Four Ways God’s Spirit Speaks to Our Spirit (Part Two)

This is the last of a four-part series about the Holy Spirit. Check out part 1 , part 2 , and part 3.

These are working sections from a book manuscript I just completed for Zondervan. We’re in the editing process right now, so your thoughts are welcome.

3. Holy Ambitions

Sometimes the Spirit of God works in us by stoking the fires of a particular, holy ambition for a particular ministry or need. The fire of passion for God to do something in your generation, or on your campus, or in your family, grows to a fever temperature inside of you. It’s less of a “word” from God that it is a holy discontent with a situation, a broken heart over injustice and pain, or a burning passion to see God glorified.

For example, Scripture does not record God ever telling David that he wanted him to fight with Goliath. God did not summon David to a “holy huddle” in the pasture in which he said, “OK, David, there will be a giant there, and he will say this… and then you get  5 rocks, and then…

“David simply found himself in a place with a defiant giant, burning with holy zeal. He assumed that meant God wanted him to fight. Furthermore, God gave David no assurance that he would defeat Goliath on that day. David simply believed God wanted him to fight the giant and trusted God with the outcome.

In the same way, God never told Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego that they would be delivered from the fiery furnace if they challenged King Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship the golden statue. I’ve always thought they went into that encounter with a curious mixture of certainty and uncertainty. Just look at what they said to Nebuchadnezzar:

Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us from your hand, O king.


But they also say,

“Yet, if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

“Yet, if not…?” Uncertainty.

That mixture of certainty and uncertainty is what we often feel when the Spirit of God pushes us forward into a venture in his name. It’s a holy ambition—a passion pushing us a certain direction.

Here’s another one: I can’t find anywhere in Acts that God tells Paul to go to Rome to preach the gospel. Acts 19:21 tells us that Paul “resolved in the Spirit” to go to Rome, but I’m not totally sure what that phrase means, and, based on the commentaries, neither is anyone else. It seems to mean that Paul had yearning to go to Rome that he perceived to be the impulse of the Spirit.

Later, God directly affirms it through a vision (Acts 23:11), but it began as a yearning in Paul’ spirit. Acts 17:16 says that while Paul was killing time in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy his spirit was provoked within him when he saw how given over the city was to idols. He proceeded to preach one of the most famous sermons ever given, a spontaneous sermon that has become the basis for countless evangelistic methodologies for the years. No one would doubt that this encounter and the sermon that came out of it were from the Holy Spirit. In saying that Paul did this because “his spirit” was provoked within him, Luke was not trying to say that this was Paul’s work, not the Holy Spirit’s, but that the Holy Spirit used Paul’s spirit to indicate to Paul what he wanted him to do.

Because the believer’s spirit has been united to God’s Spirit, unscrambling where our spirit stops and his begins is an impossible process. When we let the Holy Spirit have his way in us, our emotions become melded to his. So as Paul burned with holy zeal to go to Rome, he began to speak with near certainty about God wanting him to do it.

First Samuel records the heroic story of Jonathan and his armor bearer taking on an entire garrison of Philistine soldiers single-handedly (14:1–6). Most intriguing to me is how Jonathan invited his armor bearer to join him:

Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” (1 Samuel 14:6, NIV).

Perhaps? If I were the armor bearer, I’d probably have said: “Uhh… I’m sorry, bro, but if you are inviting me to take on an entire, fortified garrison of trained Philistine soldiers, I’m going to need more than your perhaps.” But the Holy Spirit was in Jonathan’s holy zeal, and God gave to Jonathan and his armor bearer a great victory on that day (1 Samuel 14:11–15).

I spent two years living as a missionary in Southeast Asia. Shortly after I left, the worst tsunami on record swept onto the island, killing more than 100,000 people. When I returned and stood at the very spot where the tsunami had come ashore, I sensed God telling me that he would send a wave of salvation through that same area, and that our church was to continually place people there on the ground believing it, waiting for it to happen.

Not every ambition in our heart comes from God, but God certainly uses holy, burning desires like those as a compass to point true north for your life, to show you where he wants you to go and how he wants you to be involved in his mission. You likely will experience it as a holy discontent—a conviction that God wants something different than what the situation currently is. You sense him inviting you to lay hold of his willingness and release his power.

For example, in your spirit, you sense that God is not ok with:

  • An unreached people group with no access to the gospel
  • A career field with little to no viable Christian witness
  • Hundreds of foster kids in your community who pass from home to home with no one to ever love them consistently
  • Thousands of girls being turned over to the sex slave trade in Southeast Asia
  • Millions of babies being murdered each year in the name of freedom of choice
  • A school in which God’s name is regularly blasphemed
  • A career field in which no one walks in the fear of God
  • Kids in your community growing up without the fear of God

…and you know he is inviting you to do something about it. This can be very similar to the experience of calling we discussed earlier.

I don’t have a specific chapter and verse for many of the things to which I believe God has called the Summit Church. But I burn with a holy passion to see 1000 churches planted out of our church; to see 5000 missionaries raised up from our church and sent out; to baptize 50,000 people in the Raleigh-Durham area and to help start over 100 community organizations to minister to broken parts of our city; to see God bring a gospel awakening to a Muslim nation. These are areas of deep, holy discontent for me. So I’m going to keep charging up that hill until God tells me to stop.

4. Dreams and Visions

God spoke throughout Acts in dreams and visions. Nothing in Scripture indicates that he has entirely stopped speaking in these ways. We may have reason to believe they do not happen as frequently, but that’s not to say they have quit happening altogether.[1]

I’ve never personally been given a revelatory dream, but I know firsthand of too many of them to sweep them away as the nocturnal musings of people with overactive R.E.M.’s. Here’s just one I’m personally acquainted with.

I had lived in Southeast Asia a few months when I received a phone call from a man I had never met named Mahmud. Mahmud explained to me that he had had a very important dream and he believed that I was supposed to help him interpret it. In his dream, he wandered aimlessly in an endless field. This field, he told me, seemed to him to symbolize his life. He felt alone, without purpose, true companionship or direction. Yet after walking for what seemed like days, he heard a voice behind him call his name. There he saw a man who, in his words, “was dressed in shining white clothing. I could not look on his face, because it shone like the sun.” This heavenly man reached into the sash of his robe and pulled out a copy of the Gospel and tried to place it in Mahmud’s hands. “This,” the man said to Mahmud, calling him by name, “will get you out of this field.”

Mahmud refused. Mahmud was a faithful Muslim, and he had no desire to possess or even read anything Christian. He woke up in a cold sweat, heart beating quickly, feeling very afraid. He said he felt as if he had rejected a prophet and did not know what to do.

When he fell asleep the second night, he found himself again in the field. Again, the “man” appeared, offering Mahmud another copy of the Gospel. And again Mahmud refused. The third night when Mahmud went to sleep, the man was there waiting on him. “This, and only this,” he said to Mahmud, “will get you out of this field.” With trembling hand, Mahmud took the Gospel from the man.

Mahmud then said to me, “My friend tells me that you are an expert in the Gospel. Can you interpret my dream for me?” No joke. That is what he said.

Now, I was raised in a very traditional Baptist home, and dreams or visions were not part of our standard religious repertoire. So, I said, “Mahmud, I don’t believe in visions and dreams.” Just kidding. For the next two hours, I explained the gospel to him. Though he still had questions, he didn’t really doubt the answers I offered. After all, he’d been instructed by a divine messenger to listen! When he said yes, I asked him if he knew what such commitment might cost him.

“Mahmud,” I said, “You might lose your job. You might get kicked out of your family. This commitment to Christ might even cost you your life.”

I’ll never forget what he said next. He smiled and said, “Of course, I know all that. That is why it took me over a month to come talk with you, because I knew that if I became a follower of Jesus, it might cost me everything… but I know that was Jesus speaking to me in that dream. And I’ll go anywhere with him. If it costs me everything, let it come.”

I do think there is something to the idea that God might do this less in places where access to the Word of God is easy and open, but I find no reason to doubt that God, whenever he so chooses, can speak to us through dreams and visions.

God’s word to us is most clearly spelled out in the Bible, but he also moves in our spirits by giving us particular burdens, special insights, holy discontents, and supernatural dreams. As we follow them, we follow him.

Be Cautious, But Not Cynical

As I said earlier, it’s okay to be a little skeptical, not believing everything you hear about what God has said to person, or even everything you personally feel. To be honest, I probably don’t believe 60 percent of the “miracles,” “visions” or “God told me” reports that I hear. But don’t let that caution turn into cynicism.

Sixty years ago D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said,

There is no question but that God’s people can look for and expect “leadings”, “guidance”, indications of what they are meant to do …Men have been told by the Holy Spirit to do something; they knew it was the Holy Spirit speaking to them; and it transpired that it obviously was his leading. It seems clear to me that if we deny such a possibility we are again guilty of quenching the Spirit.[2]

And then, speaking of those who prefer to critique and mock everyone who claims to hear from the Spirit, he says:

God have mercy upon them! God have mercy upon them! It is better to be too credulous than to be carnal and to be smug and dead.[3]

That’s good advice for any Bible-loving Christian to heed today.

With God, Not For God

The Christian life is something you do with God, not for God. That’s a theme we return to in this book again and again. Jesus did not merely issue an assignment; he invited us into a relationship. Christian prayer, therefore, ought to be a two-way, not one-way conversation—less the presentation of a catalogue of needs and more a dialogue with a person. Thus, instead of merely praying to God, we ought to pray with God. Prayer is something we do in and with the Holy Spirit.

Not every missional need in the world is your responsibility. But God has a particular, special assignment for you. His Spirit wants to lead in you it. You could not bear the weight of the whole mission. Only he can. So he gives gifts and assignments to his body as he so wills, and he invites you to follow.

Find your calling. In which direction is the Spirit’s compass pointing true north for you? Get heading that direction. Tell that mountain to move. And prepared to stand amazed.[4]

[1] The writer of Hebrews says that “(Our great salvation) was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, [4] God also bearing witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit…” (Hebrews 2:3–4 ESV). God seems to have given the apostles an unusual endowment of supernatural powers for a time to authenticate the fact he was speaking to the world through them. But we see the regularity of these spectacular occurrences dying down even through Acts. In Acts 3:1–11 Peter heals on demand. He didn’t pray about it or even ask God to do it. He just said, “Be healed.” But in 2 Timothy 4:12, toward the end of his ministry, Paul said, “Trophimus I have left at Miletus sick.” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t ever do these things anymore, just that we should not expect them to be as regular or normative as they are in Acts because that was, by any definition, a unique time.

[2] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Sovereign Spirit: Discerning His Gifts (Carol Stream, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986), 89–90.

[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Sovereign Spirit: Discerning His Gifts (Carol Stream, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986), 83.

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:11; 4:2.

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  1. Laurie   •  

    As you invited thoughts, I will offer this: What is written under “3. Holy Ambitions” brought me to tears. It’s exactly what I needed to read this morning. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Martha   •  

    Thank you for the enlightenment. I am really overwhelmed by reading the story. Thank you again.

  3. Jennifer   •  

    It is an amazing story. Thank you for that inspiration

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