How Can I Recognize the Guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Feelings, emotions, and deep-seated affections will always lead us astray without the light of God’s word to light our path. The word of God is the only confirmation that we have that we are led by the Holy Spirit.

Rick Kirby
Compass on a stony beach

Of all the things that people pray for on a consistent basis, I would venture to say that guidance might be the one thing we never fail to ask for. It doesn’t matter what season of life or what our particular life circumstance is at any given moment, guidance is the one thing that most God-fearing people know they desperately need from God. We all need him to show us the way forward.

However, for many of us, confidence in the ever-present illuminating light of God might sometimes seem to be the most elusive petition on our prayer list. How can we know that God is leading us and that we’re not merely drifting in the sea of our own emotional instability?

Recognizing the Holy Spirit

When I think about being led by the God of creation, I immediately go back in my mind to his leading of Israel in the wilderness. Speaking of Israel, the Bible states, “Yahweh went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exodus 13:21).

Do you ever find yourself wishing that God would show up in a cloud or a fire at night or in any other unmistakable manner that he would choose to make it easier to discern his will? If you’re like me, you often move in one direction or another confident that you are being led by God but always with the gnawing thought, “I hope I’m right.”

In our shortsightedness, it might appear that the Old Testament saints often had more obvious signs and indicators of God’s leading than what we often seem to have available to us. Consider how God led Israel across the Jordan. The Lord’s general, Joshua, informed the people of Yahweh’s instruction, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of Yahweh your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it” (Joshua 3:3). It doesn’t get much easier than that!

Or what about Gideon’s process of discerning God’s direction when he put out a fleece of wool with very particular perimeters regarding how he desired God to respond? I find it striking that Gideon put out his fleece (Judges 6:36) in an attempt to confirm the word of the LORD after he had already heard the voice of Yahweh speak directly, explaining to him about what God’s will was at the time.

And surprisingly, God obliged Gideon’s request. God actually gave very clear direction to Gideon on three separate occasions before the unlikely warrior was willing to move forward in obedience.

Like Gideon, we can be slow in following and recognizing the way of the Lord, especially when we are not intimately familiar with his voice. The young boy Samuel heard the voice of God calling for him in the night but mistook it to be the call of Eli (1 Samuel 3:5) because the young priest “did not yet know the LORD, nor had the word of the LORD yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:5).

How many of us pray for direction and guidance but simply are not able to effectively discern the way of the Lord? His voice is not a familiar voice to us for one reason or another, and as a result, it appears at times that God is not leading.

How tragic to think that God may be leading and directing, but we simply are so unacquainted with God’s voice that we miss him. Like a transmitter radio that must be fine-tuned into the proper frequency, we must tune our hearts to know God’s voice.

Receiving the Holy Spirit

As Jesus prepared his disciples for his rejection and death on the cross and life after his departure, he promised that he would “ask the Father, and He would give them another Helper that He might be with them forever; that is the Spirit of truth. . .” (John 14:16).

This Spirit of truth would not be some new acquaintance or unknown Helper, but as Jesus informed them, “you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you” (John 14:17), which is clearly the fulfillment of the promise of Ezekiel 37:14 where God says, “I will put my Spirit within you and you will come to life.”

This same Helper, which Jesus speaks of here, is also the same Holy Spirit who is identified as the one who “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). How breathtaking it is to think that the Spirit of Christ, himself, dwells inside the believer in order to lead and guide us in all His truth. But the question still remains, how do we recognize that the guidance we think we are receiving is that of the Holy Spirit and not merely misdirected, deceptive human reasoning?

The Bible is not silent in its response to this essentially important question. In Jesus’ prayer to the Father in John 17, Jesus prayed that God would sanctify his followers in truth and then made this important statement, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). The Holy Spirit is not limited in how he leads his people.

However, in the providence and economy of God, he has chosen to reveal himself and his way through the written word of God. The Psalmist acknowledged to God, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105) and continued by petitioning God to, “Establish his footsteps in your word” (Psalm 119:133).

The Holy Spirit resides in me in order that he might “Give me understanding, that I may observe His law and keep it with all my heart” (Psalm 119:33). The very purpose of understanding in the first place is that we might know God’s word and keep it more faithfully.

The Holy Spirit never leads or guides me in a way that is contrary to his word, and he never leads or guides me in a way that cannot be affirmed by either the direct commands of Scripture or the principles, which are clearly displayed on the pages of the Bible.

Following the Holy Spirit

What might this process of biblical discernment look like in everyday life? It is not uncommon for a husband or a wife to say to me, “I believe God is leading me to divorce my spouse.” Maybe after years of a loveless marriage, neglect, or marital trauma, a couple finally decides to hang it up.

They might justify such a decision by saying that it’s better for the children, better for their own welfare or simply a confident belief that God ultimately desires their happiness, which their tension-filled marriage cannot produce.

In such a case, I would simply ask them to read 1 Corinthians 7 where the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Apostle Paul, lays out crystal clear principles for divorce and remarriage. Left to our fickle emotions and idolatrous impulses, we almost always go our own way when our minds are not deeply saturated with God’s word.

Only a matter of weeks ago, one of my adult children came to share with me a life-changing decision that he had made in recent days. There was nothing immoral, illegal, or even unusual about his decision, and he felt peace and a confident resolve that God was opening a wonderful door for him. He had prayed and reasoned through the pros and cons of both possible responses and exercised great deliberation in his decision-making process.

Anyone would have congratulated him on his maturity and wisdom and on the imminent profitable results of his decision. But something was missing. He had not looked honestly into God’s word to allow the Holy Spirit to illumine his eyes with the divine precepts and principles that were so greatly needed.

His unfamiliar path was dim and treacherous and only the light of God’s word could lead him forward. After challenging my son to revisit his decision against the backdrop of God’s word, his perspective was greatly altered. The Holy Spirit clearly pointed to specific principles that were radically applicable in my son’s situation, and God’s way was revealed.

What Does This Mean?

God gives us great freedom and wisdom to make decisions each day in cases where there are no moral laws to be broken. It is possible that, in some cases, there may be three or three hundred options before us, and God would bless any of them that do not come into conflict with his word.

The only true confidence we have that we are being led by the Spirit is the principles we find in the written word. Feelings, emotions, and deep-seated affections will always lead us astray without the light of God’s word to light our path. The word of God is the only confirmation that we have that we are led by the Holy Spirit.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Patrick Daxenbichler


headshot of author Rick KirbyRick Kirby, along with his wife and children, live in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer in the past with organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of  Divinity degree from Erskine Theological Seminary and presently is a  Doctor of Ministry student at Erskine, as well. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee.


Originally published June 17, 2020.