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Very often through the years, I have witnessed or heard professing believers speak about "waiting on the leading of the Holy Spirit," and what they meant actually was "waiting on circumstances that they interpreted as the leading of the Holy Spirit." The terminology, "waiting on the leading of the Holy Spirit," is very ambiguous. What does someone even mean when he is saying that? When someone does say or write it, I've seen people nodding their heads with understanding, but I'm very sure that people don't really understand. It is almost utterly subjective and allows for a great many outcomes with ultimate interpretation being that God told someone to do what he was doing almost without question.
What are people expecting when they say, "I'm waiting on the leading of the Holy Spirit?" Sometimes they mean they are waiting for an impression or a feeling or a strong desire, some kind of nearly irresistible urge. It isn't much of a different experience than the LDS "burning in the bosom." It can't be a burning in the bosom if the person isn't Mormon, but it carries with it equal authority to the LDS experience. The Mormons, however, use James 1:5 as a biblical basis for their experience, essentially saying that the feeling is the wisdom they were asking for.
The language of waiting on the Spirit isn't in the Bible. I'm not sure where it originated. Spirit-filling isn't waiting. It is active, even as "be filled with the Spirit" is present tense, continuous action. A believer is never to be waiting as it relates to his relationship to the Holy Spirit. "Walk in the Spirit," another biblical teaching, is to be continuous. The biblical idea of waiting is to wait for our reward, wait for the coming of the Lord. We don't wait to start obeying what He said.
Sometimes the "leading of the Spirit" is a series of circumstances that form a picture to a person like a mosaic, a version of "reading the tea leaves" or "reading of the coffee grounds" in Middle Eastern tradition. I admit, it is funny to me, but then I stop laughing, recognizing that it shouldn't be funny because many people are deceived in this way. I estimate that more than half, maybe three quarters, of independent or unaffiliated Baptists, and many more evangelicals and fundamentalists, label this kind of approach to decision making as "the leading of the Spirit."
I recognize that people have instinct and gut feelings, but they shouldn't call that "the leading of the Spirit." Gut feeling can't rise to the level of God talking. Some people have better instincts than others, for which they should be thankful. I've driven along a road, trying to find some place for which I'm looking, and then see enough landmarks to know that I've arrived. That isn't the Holy Spirit. It is a combination of my own experience, thinking, knowledge of city planning, road design, and memory. Police detectives use the same type of instincts for solving crimes. They look at a body in a murder investigation and clues narrow their search to a set of specific individuals that they call suspects. You've heard someone say, "Follow the money." That isn't the Holy Spirit.
I played little league and then high school baseball. Baseball is a slow moving game that requires some focus and concentration that at times I did not either possess or practice. In the middle of a practice, or even a game, while my mind was wandering, a shadow would move toward me in the field, and I would duck. My instincts said, "duck," because a ball was coming. It wasn't a ball, but a low flying bird. People in the stands saw someone convulsing and wondered what was wrong, since a pitch hadn't even been thrown. My arm raised in self preservation. I had this happen several times in my childhood. What my mind interpreted as a baseball was actually the shadow of a bird flying over. Some of you reading know what I'm talking about. I shouldn't call that a baseball just because of an impression I had.
I'm not saying that circumstances have nothing to do with decision making. I'm not saying either that the Holy Spirit isn't involved in circumstances. The Bible teaches the providence of God. I'm fine with someone calling circumstances the providence of God. Everything that happens is either allowed or caused by God. It wouldn't happen without Him. However, how someone reads circumstances should not be called "the Holy Spirit leading." The Holy Spirit leads through the Word of God. When we practice scripture we are being led by the Spirit.
Circumstances can and should be read. If the price goes up on a particular item, you might not buy it. It's now too expensive. You were going to take a trip, but you put the necessary money into a repair of your water heater or the car is acting up, so you can't trust it to take you out of town. When you are talking to someone in evangelism, he keeps looking at his watch or looking back over his shoulder. You ask him if he wants you to continue. He says, "No."
Furthermore, you candidate as a pastor for a church. The committee or the church members ask you what you believe and practice. You tell them everything. They believe and practice different than you do. They don't want you as pastor, so you don't get the percentage of vote required by their church constitution. Someone has a sign that says, "No soliciting." You don't solicit. You visit every house in town and no one receives the gospel. You start on a different town. Jesus approaches a Samaritan town and they tell Him to leave. He leaves. Are all of those the leading of the Spirit? The Holy Spirit is not disconnected from the above decisions, because the Bible has something to say about all of them, but I know that isn't what people mean when they say they are "waiting on the leading of the Spirit."
I watched some Olympic pole vaulting on the internet. Certain participants would skip a height to reduce their potential number of misses, since that is a tie break in the competition. It also saves on energy to make less attempts. Skipping heights isn't a good decision by a pole vaulter if he can't clear the height he has skipped to. His decision should be based upon some knowledge that he can succeed at an attempted height. Many Olympic events require strategy. The Kenyan long distance runners unsuccessfully took the 10,000 meters out to a very fast pace to wear out Britain's Mo Farah. He still had enough in the tank to pass them at the end and win despite even tripping and falling at one point in the race. Decisions Christians make take in similar considerations for decision making in their lives and its good to give God credit for enabling a good decision, but these are not "waiting on the Spirit to lead."
The people of Israel were to recognize the arrival of Jesus. To do that, they needed to be sensitive to biblical cues from the Old Testament. A lot of evidence existed to point to Him as the Messiah. Jesus talked about this in Matthew 16, when he excoriated the Pharisees for their application of meteorological knowledge while failing at scriptural evidence. He was saying they had the ability to make good decisions -- they just were taking that ability and not using it where it counted most. Judging the sky for good weather is appropriate decision making for a fisherman. That is not "waiting on the Holy Spirit to lead."
Jesus uses a similar illustration as the one in Matthew 16 in Luke 14, where He speaks of men calculating the cost of building a tower before they start to build it. He uses the analogy for the consideration of following Him. He doesn't deride the basis of calculating cost. He uses it as an illustration for the right way of making a decision. Jesus did this all the time. He said not to cast pearls before swine. That's a waste of time, so it's a bad decision to do it. You don't need to "wait for" those to make a good decision. They are the kind of basis one uses to make a right decision.
Charismatics among others often teach a concept they call "praying through." The idea, as I have read, is something like trying to get satellite radio while under an overpass. Your prayers are being disrupted by demonic or Satanic activity, but they will get through or God will get the answer through to you if you go through enough sacrifice for that to occur. The idea is that you might need to go without food and spend hours praying to get the leading of the Holy Spirit you need for a right decision. God removes the disruption, but only if you pay the price. Applying the "praying through" concept to purchasing a house would be to fast and pray, asking God to show whether you should buy the house, and then the Holy Spirit talks to you in your head, telling you what to do. That is very often what people mean by "the leading of the Holy Spirit."
What people will "pray through" to get in the way of "the Holy Spirit leading," they already have. You don't have to wait to find out if you are supposed to evangelize somewhere. The next person is fine. Just do it (my apologies to Nike). It's fine to talk to the first person in town like Paul did Lydia in Acts 16. When we started here in the Bay Area in 1987, I went to the person closest to us, and my next person was the next closest person to us. I didn't skip those two to get to the third closest person, because of a feeling I had. A huge part of the decision where we started was that there was no church in the entire town. None. No church. It was a town that had no church (and no gas station).
We have the Holy Spirit's leading. We are led by the Spirit, if we are saved. We don't need to wait on it. It's already arrived.
If I buy a piece of furniture at IKEA, which requires assembly, I wait to read the instructions before I start putting it together. I have to wait for certain supplies or tools to do a project. Usually you don't marry the first man or woman you meet. I can talk to the first person I see in class, but that doesn't mean he's my new best friend. Scriptural thinking precedes decisions about marriage, about friendship, and about many activities. It doesn't tell me how to put together IKEA furniture.
I could preach the gospel to several people a day for a month without anyone receiving Christ. I'm not seeing any results, but I don't give up. I'm doing what God wants and I'm waiting on Him for the results. God has put His love in my heart for these people. That's how you wait on the Lord. You take fulfillment in your position in Christ, the hope of eternal reward, and enjoy the multifaceted and plenty of the goodness of God. You don't become impatient and do something unscriptural to speed up the results. That's how you wait on the Holy Spirit. I waited until I had done all of the above. I'm now ready to move on. I waited until now to do that.
I take complete, thorough records. I have knocked on every door in town and left literature three different times. By following up, I have preached to someone at every door twice. In addition, I have preached to all my neighbors who would listen and every person who would listen with whom I do business. No one has received Christ. That is legitimate waiting. It's up to the town now whether they will follow the Lord Jesus Christ or not. I don't feel guilty. I don't take the blame for their indifference. They've got to do what they've got to do, and they haven't done that. I've waited for them the amount of time I'm supposed to wait and I have a biblical basis for moving on, which is how the Holy Spirit leads.
What people call "waiting on the Holy Spirit to lead" can be disobedience to God. They shouldn't be waiting. Their waiting is not working or not serving or not loving. It's an excuse. It can be spiritual pride. Someone says he's waiting on the Holy Spirit, so that people will think he's got some type of elite channel to the Holy Spirit beyond others. God talks to him directly unlike others, perhaps because he has sacrificed more. The people saying they are receiving these messages from God operate out of a wrong understanding of scripture, making apostolic and prophetic activity normative for today. They aren't.
There is a kind of deniability to the described signs "evidence" of the Holy Spirit. They aren't the fraudulent tongues or healings of Charismaticism. They are just not enough signs to deny they're signs, at the same time being signs. People are waiting for something. This "leading" is something. They are a unique voice in the head, validated by some circumstances or series of circumstances, that are a sign that the voice is authentic. Enough people believe in this kind of activity that they validate one another. They point to each other as a confirmation of its reality. They accept each other for saying they are getting these experiences. It spreads to others.
When I confront Charismatics on their lies, they huff and puff with offense. I'm unloving to doubt their experience. I haven't found it different with Baptists and their special means of advanced revelation. In addition, they throw down autonomy. You think you're the pope if you question them. It's going to keep going and get worse at this rate.
I consider the "waiting on the Spirit" language to be verbal and theological gobbledygook, essentially erroneous reliance on circumstances. Deny it. Leave it.