“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” (Romans 8:14)
“Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. (Acts 16:6-7)
In my early years in the charismatic movement, the first passage above was a badge of honor as well as a self-evident truth once I had been introduced to the gift and gifts of the Holy Spirit and the way these teachings changed everything about church. We, the “Spirit-filled church,” were led by the Spirit, but not, well, you know, those other churches.
Annoying pride aside—with Paul’s words ringing in my ear: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7)—this wasn’t an accurate interpretation of that verse (just skim the chapter and you’ll realize that immediately).
The problem with some passages in English translation is the use of words that, out of context, can convey multiple meanings, some of which are misleading if not invalid. Led by the Spirit is one of those phrases.
When I go to my podiatrist (lately, more frequently because of neuropathy pain), the nurse greets me at the door to reception and leads me back to the examination room we’ll be using. She arches one eyebrow when she reads my blood pressure, arches both eyebrows when I step on the scale, drops me off and closes the door behind her. And that’s that.
Her role for less than two minutes has been to lead me from point A to point B because I don’t know which room I’ll be meeting the doctor in. This is led in its most rudimentary form.
The led by the Spirit of Romans 8:14 is a broader form of led, in some translations more analogous to governed by the Spirit. It has to do with a general orientation, a mindset, maybe even lifestyle could be used to describe it.
We’re not talking about a discrete, one-off instance of guidance or leading. You use Google Maps or Waze or something else for this every day. And you will tomorrow, and the next day. You need that guidance for ever-changing circumstances: calling on clients, doing inspections, whatever you do that takes you to places you’ve never been before.
But for many of us in charismatic churches, led by the Spirit covered a lot, like pleated suit pants or oversized hoodies. Cover, of course, meaning we weren’t going to talk about the endomorphic reality underneath from less-than-healthy eating and less-than-needed exercise.
Led by the Spirit could cover some behavior that appeared a little ragged to the untutored eye. It could mean spontaneously speaking or doing, abruptly changing direction contrary to conventional wisdom or systematic planning, or stop-the-presses urgency, like Elisha express mailing Gehazi to the Shunammite’s home: “Tuck your cloak into your belt, take my staff in your hand and run. Don’t greet anyone you meet, and if anyone greets you, do not answer. Lay my staff on the boy’s face” (2 Ki 4:29).
It’s not as if any or all of those couldn’t be true instances of being led by the Spirit. They can. Look at the second passage quoted above. Luke was a physician. If there was a more “reasonable” explanation for the change in direction, he could have provided it. He said the Spirit shut the door. Period.
The problem—and it’s one of those issues that hold back sincere believers until they turn into the “Peter Pan” brethren I’ve written about—is understanding the relationship between this one-off type of being led and the new, sanctified mindset (as opposed to a mind “set on” the flesh) described in Romans 8:14 as being led by the Spirit. (A more positive take on my “charismatic brethren” is here.)
I have written previously about the pillars of cloud and fire, important emblems of guidance (or being led) for (1) their unmistakable clarity and (2) their probationary role in getting the people of God from what they knew (Egypt, as slaves) to what they knew only by promise and faith (the Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey”).
By probationary role I mean a temporary, single-use purpose, like the scaffold around the Statue of Liberty when it was refurbished. It was necessary to accomplish the restoration; it was never going to be a permanent addition to the monument.
The guidance the people of God received in the wilderness—as they moved from point to point—wasn’t just conveyance; it was intended to change them. The things that happened at different points in the journey were intended to mature the people until they could “inherit the land,” which was worlds apart from the miserable slave existence they had once endured.
So when they reached Canaan, the pillars disappeared. They had been led step-by-step, that daily process teaching them, for example, that man doesn’t need just his daily bread, but “every word” from the mouth of the Lord.
They didn’t need that in Egypt. In fact, some of them got nostalgic for their Egyptian diet, forgetting that it came at the cost of their freedom: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost [!]—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num 11:5)
In my 44 years of life as a Christian, there have been innumerable instances of being led by the Spirit that might have seemed like one-off, discrete pieces of guidance simply because I found myself in situations where I had no experience or knowledge to make sound, informed choices of my own.
There were times I engaged in a kind of inverted boasting about being led by the Spirit, e.g., The Lord spoke to me to do this; it is so completely contrary to human wisdom! Which, of course, prompted my parents to re-do their wills. (Yes, they really did.)
I had a chip on my shoulder from this superior (or I thought it was, anyway) form of wisdom which was spontaneous, supernatural, special.
I had it all wrong. If I could have risen a couple hundred feet to where I got a bird’s-eye view of what the Spirit of God was doing, it was using the daily, sometimes unpredictable, often at-odds-with-conventional-wisdom pieces of guidance to make me into a mature, rock-steady, Spirit-controlled follower of Jesus Christ.
It was the pillars-of-cloud-and-fire led by the Spirit merging with the Romans 8:14 led by the Spirit. There is one and the same Spirit, not a split personality.
“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.” For now, having been led this way, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:13-16).