Good morning, church. Please go with me to Psalm 25. That’s the book of Psalms, and we’re looking at Psalm 25, talking about the leading of the Holy Spirit; this is the last sermon in our summer sermon series about the character and work of the Holy Spirit. Because, I guess if you live in a place that has seasons, summer’s over. I don’t know, that’s what the man said on the TV—still hot here. I do know oyster season starts this month, right JD? JD knows.
I’ve said this over and over again in this series, because if you remember one thing from this summer, I hope it’s this: if we have the Holy Spirit working among us, if we have the real presence of Christ here with us, we need little else. He is our portion, our spiritual food, our blessing, he is everything of value. God—father, son, and spirit—is enough.
So, here we are at the end of considering everything the Spirit does in our world and in our lives: spiritual gifts, healing, speaking in tongues, unity, order, wrath, conviction, comfort, miracles, and I’m excited to jump back into 1 Peter next week. Two weeks ago, I preached on the Spirit’s work of inspiration, where God, the Holy Spirit, miraculously bridged the gap between heaven and earth to allow us to know the truth of God in the scriptures, in the Bible. Last week I preached on illumination, and how the Spirit gives us a new lens by which to see the world, allowing us to see God, and by him see everything else. And today, as we close the summer, I want to talk about the Holy Spirit leading us.
So go with me, Psalm 25. [Psalm 25] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Lord God, I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
The leading of the Holy Spirit, meaning allowing the Holy Spirit, allowing our faith, to guide our actions and our choices rather than depending upon worldly wisdom or even letting our own hearts guide us.
I’ma get up on my soap box for just a minute—I wish we had an actual box I could stand on. Phil’s working on that, I think. People sometimes use the leading of the Holy Spirit as an excuse for their own bad decisions.
I first experienced this in middle school. A girl one time told me, “God told me we should date,” and I thought to myself, “Wow, I don’t want to disobey God, but I also don’t want to date you.” And, I should have foreseen this, but it ended with the classic, “God told me to break up with you. I’m sorry. It’s not me.” It doesn’t get any better as you get older.
One of my pet peeves—JD and Meg don’t do this—is worship leaders saying, “The Holy Spirit gave me this word, or this song that I wrote,” and then 90% of the time the word or the song is really bad, or downright false teaching, and I’m like, “Did the Holy Spirit really come up with that one? Because I figured the Holy Spirit would have musical talent and biblical theology.”
Or what about when people over-spiritualize decisions. Like when people tell you they’re going to go pray about something, but you know they’re just going to go home and think about it. I knew one lady who would start stories with things like, the Holy Spirit told me to go to the grocery store, because I needed milk. Just say you went to the store because you needed milk. Eventually she left our church right as she was starting to deal with some real issues, people speaking into her life, because she said the Holy Spirit told her not to go to church anymore.
Joking aside, sometimes mistaking our own bad decisions for being led by the Spirit has some consequences that are more serious. I don’t even know if Anne-Elise remembers this, but I once had an illustrious career as a magazine editor. It lasted about a month. Here’s what happened: I’m on craigslist—which, if you’re looking for jobs on craigslist, you’ve already made some mistakes, let’s be honest—but I saw on craigslist a job as a magazine editor for a New Orleans-based Christian magazine. I’m kind of a grammar nerd, I’m a Christian, it seemed to fit; so I applied, got the job, and showed up on the first day. And day one, I knew—this ship is going down in flames.
The articles they gave me to edit from their staff writer were basically illegible; they had sold one ad; they paid me in cash every day even though I had filled out hiring paperwork; these people probably blew through about twenty thousand dollars getting this thing up and running, but they had no idea how to run a magazine. They told me that they felt the Spirit leading them to start the magazine, and when it closed they couldn’t believe it. They had been led by the Spirit! So what happened?
Listen, allowing the Spirit to lead you, and to lead our church, is of vital importance. But how do we tell the difference between the leading of the Spirit and our own decisions? How do we seek out the leading of the Spirit, and attune ourselves to the Spirit’s leading individually and as a church?
My first point from the text today is this: the Spirit leads in truth and teaches us. The Spirit leads in truth and teaches us. Verses 4-5: “Make me to know your ways, oh Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.”
We have this idea that, for the Spirit to lead us, he needs to work in some mystical way, the stars aligning, psychic powers, hearing the audible voice of God saying, “You’re out of milk; go to the store.” We almost love it when we think the Spirit is telling us to do something unwise, likely to fail, like the magazine, because then we will see the power of God at work.
I’ve known God to work in mystical ways in my life very occasionally. But he leads me every day by teaching me truth and wisdom in his word. “His word is a lamp for our feet, and a light for our path.” Every day, whenever you are willing to spend time in the Bible, the Holy Spirit is leading you in his truth, teaching you so you can see and know his ways. There’s a reason I preached on inspiration and illumination before preaching on leading—so we would know, and have in mind, that the Bible is a work of the Holy Spirit, the scripture is the Holy Spirit speaking to us and guiding us. Maybe that’s not mystical and exciting, but it’s true.
The Spirit leads in truth and teaches us in the scriptures. And even when he does lead us in other ways, he’s not going to contradict himself by telling us to do something unbiblical—like my friend who left our church because a spirit told her to leave—not every spirit in the world is holy. Paul writes, God is unable to lie, to contradict himself, to tell you to do something that is contrary to what he has already spoken in the Bible. Most of the time, when the Spirit leads us, he’s leading us back to the word of the Lord, back to people who will speak biblical truth into our lives, back to scripture, to the preached word, and to the enacted word among the community of the church. The Spirit leads us in his truth, and he teaches us.
One thing I see all the time as a pastor: people wait for a mystical word from the Lord on things he’s already very clearly spoken in scriptures. Most of the time, they just don’t like the answer they found, so they are praying for the Spirit to lead them somewhere else. He’s not going to contradict himself. Stop asking questions. You’ve been led already; the Spirit is just waiting for you to follow. You’re like the man who asks, “How can I be saved?” And Jesus answers quoting scripture: love the Lord your God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself, but then instead of leaving and obeying, the man asks another question seeking to justify himself, who is my neighbor? Bonhoeffer says that question is evil, because it seeks to avoid simple obedience of the word, like a child asking why instead of minding his parents. So many times we ask for leading when we know what the Spirit is saying: with your extramarital relationship, with your money, with your sobriety, with your pursuit of justice, with your legalism. You know what’s right. You’ve been led already to truth by the Spirit. You just need to follow.
So, some people avoid the leading of the Spirit—other people go too far the other way and ask God to make their every decision for them. It’s a rejection of our own responsibility to live by wisdom. We want God to tell us when we need milk—you should be able to figure that out by yourself. So many times, we face a choice between good options, and all we need to do is make a choice. It’s ok to bring God your anxieties and fears when you’re faced with a big decision, but don’t expect him to make all of your decisions for you. God is a good father, and good fathers aren’t overbearing. They give advice, and then they step back, out of respect for the free choice of their children.
One place I see this rejection of our own responsibility—a lot of people want God to make their career choices for them. Part of the trouble is that our culture sells us a lie that purpose and meaning in our lives is meant to be found at work. A lie that your job needs to fulfill you, drive you, define you. So we go to God in prayer, asking him about what we should do with our lives that will give us meaning and purpose, where we should apply, and what vocation we should pursue; then God responds, saying that he is the only source of meaning and purpose in our lives. Do you think Lydia, who helped found the Philippian church, found the purpose of her life in selling clothes, or that the apostle Paul found existential fulfillment in making tents? No. They had jobs so they could support their families and communities. Jesus worked construction. Peter was a fisherman. Mary was a stay-at-home mom.
The Bible does have a lot to say about work—that you should work to support yourself, your family, and your community, but it’s pointless to work too much, because then you never get to enjoy your life and your friends and family. Don’t do anything inherently immoral or contributing to oppression. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t indwell you in order to tell you which career to pursue, or whether to stay home with kids or care for loved ones. So when we turn to the Spirit to make work decisions for us, most often, the Spirit says, do…something worthwhile that supports your family and community. Answer phones, repair dorms, teach classes, look after the kids—then come, find meaning and purpose in Christ.
I also especially see this kind of rejection of our own responsibility with relationships, like the girl who told me the Spirit said we should date. We agonize, asking the Spirit to lead us to our soulmate, when the Spirit is saying, it’s better to be single, but if you need to get married, choose someone who loves the Lord and gets along with you; then love her or love him as the Lord loves you: faithfully and mercifully.
So don’t over-spiritualize things, but also don’t reject your own responsibility to live by wisdom, because the Spirit is the one who teaches us truth and wisdom. The Spirit inspired a Bible with several hundred pages of wisdom literature, all trying to teach us how to make wise choices, how to live lives according to the wisdom of God. The Spirit leads in truth and teaches us; that’s the first point from our text.
The second point is this: the Spirit leads towards humble love and faithfulness. The Spirit leads towards humble love and faithfulness. Verses 9-10: “God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”
You can recognize the leading of the Spirit because he will always lead you toward humility, love, and faithfulness. I talked earlier about people using the leading of the Holy Spirit as an excuse for their own decisions; people also use the leading of the Holy Spirit as an excuse for their own pride, hatred, and faithlessness.
Pastors on TV using the Holy Spirit to become successful, to become known, to excuse their love of money, their manipulations of people’s desperation, and their obsession with the material. They encourage you to seek the same things. They tell you to give to the church and receive blessing in return, they pretend to be led by the Spirit, but really their sin is driving them, love of money, desire for success.
Being a block off of Bourbon Street, I can’t help but think of the street preachers who claim the spirit has led them to come to our city and promise hell to everyone who walks past. It’s just an excuse for their own pride. If they can make everyone else’s sin seem large, then theirs is small in comparison. They want you to be impressed, to join them in their hatred of everyone around you.
In my very brief ministry, I’ve known several people who have left churches angrily, who bounce from church to church, who have split churches, all in the name of the Holy Spirit. They’ll say things like, God has shown me that this disagreement we have over secondary, tertiary doctrines, means that I need to leave the church and take as many people as I can with me, draw lines in the sand, split the denomination, fire faithful leadership, win at any cost. But friends, listen: the Spirit leads toward humble love and faithfulness.
If you find yourself one day shouting, manipulating, insisting on your own way, using your influence to cause division, hating a Christian brother or sister, winning at any cost—I hope you remember this psalm, remember that the Spirit only ever leads to humble love and faithfulness. As I say often, the way of our God is the way of weakness. His way is in humility, and his way is in faithfulness.
He could have condemned us all to hell for our sin, but he didn’t. Instead he came to where we were, lost in our sin, and gave his life to save ours. He could have split from Judaism, overthrown their leadership, won every bickering debate brought to him, but he didn’t. He spent his time teaching truth and discipling those who would listen. When the religious people tried to bicker with him, he never allowed himself to get drawn into useless debate, but spoke whatever truth they needed to hear, even if they didn’t want to hear it, and moved on. And he could have used his power to get his own way, to draw everyone to his side, to draw huge crowds and become a household name, but he didn’t. He faithfully and humbly served the people his father gave him to serve and died in relative obscurity.
We always hope the Spirit will lead us toward the things our sinful hearts desire—toward our own hatreds, our own divisions, health, wealth, fame, and success—but he never does. He only ever leads us toward Christ, toward his way, the way of weakness, the way of humility and faithfulness.
We think the blessed life looks like one that’s easy, successful, devoid of pain, devoid of anxiety, always smiling, never needing anyone else, never sinning. But so often, when we actually follow the Spirit he leads us to places where, instead of being seen as a success we aren’t really seen at all, places where the darkness and pain are overwhelming, where joy and mourning blend together, toward recognizing the depth of our sin, and realizing our need for everyone round us. In other words, the Spirit leads us towards humble love and faithfulness.
The last point from our text today is this: the Spirit leads us for his name’s sake. The Spirit leads us for his name’s sake. Hopefully this is something else you’ve heard from me all summer: it’s not about you. When the Spirit leads us, he leads us for his name’s sake. Verse 11 in this passage, but when you read through the Psalms, you realize throughout the whole Psalter, over and over and over again, whenever the Psalmists ask for the Spirit to lead them, to forgive them, to use them it’s for his name’s sake.
Psalm 23: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Psalm 31: “for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.” Psalm 143: “Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground! For your name’s sake…” and on and on.
The leading of the Spirit is not about you, and it’s not for you. It’s for God, and his name’s sake. When he leads us, he leads us to worship him, to believe in him, to make his name great, to orient our churches, our communities, even our lives toward him.
And you may say, wow, that’s kind of self-serving of God to always be leading and directing people for the sake of his own name.
Listen. When my son trips and falls I pick him up and hold him to myself, because that’s what he needs to feel peace and begin to heal. If he runs away or gets lost, I go after him to bring him back to me, because that’s what he needs to survive, to thrive. If my wife ever starts to doubt that I love her and begins to leave, I will fight with everything I have to bring her back, because that’s what is best for her, for me, for our son, for the church, for everyone.
The Spirit leads us toward himself for his name’s sake because when we fall, when we are broken, we need to be drawn close to him to feel peace, to be able to heal. When we run away, or wander lost, he comes and finds us because we need him to actually live and thrive in this life, we are dependent upon him, and when we begin to doubt his love for us and walk away, he waits for us, fights for us with everything to bring us back, because he is what we need.
He leads us, forgives us, pursues us for his name’s sake because he is the only true and unfailing source of life and joy in this world. If you don’t know what it means to live in him, if you don’t know what it means to be led by the Spirit, to know his truth, to have him teach you humility and faithfulness, come speak to me, pray with me, or with others in the church and know today what it means to be a child of God. Come home to God today, and you’ll find him waiting and watching for you.