Discerning the Holy Spirit and joining God on His mission
How do we join God on His mission? How do we discern what God is up to in our world? How can the Holy Spirit help us with discernment?
Joining with God on His mission
We need to be clear on God’s mission; and our identity as God’s church on God’s mission before we attempt to discern the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has a purpose which goes beyond simple discernment for our own benefit.
It’s clear from Scripture that we worship a God who has a mission to redeem his world. In fact Chris Wright suggests that the Bible is not a book which has a few references about mission, but that the story of God is a story about mission. He writes
‘The Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation…Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about, only a bit more urgently than some. Mission is in that much abused phrase ‘what it’s all about.’”
(The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christ Wright)
From the four movements of creation of the world to the fall, redemption through Jesus and the consummation of the kingdom, we see a God who is intentional, purposeful and faithful to his plan for the universe. God is a God on mission.
Within God’s mission, we also see clearly in Scripture that God calls a group of people, the church, out of this world in order to join with him on that mission. It’s not that the church has a mission, but rather that God’s mission has a church. The church is “God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9 NRSV) “called out of darkness into his marvellous light” and that they were “once not a people but now… (are) God’s people” (1 Peter 2:9, 10). The people of God are called out of the world, yet this initiative by God is so that they can “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out” (1 Peter 2:9). The church here is defined as a ‘called out’ group of people who are sent into the world with a purpose: to be a witness for God. God’s mission has a church.
This notion of “sentness” can also be seen clearly in the commission that Jesus gave to his disciples in John 20:21: “As the Father has sent me, I send you”. Here Jesus links his own mission from the Father to the mission of his disciples. Brad Brisco and Lance Ford suggest ‘With this statement, Jesus is doing much more that drawing a vague parallel between his mission and ours. Deliberately and precisely he is making his mission the model for ours, saying “as the father has sent me, I am sending you”.” (Missional Essentials by Brad Brisco and Lance Ford) As the Father sends the Son on mission, we his people are also sent into our world to join with God on his mission.
To join with God’s purposes, we need to be able to discern what God is up to in our world as he continues his mission. This is where the role of the Holy Spirit is helpful for us. Personally, I don’t think we pay enough attention to the role of the Holy Spirit. I think we have a good explanation of Jesus and the responsibility of the church in relation to the kingdom of God, but an inadequate explanation as to how the ministry of the Spirit mediates this work in the church.
In other words the church is shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ, but left confused about how that translates in practice through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus clearly told his disciples that even though he was about to leave them, that in fact in the next phase of his ministry his presence would be mediated by another, that is the Holy Spirit (John 14:25,26). That means that today, the Holy Spirit is how we practice and experience the presence of God in our daily lives as Christ followers. In reality how is the church going in expressing this today?
I think one thing that we need to pay attention to is the role of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of mission. When we think about the role of the Holy Spirit usually we think of his role as firstly comforter, John 14:26. Jesus left this world, but he did not leave us orphaned, instead he gives us the Holy Spirit who mediates the presence of God to us. Secondly we see the Holy Spirit as our teacher. In that same verse Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will teach the people of God and remind us about the words that Jesus said. Thirdly we also often see the role of the Holy Spirit as being transformer. He is the one who shapes us into the image of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 it says “And all of us with unveiled faces seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another for this comes from the Lord the Spirit.’ All of the roles are true about the Holy Spirit and we should pay attention to them.
However I think we have marginalized another crucial role that the spirit plays and that is that he is the Spirit of mission. Firstly we see that Jesus was anointed by the Spirit for mission. Secondly we see that the Spirit sends the church on mission. Jesus sees himself as anointed by the Holy Spirit in his ministry. He appropriates words from the prophet Isaiah to his ministry. He says in Luke 4:18 ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free to proclaim the year of the Lords favour.’ There is a link between the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit anoints Jesus for mission and continues the work by sending the disciples on mission. In John 20:21, before Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them into the world as he was sent, he breathes on them the Holy Spirit. This act, along with the Lukan testimony which says that the Holy Spirit will send the disciples on mission to be witnesses for Jesus (Acts 1:8), clearly reveal that the Holy Spirit is a sending agent, who sends disciples on apostolic mission for God’s purposes in the world.
So we see that the ministry of Jesus was empowered by the Spirit and led by the Spirit. We see the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of mission who sends Jesus to do the work of the Father and serve in the world. Jesus is enlivened by the Spirit to be on the mission of God. We also see from these passages that the church, the people of God, are Spirit breathed as well, in order to be on God’s mission on earth. So the Spirit is not only given to us for our own self comfort or personal growth. He is also the one who is in us who sends us out into our world for mission.
The Holy Spirit in the church and in the world
Craig van Gelder says that the church is the creation and recreation of the Spirit. He says, “The church can experience this constant renewal only by developing discipline in discerning the leading of the Spirit. Through such discernment, the church becomes the primary means through which God answers its prayer that ‘thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit by Craig van Gelder).
While it is certainly true that the church is a creation of the Spirit and is guided by, renewed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be on God’s mission, it is also the case that the Spirit is active in the world. It is the responsibility of the people of God to discern the activity of the Holy Spirit in the world since they are carriers of the Spirit; and connect with what God is doing in the broader world. The world is not a place where Christians simply ‘go to’ in order to engage in mission but rather a place where the people of God critically discern the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in order to join in with God’s continuing work in the world. That means God is at work in your neighbourhood. Roxburgh talks about seeing God as an active agent in our community today,
‘Our focus must turn; again, to God’s agency… the triune God is known, discerned and present in the local and every day. The God we confess in Jesus Christ is on the ground in neighbourhoods that thirst for God in a world that desperately misses God. Most proposals for Christian practice assume the only place where God can be present is in our churches’
(Practices of a missional people, by Alan Roxburgh, The Missional Network, Fall 2013)
Simon Holt in his book ‘The God Next Door’ also highlights the fact that mission needs to be seen as something that we engage in when in our community because God is at work there. The unique perspective that Holt brings is that he sees that the place in which we live is the context for the activity and mission of God. In this sense he highlights practices which focus on the people of God embodying the gospel where they live and where they are planted. Holt sees the neighbourhood in which one lives therefore as a context for the missional activity of God and a context for the Christian to engage with this mission.
How do we discern the Holy Spirit so that we can join with God on his mission in our world?
I think there are two things that can help us. Firstly we need to think about what the Holy Spirit is like, then we can better discern when he is trying to tell us something. Secondly we can engage in practices that will help us become people who discern the Spirit.
I have come up with three characteristics of the Holy Spirit. They are not exclusive. See if you agree.
Stephen Bevans uses the term ‘transcending immanence’ to describe the way that the Spirit is at work in our world today. He says, ‘The Spirit of God is so involved in the world (immanence) that we need constantly to be amazed and challenged by God’s presence (transcendence)’. He then writes about the manner in which the Holy Spirit is involved in every aspect of creation. This means that the Spirit is not only at work in the church but is also very much involved in our world. The Holy Spirit creates and shapes the church according to the purposes of God, however he is also at work as the ‘Spirit of mission’ involved in all aspects of our universe. Bevans says that since the Spirit is concerned with all things then, ‘The church’s mission is world mission in the fullest sense; one might even speak of cosmic mission. Nation building, earth keeping, ecological action, education, preserving and transforming culture, enhancing the quality of life, cultivation of the arts – all these are fields of activity for those who are given to the Spirit.’ (“God Inside Out: Toward a Missionary Theology of the Holy Spirit,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 22, no. 3 (1998))
We can see that through God’s immanence, by his Spirit closely at work in our world, God reaches out from the Trinity to connect with what he loves. God’s ‘inside’, that is the dynamic relationship within the Trinity; can be known by his ‘outside’, that is his act of reaching out to the world in love. Through God’s actions we can see that he is a God who is very interested in closely connecting with his creation, above all, with humanity. In other words, by taking the Holy Spirit seriously, we begin to see that God is primarily a relational God.
We are less comfortable with the role that the Holy Spirit plays in disrupting our lives and turning us upside down. In Matthew 4:1 we read that right after the very comforting experience Jesus had of the Spirit affirming him as the Son of God, the Spirit ‘led’ Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the enemy. Often the Spirit will lead us to places that we don’t want to go, teach us surprising things about God, turn our theology around, and give us experiences that we would perhaps rather not have. Have we domesticated the Spirit to the extent that we do not experience his ‘wild’ character in our lives? The Holy Spirit does not bring us discomfort and disorientation for the sake of it, instead he turns us and our plans inside out so that we might be more aligned with the mission of God in our world.
Engage in practices that help us to discern the Spirit
The second thing we can do is to engage in practices that will help us become people who will discern the Spirit. So many people ask me ‘How do we know if something is of God or not?’ Sometimes the question is asked as though there should be an easy answer or a magical solution. I’ve thought about this question a lot over the years and I think rather than giving 5 points on how to discern the Spirit, what’s better is to practice disciplines which will help us to discern the activity of the Spirit, in order to join with God’s mission in the world. And actually as we engage in these practices we are also shaped by the Spirit into missional people.
1. Balance practices of engagement and withdrawal
Often when we think about spiritual disciplines or practices we tend to think about withdrawal from the world. So we read the Bible in the privacy of our home, we pray with our eyes shut to try and focus, we retreat in silence and solitude, we gather as a church in a way to retreat from our world out there. We do all of these things in order to be strengthened in our relationship with God. I have benefitted in my relationship with God enormously for example by doing a silent retreat and spending time alone with him. So I’m not saying that these practices of withdrawal are unhelpful. In fact withdrawing and engaging are both needed if we are going to live full lives for God. Len Hjalmarson says ‘Taken another way, contemplation and mission are two sides of a coin. Only the contemplative will be a healthy missionary, a rich channel for the Spirit, securely rooted in the love of God; only the missionary, rooted in place, feet on the dusty road, understands the need for contemplation’.
When it comes to spirituality we have focused on practices of withdrawal rather than practices of engagement. Practices of engagement push us out into our world and foster in us a sense of service to others. Not only that, but it is as we engage with our world that we are able to then discern the activity of the Spirit in our world. If God is at work in our world and we want to find out what he is up to, then we will need to engage in our world regularly to discern his presence. Then he might call us to join with him as he builds his kingdom.
Simon Holt, in the book I mentioned earlier, The God Next Door, suggests the practice of ‘exegetical walking’. A good preacher exegetes scripture and culture and then discerns what God is saying through both, then applies it in a message. So Holt advises exegetical walking around your neighbourhood. This simply means to walk around your neighborhood with the view that it is a place of God’s missional activity and that also the Holy Spirit is in you, the Christian, to be able to discern. As you walk around the neighbourhood you read the place. Look for signs of hope, life despair, community, alienation, beauty and neglect.
As we practice disciplines of engagement like this one we become aware, the Spirit helps us to become aware of what God is up to and where he is at work. Moreover we become aware of places that desperately need God. As that happens God might ask us to join in with what he is doing in our community.
Another engagement after exegeting your community could be to practice praying for others. Check out the Breaking Through Resource for more specific prayer ideas.
2. Cultivate the ability to be continually aware of the presence of God
Too often as Christians we fall into the thinking that separates sacred from secular. That dualism means that we often see certain places and situations as carrying the presence of God, and others as outside his presence. We can become Christians who, as we gather on a Sunday, experience the presence of God yet find it hard to do so in the middle of the stuff of daily life, like work and family. The truth is that God is everywhere. Psalm 139:7 asks ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence. If I ascend to heaven you are there, if I make my bed in Sheol you are there.’ The implication is that God is everywhere. There are no places which are godless, only places which are waiting for God’s restoration and renewal.
The issue is that we have got so used to thinking in that dualistic way that most people find it hard to discern the presence of God in the everyday. However, if we are going to discern the activity of the Spirit in our community, then we need to, in a sense, always be in tune with God. That sounds really difficult but I don’t think it is.
One practice that Reggie McNeal points out in his book Missional Renaissance is ‘prayer-scaping’ which involves going to a public place and asking God to help them see what he sees. As a result, Christians began to see where God was at work in their local community beyond their church. This also brought about a new vision or a transformation in their way of seeing things. Then they are encouraged to pray about what they see. As they pray with their eyes open they notice the community needs around them. ‘This simple outing radically changed their outlook as they realised that what was in the heart of God was much bigger than typical church concerns. They began to see broken families, homeless people, at risk children, stressed teenagers – all people they were not engaging with their church ministry. Gripped by the heart of God, they gained an urgency to address what they saw’. As these Christians discerned the work of the Holy Spirit beyond the boundaries of the church, this led to a transformation in their way of thinking and would lead to the desire to take action in order to engage with the world.
Two examples of the church discerning the activity of God in the world from Scripture are Acts 8:26-40 and 10:1-33. In the first example Philip notices that an unbeliever is reading Scripture (v28). It could be said therefore that the Spirit of God was already at work in some way in this unbeliever’s life, Philip needed to discern that activity and connect. He does this when he approaches this person and engages in a conversation with him (v30). The second example tells the story of Cornelius who was a Gentile, yet it can be seen that God was at work in his life (v2, 4) to draw him into a relationship with Jesus. Peter the apostle needed to discern this activity of the Spirit and then act upon the promptings from God in order to convey the good news of the gospel. The Spirit is at work in the world drawing people to God and it is up to the people of God to discern that activity and join with God on his mission.
I have encouraged some people at our church to practice praying with eyes open as they go to work on the train or drive to work. To pray not for themselves but to see what is around their community and context and pray as God leads them so that they are better able to discern God’s activity in their community.
Another practice I have encouraged is reading scripture in a public place. Taking a passage of scripture and doing missio divina by applying it to the context you are in. How does the word of God relate to what you see before you? You have heard of lectio divina but missio divina has a focus of engaging with our world rather than retreating inwardly to hear a word from God. Instead we open our eyes and we see the world and how the word of God speaks into our world. We need three things as we discern that: Scripture, exegeting our culture and the Holy Spirit.
Practicing these disciplines regularly helps us to cultivate an awareness of the presence of God, so we can discern him.
3. Practice hospitality
Another practice that we need to engage in is hospitality. I don’t know if we take this one seriously enough. But I think it is a way that we can hear the voice of God in our community. Especially if we practice hospitality towards the marginalized and those we consider strangers. Jesus said in Luke 14:12 ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.’ How literally are we going to take this? Especially if we also read in Matthew 25:31ff in the story of the sheep and the goats, that in practicing our acts of kindness and hospitality to the poor we are actually serving Jesus himself.
We practice hospitality not because it is primarily a culturally acceptable thing to do. As Christians we imitate the hospitality, mutuality interdependence that we see within the godhead. If we look at the trinity we see Father, Son and Holy Spirit interrelating with each other. They welcome us into that intimate relationship that they have with one another. So we also need to welcome the weaker ones, the stranger, the marginalised. We need to practice being Trinitarian by showing hospitality.
Hospitality is about honoring the weaker members of our society. It is counter to our culture, just like it was in Jesus day, to turn the tables and invite the poor for a meal rather than the well off or only our friends.
Christine Pohl writes ‘Hospitality becomes for the Christian community a way of being the sacrament of God’s love in the world, a role which certainly fits the image in Romans 12 of hospitality as an expression of our lives offered up as Living sacrifices. While we might imagine sacrifice in terms of one’s moment of heroic martyrdom; faithful hospitality usually involves laying our lives down in little pieces, in small acts of sacrificial love and service’. (Making Room: Recovering hospitality as a Christian tradition by Christine Pohl.)
This also involves what one author has called ‘Mission in reverse’ which means that as we invite the stranger, the foreigner, the irreligious, the marginalized into our lives we not only act as the presence of God to them, but we also become aware of the Spirit of God speaking to us through them as we listen to them. There are lots of examples in scripture where God works through those who do not yet know him to influence those who do.
4. Be open to disruptions from the Spirit
All of these practices shape us into people who are able to better discern the activity of the Spirit in our world, so that we can engage in God’s mission. As we regularly practice these and engage in our neighbourhood, we can then discern what God might want us to do. God’s presence is always with us and I think we need to trust that he is speaking during our day to day lives telling us what is good. However I do think there are times when the Holy Spirit does things that are out of the ordinary and disrupts our usual way of thinking. I’ve said that a characteristic of the Spirit is that he disrupts. As we’ve already looked at in Luke 4, it was not the enemy who sent Jesus into an uncomfortable place (the desert) to be tested, but it was the Spirit. Sometimes the Spirit sends us to places or changes our direction of action and thinking in a way that we do not expect.
Sometimes it helps to engage in communal discernment. In Acts 10 in the story of Peter and Cornelius the Holy Spirit is reinterpreting Judaism for Peter. The Holy Spirit is giving fresh revelation to the early church. In matters like that I think communal discernment is helpful. You read in Acts 11 that Peter reports to the church in Jerusalem about what the Holy Spirit was saying, they listen and in verse 18 we read that they felt it was right so they praised God for his new revelation. We can do this too, when we are really unsure about something that we feel God is revealing to us about missional engagement. We share our experience with others, we use our reason, we read scripture and look at other examples from church history, we pray and we trust as we walk in God’s ways.