Questions and answers
Doctrinal Commission – International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services
We often lead our Christian life as if we had to carry it out on our own. We turn to God for strength and charisms, and when we are really lost we ask for his guidance. But often we imagine him only at the beginning and the end of our day, giving us instructions and waiting for us to come back “mission accomplished.” The question is: should we seek to be led step-by-step, decision after decision, by the Holy Spirit? Can we let the Spirit to be our constant source of guidance? The Gospels present Jesus as being led by the Spirit from the start of his public ministry: he is “led up” and even “driven” by the Spirit to the desert (Mt 4:1; Mk 1:12), and afterwards to Galilee (Lk 4:14). Luke insists that Jesus does this “full of the Holy Spirit,” who has just descended on him in the Jordan (Lk 4:1).
In the same way, the old man Simeon “goes in the Spirit” to the Temple when Jesus is presented on his eighth day (Lk 2:27). Philip is led to encounter the Ethiopian eunuch, a minister to the queen: the Spirit drives Philip to talk to him, to explain the Scriptures and baptize him, and then whisks him away (Ac 8:26.29.39). Peter also is guided by the Spirit to go visit pagans (cf. Ac 11:12), as Paul and Silas are prevented by the Spirit from going to Asia or Bithynia (Ac 16:6-7).
The Church Fathers and theologians have developed this dimension of life in the Spirit under the heading “gifts of the Spirit.” The traditional list, inspired by Isaiah 11:2, includes wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that while faith, hope and charity attract us to God and transform us, we still need extra help to very concretely choose the right path and make the right decisions for living out this transformation. Being a Christian means not only doing good in general or living a life in conformity with the Gospel; it means obeying the Lord in the details of our life. For Aquinas the gifts of the Spirit assist us in doing just that, because they dispose us to be led by the Spirit: “The gifts of the Holy Spirit… help us to follow the impulse communicated to us by the Spirit.” Saint Thomas also develops the beautiful idea of the “instinct of the Holy Spirit.” Rather than being given a kind of knowledge we could use as if it were our own, we are made more attentive and obedient “instruments” in God’s hands.
These gifts are part of normal Christian life, but they still need to be asked for and nurtured. A striking witness to this was Pastor David du Plessis, a key leader in the Pentecostal movement. His first thought on waking up in the morning was to greet the Holy Spirit: “Hello Holy Spirit, I love you.” He would then proceed to say: “Holy Spirit, please lead me step by step today: I will follow the first impulse that comes to my mind for every decision I make.” It was a way of “daring” the Spirit into assisting and inspiring him. Du Plessis had plans and appointments, but he would feel free to change these if the impulse oriented him in another direction.
Of course, if we try to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance in such an immediate way we need to constantly discern if it really is his voice we are listening to. The terms “instinct” and “impulse” indicate that the first access we have to this guidance is a type of “feeling.” Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who developed a profound and precise teaching on discernment, agrees: the “medium” of discernment, through which the Spirit guides us, are our emotions. Peace and joy may show us the way we are to go, disquiet and revulsion what we should turn away from. However, emotions are just the medium, they are not the voice of the Spirit himself. It is necessary to apply our mind to understand what the emotion is reacting to, to ask others for advice—since the Spirit works through the fellowship of the Church—and to keep our eyes open for the consequences, since only the fruit of our decisions can offer a full and final confirmation.
We also need to learn to recognize the voice of the Spirit, to let it become ever more familiar, through regular prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, through which the Spirit speaks in the clearest form.
So, in the end, yes, we should be led step-by-step by the Holy Spirit, because that is how he wishes to guide us—and we can, because we can nurture the “gifts of the Spirit” and grow in discernment.