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Led by the Spirit: 5 Ways to Listen to the Holy Spirit’s Voice

Many people assume that the only “real” world is the one that they can observe with their five senses. Yet the Bible teaches that there is another reality just as real. Although invisible, this reality is where the Holy Spirit, Satan, and demons operate and exercise their influence on people. The spiritual world is the invisible world, called the heavenly realm in Scripture (Ephesians 6:12), where there is conflict, as spiritual forces influence our human lives.

The following diagram is a good summary of the influence of both the Holy Spirit and the demonic in our life. Note, like all diagrams, it has limitations: it could look like the Holy Spirit was created, which is inaccurate (the Holy Spirit is an eternal person within the Trinity). But the focus of the diagram is to picture how the Holy Spirit and demons are at work within creation and are at the root of spiritual warfare in the world today.

The kingdom rule or reign of King Jesus that is brought to us at a personal level is best experienced through his indwelling Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the spiritual presence of the invisible God. Jesus explained that the Spirit’s work in a person’s life is like the wind. We cannot see the wind itself when it is blowing or control its movement, but we can note the effects:

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8, NIV)


“The kingdom rule or reign of King Jesus that is brought to us at a personal level is best experienced through his indwelling Holy Spirit.”


In this way, the Holy Spirit will be known more by his invisible influence in our lives than by a direct and tangible experience. But questions naturally arise about the Spirit. How does the Word of God describe the Spirit’s influence? What happens to us and how do we identify the Spirit and the Spirit’s voice?

In a previous article, I described the way in which our local church handles questions about the miraculous gifts of the Spirit and the demonic. Too often, Christians and churches get focused on these disputable questions, so that they do not focus on the more important question. That question is this one: how can I walk closely with God in the way of his Spirit, every day?

The practice of spiritual habits (often called spiritual “disciplines”) is an important way we develop our relationship with God. We proactively come under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit through earnest and daily times of prayer, Bible study, and communion with God. Again, a commitment to spiritual practices and habits has been the primary method used by God’s people throughout history, especially by the men and women God has used in significant ways.[1]


“The practice of spiritual habits (often called spiritual ‘disciplines’) is an important way we develop our relationship with God.”


These practices include contemplative Bible study, fasting, meditation, persistent prayer, solitude, and the like (Acts 13:2-3; Matthew 6:5-18). Every Christian should learn and practice these habits and will find that they are essential to a life that is in step with the Spirit.[2]

The following are five key ways in which you can listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and walk closely with God everyday (watch for five more in a coming article):

1. If you are a non-believer, don’t resist the inner conviction the Spirit gives you about sin, righteousness, judgment, and Jesus.

According to God’s Word, every non-believer has a problem. They have spiritual blindness when it comes to the basics about Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, the apostle Paul tells us that Satan, the god of this age, blinds people. He puts it this way:

“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:4, NIV)

So, if a non-believer wants to understand the truth about Jesus, he needs the Holy Spirit’s help to remove his or her natural blindness. The priority for a non-believer is this one thing: do not resist the Holy Spirit.


“The priority for a non-believer is this one thing: do not resist the Holy Spirit.”


Let me give you an example. In the book of Acts, we are introduced to a man named Stephen. He was appointed to serve the widows in the church in Jerusalem (likely as a deacon) in Acts 6:1-6. He also proclaimed truths about Jesus to the people. The religious leaders did not like what he was saying about Jesus, so according to Acts 6:12, they seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish leadership. Stephen then sought to explain to the Jewish leadership the truth about Jesus. But after he started explaining things, it became clear that they did not want to hear what he said. So, he confronted them with what they were doing.

Take note of Stephen’s words: “You stiff-necked people! . . . You always resist the Holy Spirit! (Acts 7:51, NIV). Non-believers often do the same thing today when someone is trying to explain the gospel.

So, don’t resist the Holy Spirit; instead, let the Holy Spirit convict you of your sin, righteousness (lack of), and judgment. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will do this work in the world through his Spirit. In John 16:7-8 Jesus called the Holy Spirit “the Helper”:

“If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” (John 16:7-8, ESV)


“And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”


Jesus told his disciples it was a good thing that he was going to leave, so that the Holy Spirit could convict people. So, our understanding of how to be led by the Spirit starts with a teaching for those who have not yet decided to place their faith in Jesus. When you hear the basic teachings about your sin and your need for a Savior, do not resist the Spirit’s work of convicting you of your sin and your need for Jesus.

2. If you are a non-believer, let the Spirit reveal a personal understanding of the core truths about Jesus.

The Holy Spirit brings more than just conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment. The Holy Spirit also helps the non-believer to understand and believe core teachings about Jesus. Two passages make this clear.

In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul starts the discussion in his letter about how it is often lower-class people who will turn and place their faith in Jesus and the gospel. By contrast, the enlightened and wise (by worldly standards) in their culture would tend to resist Jesus. In chapter 2 of 1 Corinthians, Paul explains the fundamental difference: the poor, lower class people let the Holy Spirit give them personal understanding, while the upper-class, so-called enlightened people did not. In 1 Corinthians 2:9-14, Paul describes how the lower-class people came to believe:

“But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. . . . Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . . The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-14, ESV)


“These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”


In 1 John 2, we see a similar process. There are two groups of people: those who are staying with their faith in Jesus and the faith community and those who are turning away from Jesus and the faith community. John writes to the people who are staying in order to encourage them in what they believe. Drawing from the Old Testament teaching that ties both the coming of the Holy Spirit and the anointing of a new king with oil (see 1 Samuel 16:13), John says to each of these Christians that they too have an anointing from the Holy Spirit—it was the Holy Spirit convincing them of the truth about Jesus. Two key verses in chapter 2 are verses 20 and 27 (ESV):

“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. . . . I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you.”

The truths of the Christian faith often seem to be nothing but foolishness to non-Christians. But the Holy Spirit enables a person to be receptive of these teachings and to develop a spiritual mind and truly believe them.


Led by the Spirit: “The Holy Spirit enables a person to be receptive of these teachings and to develop a spiritual mind and truly believe them.”


It is important to note that, in this context, Paul and John are emphasizing the basic truths of the Christian faith, not every doctrine in the Bible. Commentator Gordon Fee clarifies Paul’s point:

“The Spirit should identify God’s people in such a way that their values and world view are radically different from the wisdom of this age. They do know what God is about in Christ; they do live out the life of the future in the present age that is passing away; they are marked by the cross forever. As such they are the people of the Spirit, who stand in bold contrast to those who are merely human and do not understand the scandal of the cross.”[3]

It is the Spirit of God then, who works within us and draws us to an understanding of the truths of God’s work in Christ. It is through the Spirit’s presence that we are able to personally “get it,” as we pledge our faith and faithfulness, in response, to God through Jesus.

3. Christian, claim the reality that you were baptized in, indwelt and sealed by the Spirit in baptism.

After wooing us to place our faith in Jesus, the Spirit takes up residence within us, when we repent of our sins and express our faith in Jesus in baptism. Acts 2:38 describes the Biblical model:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

This reality is spoken of in the Bible by the use of several phrases which are synonymous: to be “baptized in the Spirit,” to have the “Spirit poured out,” to receive the “promise of the Spirit,” “the gift of the Spirit,” and to have the “Spirit come upon you” are all different ways of describing the coming of the Holy Spirit to dwell within the Christian.[4]

Thus, to receive the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” or to receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit” is to refer to the same thing. Stated another way, every person who is a Christian has been “baptized in the Holy Spirit” and has “received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-47).”[5]


“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”


Again, the typical conversion in the Bible was made concrete through baptism which comprised two parts: the outward water and the inward Spirit (Ephesians 4:4—5). Consider the following passages which describe the two parts of Christian baptism: the external water and the poured out, indwelling Spirit:

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4–7)

“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11b)

The apostle Paul states the matter succinctly in the book of Ephesians. Looking back on the time when these Christians placed their faith in Christ, Paul puts the matter this way:

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13—14)


“Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”


Thus, the Holy Spirit is active in bringing us to the point where we trust in Christ, and then dwells within us from the point of conversion forward. Biblical Scholar Gordon Fee puts it this way:

“The reception of the Spirit is the sine qua non of Christian life. The Spirit is what essentially distinguishes believer from non-believer; the Spirit is what especially marks the beginning of a Christian’s life (Gal. 3: 2-5); the Spirit above all is what makes a person a child of God. . . . For Paul therefore to get saved means first of all to receive the Spirit.[6]

Romans 8:9 puts it this way:

“You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” (Romans 8:9)

In this way, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, to seal us as his own, and to be God’s empowering presence in our lives. In short, it is important for Christians to claim their spiritual birth right. The indwelling Holy Spirit is the key delineation between the saved and the lost.


Led by the Spirit: “The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, to seal us as his own, and to be God’s empowering presence in our lives.”


4. Accept the Spirit’s inner testimony that you are truly God’s child.[7]

The Holy Spirit not only leads us to focus upon and believe in Jesus. God’s Spirit gives us an intuitive awareness and sense of comfort that we are his children. This reality is an important contrast to the spirit of slavery and fear that was often present when we did not personally know Jesus as savior and king.

Aramaic and Jewish people often used a tender expression when they are referring to their fathers, almost like little children saying “daddy” (although it’s good to keep in mind that the word carries a sense of both intimacy and authority). The expression is Abba. Paul uses the word Abba to describe the affection and comfort the Holy Spirit gives within our spirit toward God our Father, after we are saved in Romans 8:15-16:

“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15—16)

John Wesley described it this way:

“By the ‘testimony of the Spirit,’ I mean an inward impression of the soul, whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God, that ‘Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me,’ that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.[8]


“The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.”


In this way God gives comfort and assurance to his children—that we really do know him and truly have his inner testimony that we are his children.

It is important to point to a specific connection made in Romans 8:16 where the apostle Paul says that the Holy Spirit “testifies with our spirit.” The Greek text literally states that the Spirit bears witness (συμμαρτυρεῖ) to the (τῷ) spirit (πνεύματι) of us (ἡμῶν). This is a very helpful text because it shows us that we experience the voice of the Spirit not as something external, but normally as something within our own human spirit.

Let me state it differently. I experience within my spirit (my inner self), the Holy Spirit’s testimony. I sense within myself an affirmation: “I am a child of God through Jesus. God is my loving heavenly Father.”

Dallas Willard puts it this way:

“What we discern when we learn to recognize God’s voice in our heart is a certain weight or force, a certain spirit and a certain content in the thoughts that come in God’s communications to us. These three things in combination mark the voice of God.”[9]

This text is a helpful key to recognizing how the Holy Spirit leads, prompts, and guides us: we sense the Spirit being present with us within our spirit (our inner person).


Led by the Spirit: “We sense the Spirit being present with us within our spirit.”


The ultimate secret to experiencing joy and peace is being abandoned to nothing else but God, especially as he is present in us through his Spirit. In 1970, Dr. Claude Fly, a U.S. soil expert, was working with farmers in the South American country of Uruguay, when he was kidnapped by a band of Communist guerillas. They held him hostage for several months in a dark crawl space beneath an abandoned house where he had about three feet of space from ground to ceiling.

They kept him there through the cold winter months, as water dropped off the beams onto his head. He lived on rations doled out sporadically, as his captors saw fit. He was utterly cut off from family, friends, and countrymen. Filled with loneliness and despair, he later described his ordeal: “Each night I would awake in profuse sweat and terror.”

Claude was a Christian, but he had not pursued a deep relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. A few weeks after his imprisonment in the crawl space, his captors gave him a little paperback New Testament. He read that small Bible, hour after hour, day after day, and month after month. He meditated, called out to God, and came to find comfort in God’s presence.

Imagine his life: alone, cold, wet, smelly, and hungry. Yet in the process, he was transformed, because it caused him to completely surrender himself to the Spirit of God. He wrote these words to describe what happened to him: “my whole being seemed to vibrate with uncontrollable joy.”


“In the process, he was transformed, because it caused him to completely surrender himself to the Spirit of God.”


His captors released him in February 1971 after he had a heart attack. His captors thought he would be of no use to them. But the Holy Spirit used the experience to change his life. He describes finding God’s special intimate presence in his book No Hope But God.

Most of us will never know the kind of nightmare that he lived through, but the presence of God that he felt can be ours.

5. Learn to seek, listen to, and surrender to the Spirit’s voice in your inner Being.

Earlier in Romans 8, the apostle Paul tells the early Christians in Rome that they are to set their minds on what the Spirit desires. Again, Paul is acknowledging a consciousness of the leading of the Holy Spirit within their inner beings.

In Romans 8:5, Paul describes what happens.

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” (Romans 8:5)

There are two conflicting voices within our inner beings: the voice of the flesh, prompting us to indulge in sinful selfish ways, and the voice of the Spirit, prompting us to surrender to the ways of God. Paul teaches us to listen to and prioritize the prompting of the Spirit.


“There are two conflicting voices within our inner beings.”


As we wrestle within our inner being, one of these two prompts will master us and form our mindset. Paul describes the consequences in Romans 8:6:

“The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)

If we choose the prompts within our spirit toward the flesh, it will lead to a mindset caught in spiritual death (as this mindset is cut off from the life of God). But if we choose the prompts of the Spirit, it will lead to a mindset governed by God’s life and peace. Whose voice will we listen to in our inner being? In Dallas Willard’s book Hearing God, he writes something that I found to be extremely helpful in clarifying how we recognize the Spirit’s voice. He says:

“All of the words that we are going to receive from God, no matter what may accompany them externally or internally, will ultimately pass through the form of our own thoughts and perceptions. We must learn to find in them the voice of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.”[10]

We saw earlier that the Spirit testifies within our spirit that we are God’s dear children. And now we note the inner dialogue that happens within us when the Spirit is at work. I will summarize it as an important statement to remember.

If you are a disciple of Jesus, you will experience the Holy Spirit’s prompts, leadings, and guidance, within your spirit, as your awareness of God speaking to you.


“If you are a disciple of Jesus, you will experience the Holy Spirit’s prompts, leadings, and guidance, within your spirit, as your awareness of God speaking to you.”


Psychologists call this process “meta-cognition”—the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes and internal voices. It is important to resist the flesh (as well as demonic influence) and listen to and heed the thoughts, impressions, intuitions, and prompts of the Spirit.

Some Reflections on How I Am Led by the Spirit

When you learn to listen to the Spirit, as I have described, you come to know and follow his voice. But what is it actually like to follow the Spirit’s voice? I would like to end this article with some personal reflections on what this is like in my own life.

I have personally found that some or all of the following processes are usually involved when I’m aware that I’m being led by the Spirit:

  1. I consciously bring myself into the presence of God. This is in prayer, usually after a period of reading the Bible. It is hard to align my spirit, my inner person, to the things of God without first engaging with God’s Word; sometimes worship music plays a part.
  2. As I bring myself openly before God, seeking his guidance and presence in ongoing prayer, I will develop a sense or a conviction within my own inner spirit.
  3. The sense or conviction is gentle and will continue as I grapple to identify and see an area of God’s truth as it relates to and is made manifest in my personal walk (typically a practical area such as forgiving someone).
  4. I will wrestle with the prompt; sometimes it is a gentle sense of uneasiness about an area of my life.
  5. As I seek to consciously evaluate this area, I will honestly try to clarify if there is incorrect thinking, idolatry, or rebellion within me (something that I may have been vaguely aware of through Bible study or through honest personal reflection). Sometimes there are more areas than one.
  6. As I honestly evaluate this area, there is usually some spiritual truth about God or myself that is amiss in my life or an awareness that I lack. What is missing is typically a personal application of God’s teaching in a specific life situation. It is a gentle but unchanging impression. It ends with my personal surrender to the Spirit and God’s ways—confirmed in Scripture and often with counsel from others.
  7. Being led by the Spirit leads to surrender. With this new spiritual awareness and personal insight, I continue on with my day, as I trust God and his ways.

Led by the Spirit: “With this new spiritual awareness and personal insight, I continue on with my day, as I trust God and his ways.”


My hope is that we all make it a priority to seek, listen to, and surrender to the Holy Spirit’s voice in our lives. It is one of the most powerful ways in which we are daily invited into Jesus’ kingdom rule at a personal level.

In the next article, we will look at five more ways to be led by the Spirit.


[1] See Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).

[2] For more on spiritual disciplines, see Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, revised edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) or Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1992).

[3] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., Co., 1987), 120.

[4] For technical work on this point, consult Bruce Terry, “Baptized in One Spirit,” Restoration Quarterly 21 (1978): 193–200, or Moses Lard, “Baptism in One Spirit into One Body,” Lard’s Quarterly 1 (March, 1894): 271–282.

[5] For more information on the question of how these terms (and the Biblical theology behind them) are not used properly by many groups, consult Fredrick Dale Brunner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970) and John R. Stott, Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1975).

[6] Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), pp. 178 & 185.

[7] For the historical and ecumenical consensus in support of our position, see Thomas C. Oden, Life In The Spirit, Systematic Theology: Volume Three (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 170ff. Biblical Scholar Gordon Fee makes the following comment: “That is, as we cry ‘Abba’ (‘dear father’) to God, we do so in full awareness that we are God’s children, but we are also aware that we do so by the Spirit who has preceded us by giving us birth and now prompting our cry—by inspiring us to cry ‘Abba-Father,’ the Spirit of God thereby bears with us (=our own spirits) that we belong to God as his children.” See Fee, God’s Empowering Presence (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2009), 567-68.

[8] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Albert C. Outler, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), 1: 287.

[9] Dallas Willard. Hearing God (The IVP Signature Collection, 2012 ) (p. 237) Kindle Edition.

[10] Dallas Willard. Hearing God (The IVP Signature Collection, 2012 ) (p. 237) Kindle Edition.


For additional articles on following the leadership of the Holy Spirit, see “Led by the Spirit: 5 More Ways to Listen to the Holy Spirit” and “Gifts of the Spirit? A Seeking but Discerning Approach.”

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