. Yet, at the very end, he says, “And I will show you yet a more excellent way” (v.31). He then explains how love is essential in giving. Without love, as demonstrated to us in Jesus and applied to hearts by the Spirit, nothing is gained. I don’t want to diminish outside gifts; they are wonderful and have their role in the process of sanctification. I only want to make a distinction between the two for this article.
But how do you know if such inner workings are human or supernatural? The first step is to stop and remember what Christ prayed for. He asked that we be sanctified “in the truth; your word is the truth. The Holy Spirit always acts in accordance with the Word of God. In other words, He constantly applies His truth to our hearts. If we want to discern whether an emotional response comes from the Holy Spirit, we must orient ourselves to a careful study of the Word of God. It is not only the duty of the Christian, it is our privilege and our pleasure.
It is as Martin Lloyd-Jones, commenting on 1 Corinthians 2:12, once wrote: “It is the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian… The average person in the world today n is not at all interested in salvation, nor its relationship to God. This is because he does not have the Spirit, but the Spirit is given so that we can know the things that are freely given to us by God. And what are these things? How can I know them? how much do I understand them? The answer is that I can’t know anything about them until I read this book” (Growing in the Spirit, pages 50-51). It is only through the Word of God, as applied by the Holy Spirit to our souls, that we can truly know God.
In other words, we come to know God and be sanctified by him, not by powerful worship music, grand scenes of nature, scientific revelations, intense life experiences, or even fine art. Such things may be graces that God uses to teach us, but unless such things are reconciled in the word of God and point us directly to Jesus, they are not of the Holy Spirit.
This brings me to my last point. If we want to be able to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit from emotional experiences, we must remember that the Holy Spirit will always bring the believer back to Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of all that I have spoken to you (14:26). He also said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth…He will glorify me” (16:13-14). The New Testament is clear that the Holy Spirit will point believers to Christ and glorify Him.
As Christians, we must test all the feelings and impressions that we think are of the Holy Spirit against the revealed Word of God. We must also consider whether such things are geared towards increasing intimacy with Christ. The same is true for gifts. Don’t confuse talents with spiritual gifts. Although both can be used for the glory of God, we can know that only genuine spiritual gifts will bring us back to the Word of God and glorify Christ. In doing so, we are sanctified by knowing the truth of God’s Word.
There are dangerous movements within Christianity that focus almost exclusively on emotional experiences. Emotions, in and of themselves, are not bad. Yet without the deep and arduous study of God’s Word, it is almost impossible for a Christian to discern the genuine works of the Holy Spirit. The sanctification process is lifelong, slow and sometimes painful. Yet God’s economy of salvation is clear and perfect. As we seek to know God in His Word, the Spirit will speak to us and lead us into truth.