For many believers, distinguishing between one’s feelings and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can be very challenging. It is easy to mistake a deep emotional state as something influenced or guided by the Holy Spirit. Oftentimes, this even happens to very well-intentioned Christians. We can long so badly to be “in God’s will” that in a desperate search for some supernatural guidance, we fall victim to letting our emotions take the lead.
I recall a friend in college who was convinced that God told him he was going to marry a certain girl. As you might expect, this did not happen. It was his infatuation with this girl that led him to confuse his emotions for the movement of the Holy Spirit. My intention is not to single him or the specific issue out. Rather, I want to point out how easily we can confuse the two. Broadly speaking, the charismatic movement is another example of this. Many well-meaning Christians are being led by emotional experiences. Learning how to discern feelings from the Holy Spirit is an important lessons for every single Christian.
This begs the question: how can Christians rightly discern feelings from genuine works of The Holy Spirit? To find the answer, I think we first remember that works of the Holy Spirit are ultimately elements of our sanctification (which is firmly rooted in our justification). Both justification and sanctification are works of a sovereign God – not man. The whole process of salvation is trinitarian. If we must make distinctions on 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 Applier. 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 the truth; your word is truth.” This is a fundamental role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life. It is important to remember this in context of the whole process.
Many mistakenly isolate the role of the Holy Spirit in terms of gifts and experiences, and not works deep works of sanctification unto the believer’s soul. The Holy Spirit does provide spiritual gifts to believers, but even these are done so for the purpose of sanctification and application of the Word of God. If we remember 1 Corinthians 12, Paul is writing about the various types of spiritual gifts. Yet, at the very end, he says, “And I will show you still a more excellent way” (V.31). He then explains how love is paramount in gifting. Without love, as demonstrated to us in Jesus and applied to hearts by the Spirit, nothing is gained. I do not mean to diminish outward gifts; they are wonderful and have their role in the process of sanctification. I only mean to draw a distinction between the two for this article.
But how can we tell if such inward 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 truth.” The Holy Spirit always works in accordance with the Word of God. In other words, He is constantly applying its truth to our hearts. If we want to discern if an emotional response is from the Holy Spirit, we need to direct ourselves to a careful study of God’s Word. This is not only the duty of the Christian, it is our privilege and delight.
It is as Martin Lloyd-Jones, commenting on 1 Corinthians 2:12, once wrote, “That is the difference between the Christian and the Non-Christian…The average person of the world today is not interested in salvation at all, nor his relationship to God. This is because he has not the Spirit, but the Spirit is given that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God. And what are these things? How may I know them; how many I understand them? The answer is that I cannot know anything about them until I come to this book” (Growing in the Spirit, pgs. 50-51). It is only through God’s Word, as applied by the Holy Spirit unto our souls, that we can know truly God.
In other words, we come to know God and be sanctified unto Him, not through powerful worship music, grandiose nature scenes, 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 God’s word and directly pointing us towards Jesus, they are not of the Holy Spirit.
This brings me to my final point. If we want to be able to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit from emotionally driven experiences, we must remember that The Holy Spirit will always point 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, he will teach you all things and bring to remembrance all that I have said to you (14:26). He also said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth…He will glorify me” (16:13-14). The New Testament is clear that the Holy Spirit will point believers to and glorify Christ.
Christians, we must test all feelings and impressions that we think might be of the Holy Spirit against God’s revealed Word. We must also consider if such things are focused on increasing intimacy with Christ. The same is true for gifts. We must not confuse talents and spiritual gifting. While both can be used for the glory of God, we can know that only genuine spiritual gifts will point us back to the Word of God and glorify Christ. In doing so, we are being sanctified by the knowledge of the truth of God’s Word.
There are dangerous movements within Christianity that focus almost exclusively on emotionally driven experiences. Emotions, in and of themselves, are not wrong. Yet, without the deep arduous study of God’s Word, it is near impossible for a Christian to discern the genuine works of the Holy Spirit. The process of sanctification is life-long, slow, and sometimes painful. Yet the economy of God’s salvation is clear and perfect. As we seek to know God in his Word, the Spirit will speak to us and lead us in truth.