Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Live by the Spirit, Listen to Your Heart

"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws."
Ezekiel 36:26-27

"The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children."
Romans 8:16

The center and power of the Chrisitian experience is the Presence of God in our hearts, known as the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11). Christians have different ideas about the Spirit of God. Some think of the him in an abstract way as the third person of the Trinity. We believe God exists as three persons functioning in unity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some might imagine a gentle dove fluttering down from the heaven and landing on Jesus as mentioned in the Gospels. Others associate the Spirit with an intense emotional experience or perhaps bizarre behavior like rolling around on the floor or blurting out words no one understands. For the moment, try to set aside your preconceived notions and start with idea that the Holy Spirit is simply the Presence of God within us, dwelling in our hearts, the deepest part of our beings.

Now imagine a light emanating from within that illuminates your whole being and shines into the world. This light is God's Spirit, and he is there in every Christian. Moreover, he has a voice and speaks to us. If we are to have the fullness of life that Jesus promised, we must learn to trust and respond to his voice. Another way of saying this is that we must listen to our true hearts, as this is where the Spirit dwells.

However, many Christians today are like guests sitting at a table expecting a meal. On each plate are a few peanuts. They quickly gobble them up but the hunger remains. So the people tell each other the peanuts ought to be enough to satisfy, though the longing on their faces betray their true hunger pangs. Some people sit there and tough it out, repeatedly telling themselves this should be enough. Some give up and leave the table. But no one is truly content with the paltry meal.

In the middle of the table is an enormous bowl of colorful, ripe fruit. The bowl is piled high with every fruit imaginable - pears, apples, grapes, mangoes, pomegranites, pineapples, plums, bananas, watermelons, oranges. The fruit appears absolutely delicious. "Oh, this is just decoration," the people say. "We don't actually eat it. Isn't it pretty though?"

My friends, the bowl of fruit is the meal! It is not just pretty; it is sustenance and life. The Christian meal is to trust in God's Spirit and live by faith from the heart. This truth is plainly taught in the Bible, right in front of everyone, though many are fearful to accept it. The idea of trusting an intangible Spirit who is so powerful and moves like the wind (John 3:8) is scary. They would rather settle on a tame religion with a concrete set of rules, habits and expectations. They prefer stability and status quo over the wildness and infinite love of the Almighty. So they choose not to partake of the fruit, but wonder why their stomachs are still hungry, why the Christian life seems to lack the power and abundance that Jesus promised.

If you want to partake of the fruit, you have to trust that:

(1) The Spirit of God lives in your heart,
(2) The Spirit speaks to you and gives you power and
(3) You are able to discern his voice.

First, the Spirit of God lives in the heart of all Christians. When a person believes in Jesus, the Spirit enters in. This is what it means to be "born again," as Jesus talked about in John 3. The Spirit's presence is the defining mark of a Christian, as the Apostle Paul stated in Ephesians 1:13-14 and Romans 8:9. He renews our heart (though entanglements of darkness still remain) and provides direct, intimate access to the Presence of God. We do not need a priest or mediator. He is there!

How do we know the Spirit is there? Some say they know because their lives changed for the better - they became more loving, gracious and generous people. This is certainly positive evidence! However, on the most fundamental level, the Apostle Paul says that God's Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are his children (Romans 8:15-16). In other words, the Spirit speaks to our heart and reassures us that we belong to him.

This begs the question, how do we hear his voice? This might sound like circular reasoning, but you first have to believe you can hear his voice. As Jesus said (John 10:27-28):

"My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand."

Jesus is the Good Shepherd is his sheep know his voice. We inherently know when he is speaking. On a practical level, God is a God of peace, mercy, joy, power and righteousness. If the voice we hear is peaceful, forgiving, encouraging, joyful, empowering and/or corrects us in living a better life, we can trust it is the Spirit's voice. (Yes, as his sometimes wayward children, we will receive plenty of correction to help us mature.) If the voice you hear is guilt-ridden, fearful, hateful or doubtful, it is not his voice. This is the voice of darkness and we should learn to ignore it.

The form of God's voice can be anything he chooses. In my experience it is usually an impression on the heart - a quiet, intuitive sense he is moving me in a certain way. This sense can be general or involve specific words. God can also speak more dramatically through dreams, visions and object lessons. He spoke to Moses through a burning bush, to Gideon through dew on a wool fleece and to King Belshazzar through a hand writing on the wall. He is Lord Almighty and may speak however he chooses.

Only trust that the Spirit is present and you can hear his voice, even if you do not understand how it all works. The essence of faith is a heart that says, "I trust you, Lord, even though I don't understand." No doubt you will grow in learning to hear his voice, however imperfect and humble the beginningss. The Spirit will lead us into all truth and empower us to love one another.

So let us live by faith from the heart. Let us listen and respond to God's Presence within.