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There are times when God speaks to us in a way that gives us very clear directions about something that He wants us to do. He shows it to us in advance of doing it, and we simply choose to obey Him. He may communicate His instructions to us in any of the usual ways: e.g., in a hearing way, in a seeing way, in a sensing way, or possibly in a dream. The point is that He shows His direction to us in a way that we are able to understand, then it is up to us whether or not we obey what He asks.
There are other times when God chooses to "lead" us rather than giving us clear directions. I call that "the leading of the Holy Spirit." He works in our circumstances--either subtly or not-so-subtly--and those circumstances put us in the situations that God wants us in. They make it clear to us what we should do at that moment.
Let me give you a couple of recent examples from my own life to clarify what I am talking about. Let's start with a not-so-subtle one.
On Thursday night I was on the phone with a staff member regarding some ministry business. He was traveling and was away from his home. He mentioned that his wife was very sick and hoped I'd phone her and pray for her. It was too late to call her that night, so I made a note to call her and put it on my desk. The next morning, I started working very early and was extremely busy. I saw the note when it was still too early to call her, and decided that I should finish a few critical tasks (maybe 5 or 6 hours worth) before I paused to call her.
The note was written on a stick-em, so I stuck it to the wall next to my desk (to remind myself to call her later that day). A couple of hours later, I was intently working away on my computer when the stick-em fell off the wall and landed on my keyboard. I started to stick it back on the wall and I had this thought, "Maybe the Lord is dropping it here because He wants me to call her now." So I put down my work and picked up the phone. As it turned out, she had just received some very upsetting news and the upset made her feel even sicker physically.
It was exactly the right time to call her to pray for her and also to minister to her a bit about the upsetting news. The Holy Spirit not-so-subtly "led" me to call her precisely at that moment. He did it by making the stick-em with her phone number fall of the wall and land on the keyboard where I was busily typing away.
Here is an example of a more subtle leading. It happened to me yesterday at church. Normally I park way in the back of the church parking lot so that people won't park right next to me and "ding" my car door with theirs. But I got there early that day, and there was street parking right in front of the church. I decided to park there. Normally I enter the building through the back door, but this time I was parked near the front door that leads into the foyer. In addition, I normally go to the main service at 11:00 AM, but that morning I had chosen to go to the earlier one (at 9:30 AM). The worship was great that day, so I stayed through the worship part of the second service.
When worship was over, I slipped out of the service go to home. Normally I would leave through the back entrance, and would not go through the foyer. But this time I was parked near the front. When I got into the foyer, it was full of a group of about 10 people who were very drunk in the spirit and praying for each other. Many of them had "fallen out" on the floor and were too full of the spirit to stand back up. They were having a lot of fun with God and with each other.
Just that morning I had been thinking about how much I missed that type of thing. I used to be in that environment all of the time, but that was years ago. Now, here it was, breaking out right in my own church. Most of the congregation were in the main service, and unaware of how the Lord was blessing the little group of people in the foyer.
The group was mostly college-age and young adult, and the "ring leader" was a young man who had just returned from a mission trip with Georgian Banov. He is on my prophecy team, and he began "praying" for me as I passed by. He formed his hand like a gun and was "shooting Holy Spirit bullets" at me. That may sound really weird to those of you who haven't been around the renewal/revival much, but I used to hang around that environment and understood what he intended. I was "free" because I'd already attended service and I did not have anything pressing at home. So I "dived" in and ended up getting really "blasted" (e.g., full of the spirit). I was full of joy and drawn even closer to the Lord. It lasted over an hour and I walked away feeling extremely refreshed and renewed in my walk with God. I was glad that God included me in this.
The Holy Spirit "led" me into that wonderful encounter in a very subtle way. First, He reminded me of those "group drunk in the spirit" times so that I found myself longing for them again. Then He prompted me go to the earlier service so that I was "free" at the time He planned to move. He also had me park in an unusual place so that I would end up slipping out of the service into the room where God was "doing things." From my end, it seemed like a wonderful series of coincidences; but from God's perspective, He had been carefully crafting things to lead me into a blessing.
The "leading of the Holy Spirit" is definitely one of the ways that God communicates with us. It is very effective in leading the many believers who have not yet learned to discern His voice clearly. But God doesn't reserve it just for them; He also seems to enjoy using it with those of us who can easily discern/recognize His voice.
This type of leading is another way that God speaks to us; and it is just as valid as when He speaks directly into our thoughts or shows us a picture/vision, etc. The difference is that He doesn't tell us what to do in advance, He sort of works through circumstances in our lives to put us where He wants us to be.
That doesn't necessarily mean that He takes away choice to obey Him when He leads us this way. Let me give you an example to illustrate this. (It comes from a testimony that I heard a while ago and really loved. I think you will love it too.)
There was a lady who was dangerously overweight. Her problem was that she used food for comfort--any time something happened to upset her, she ate something. The more upset she felt, the more she ate. Her doctor told her that if she did not loose weight, she would die soon. She wanted to live and felt very motivated to follow her doctor's directions, but it was extremely difficult for her to curb her eating because it was her way of dealing with stress. She joined some sort of weight loss group that had multiple weekly support meetings. She taped the schedule of the meetings on her refrigerator door, hoping that would help remind her of her resolve to "not eat when she wasn't hungry."
Unfortunately, that did not help enough and she found herself still consuming large amounts of food when she felt upset. She felt powerless to control her eating, so she prayed and asked God to help her.
The very next time that she got upset and ripped open the refrigerator door, the schedule she taped to it fell off and landed on her arm. She looked at it. The next support meeting from her diet group started in about 15 minutes and was a 10-minute drive from her house. She felt like God was telling her to go to the group instead of eating. So she closed the refrigerator door, put on her shoes and coat and went to the meeting. She got emotional support at the meeting, and when she got home, she no longer felt the need to comfort herself with food.
In this case, God led her in a not-so-subtle way. But it was still her choice whether she should eat or to go to the meeting. God does not usually override our will when He leads us. But when we see Him actively working in our lives for good, the often helps motivate us to choose to obey His leading.
Would you like to experience more of God's leading in your day?
I find that the more I invite God to lead me and to break into my day, the more He does. Sometimes He speaks His directions to me clearly, and other times He leads me. If you would like to have more experiences of God speaking to you and leading you, I suggest you try praying this simple prayer (or one like it) on a regular basis:
"Lord please put me where You are doing things and let Me do them with You. Amen."