Where the Spirit Leads

By Cameron Lawrence

We’re always moving forward, you and me, whether we like it or not. Time, like a strong hand at our back, relentlessly pushes us onward into new and often unexpected terrain. Naturally, we look for a guide. We need someone who knows better than we do what lies ahead—how to navigate through important decisions and confusing, dark or terrifying circumstances.

In our world today, there is no shortage of guides. There’s a different book or spokesperson for every facet of life. But for the Christian, of course, the ultimate guide is God—the Holy Spirit. About this third person of the Trinity, Jesus told His disciples:

“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come” (John 16:13).

Jesus promised that His followers would have Divine guidance.

But experience and history both suggest that following God is a tricky business. How does a person follow someone he cannot see or hear audibly? Perhaps, like me, you’ve found yourself confused after pursuing an opportunity you thought was God-given, only to find that what seemed like an open door was actually closed, locked shut. Maybe you followed God somewhere, or into something, and it didn’t turn out as you expected. Or still maybe you’ve seen people do evil in the name of God’s will, claiming He had led them to carry out abhorrent, manipulative and abusive actions.

What sense are we to make of all this difficulty in following God? How is it that following Him seems to conclude with such inconsistent results? What do we do when it feels as though following God is like chasing after the wind?

Shifting Winds

Late in September, I was sitting on the beach, pushing my feet into the warm North Carolina sand. The wind was particularly strong that day, blowing swimmers and surfers toward the pier, dozens of yards from their cars. I watched as a kite surfer lifted his sail and waded into the rolling waves, pulled by the wind like a stubborn dog on a leash.

I wondered at the power of wind and how, despite the different things we do to suppress or augment it, the wind cannot be controlled or possessed. We can construct barriers, use it to produce energy or sail around the world, but we are constantly at its mercy.

Wind often shows up in the Bible as the providence of God: the breath of God fills Adam’s lungs, giving him life; Noah, his family and the animals leave the ark after wind causes the flood waters to subside; and wind parts the Red Sea for God’s people to walk from bondage and decay into freedom and blessing.

But in John 3, Jesus speaks of wind in a different way while talking to a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He uses it as a metaphor to explain the life of the Spirit and His presence on Earth. More than a force for affecting external change, it fills true believers.

Curiously, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night with motives unclear to us. Author and theologian, Eugene Peterson, speculates that he came under the cover of night to avoid being seen by his fellow rabbis.

Nicodemus tries for small talk, but Jesus gets right to the point: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is understandably puzzled. How is it that a man can be born again?

Jesus continues: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus is confused. And Jesus’ choice of words may have something to do with it. In this passage, John uses the same word, neuma, to refer both to the wind and the Spirit. Peterson explains that,

“Wind, Breath, and Spirit are the same word in the Aramaic that Jesus presumably spoke and also in the Greek that St. John wrote. The necessity in those languages of using the same term for the movement of air caused by a contraction of the lungs, the movement of air caused by a shift in barometric pressure, and the life-giving movement of the living God in us, required an exercise of the imagination every time the word was used: What’s being talked about here, breathing or weather or God?”1

It’s clear in this passage that Jesus means to compare the wind and the Spirit. But what does this suggest for the Christian’s life—for those who trust the Spirit as their guide? Does it mean He will ‘blow’ their lives to and fro, like a feather in the breeze—leaving them perpetually unsure of what’s to come?

For some people, the prospect of such a life is an exciting one. Some Christians have taken this to mean that they should avoid putting down roots, holding a steady job and any earthly responsibilities whatsoever. They claim to be Spirit-led nomads, doing whatever the Spirit leads them to do. Yet for others, the idea of such a free-form existence incites fear and anxiety. They want structure, rhythm--something by which they can set the course of their days.

Throughout the Bible we see elements of both: God leading people away from their homes into unknown lands and circumstances; God meeting people where they are, calling them to be faithful witnesses to their friends and family, jobs and communities. So, how do we rightfully discern God’s guidance? How do we avoid mistaking our own appetites and desires and fears for the Spirit of God?

The Rudder of Faith

One of my favorite things about visiting the ocean is looking at sailboats. I have never been sailing, but I love to imagine what it must be like—the rock and sway of the boat as it cuts through the water, the sails tightening against the thrust of the wind, your hair lively in its gusts. But the truly amazing thing about a sailboat is that, though the winds may change, a small rudder is what keeps the boat on course.

If the Holy Spirit is like the wind, the rudder of the Christian faith is Holy Scripture—God’s Word to humanity. The analogy serves us well, because it’s true: God is far greater than the Bible can express, just as the wind is greater than the rudder. Not evertything we face in life is explicitly addressed in scripture. But the Lord will never act in a way that is contrary to His Word. In this way, the Scriptures guide us into a true understanding of what God wants us to do.

Still, it’s no secret that Christians have had a hard time making sense of the Spirit even with the Bible’s help. Just turn through the pages of history, or your local phone book: Christians have all sorts of interpretations for what the Bible says, and what the Spirit has led them to do. Unfortunately, that’s the byproduct of living in a fallen world. We are bound to make mistakes.

But when we do misinterpret God’s guidance, we need not lose hope. Author J.I. Packer writes in his book, “Knowing God,” that:

“If I found I had driven into a bog, I should know I had missed the road. But this knowledge would not be of much comfort if I then had to stand helpless watching the car sink and vanish: the damage would be done, and that would be that. Is it the same when a Christian wakes up to the fact that he has missed God’s guidance and taken the wrong way? Is the damage irrevocable? Must he now be put off course for life? Thank God, no. Our God is a God who not merely restores, but takes up our mistakes and follies into the wonder of His gracious sovereignty.”2

Packer concludes, “Not merely does God will to guide us in the sense of showing us His way, that we may tread it; He wills also to guide us in the more fundamental sense of ensuring that, whatever happens, whatever mistakes we may make, we shall come safe home. Slippings and strayings there will be, no doubt but the everlasting arms are beneath us; we shall be caught, rescued, restored.”3

Though in following God we may at times find ourselves confused, Christians need not be afraid of failure—we don’t need to worry about missing the boat. The gracious Lord is there, ready to forgive and duly able set our paths aright.

1. Peterson, Eugene. "Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places" (p. 15).
2. Packer. J.I. "Knowing God" (p. 271)
3.Ibid (p. 272)