What if we were to plot biblical examples of the leading of the Spirit on a continuum from clearest communication to least clear? That’s what I propose to do in this post.
For years I have been taking note of moments in the Bible where God communicates with his people beyond the written Word. Please do not misunderstand what I intend here. My understanding of biblical decision-making places the Bible as the foundation for every decision and as permeating the entire process of making decisions. I believe that the most important thing that Christians who want to make God-honoring decisions can do is to immerse themselves in the written Word of God, and consequently to learn to think God’s thoughts after him. Furthermore, I do not believe that some sort of special message from God is required for every decision we make.
Nevertheless, the Bible offers multiple examples of God communicating with his people.
My claim in this post is that God’s beyond-the-Scripture communication falls on a spectrum. God chooses sometimes to speak with perfect clarity, and sometimes sovereignly chooses not to be so clear—and sometimes chooses not to speak at all. For the purposes of this particular taxonomy, I deem that clarity is increased if the communication is audible (versus visual), direct (versus symbolic), if it includes a personal visit from a divine representative (versus just something in one’s thoughts), and if it is specific to a situation (versus generally encouraging). My operative question to help me identify where to place a biblical example on the scale is: How likely is it that someone might not understand the message that God is communicating?
Here, then, is a possible continuum of God’s communication beyond what was simply known to the original hearers from previously-written Scripture. The scale begins with the clearest, and ends with the least clear.
1. God speaks a direct, audible message to a group, which collectively is convinced that God is speaking.
Example: The children of Israel hear an audible voice accompanied by thunder and lightning and sounds of trumpets (Exodus 20:1-18).
2. God speaks a direct, audible message to an individual when there is no doubt that God is the one speaking.
Example: God speaks to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:3-6, 9-13, 21-22, 24 and many other times).
3. God speaks a direct audible message to an individual, but the individual is initially unsure whether the message is from God—becoming convinced as the communication continues.
Example: God speaks to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-4:17).
4. God communicates audibly through an angelic messenger who delivers a message in person.
Example: God sends an angel to announce to Mary the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38).
5. God communicates a direct message to an individual through an angelic messenger who communicates while the person is sleeping/dreaming.
Example: God sends an angel to speak to Joseph in a dream about the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:20-21; cf. 2:13).
6. God communicates a message to an individual using relatively-clear images in a vision or dream, but which also require some interpretation.
Example 1: Paul sees a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10).
Example 2: Peter sees a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals (Acts 10:9-16).
7. God speaks in an audible voice from heaven, but not everyone is convinced that it is the voice of God.
Example: God speaks in an audible voice about being glorified, though some think the voice is thunder (John 12:28-30).
8. God inserts symbols into someone’s dream. The source or meaning of those symbols is not easily accessible without a God-supplied interpretation.
Example: Nebuchadnezzar receives symbolic dreams (e.g., Daniel 2:1-47; 4:1-27).
9. God communicates audibly to a human through a human messenger using direct speech.
Examples: Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist—or lesser-known prophets like Micaiah or Agabus—communicate God’s will to various audiences.
10. God communicates to a human audibly through a human messenger who employs symbols and metaphors.
Example: Ezekiel often communicated through prophetic enactments or symbols.
11. God non-audibly places something into someone’s thoughts or onto someone’s heart that the receiver is convinced is a thought or urging from God.
Example 1: Nehemiah claimed that God put something into his mind (Nehemiah 2:12) or his heart (7:4) that required an action on his part.
Example 2: Paul felt compelled to go to Jerusalem. He used the expression “bound in spirit” or “bound by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22).
12. A person or group feels strongly that God wants them to do something, and, in retrospect, they are confident that God was the one who had moved their hearts to do it.
Example 1: “everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5).
Example 2: People whose hearts moved/stirred them contributed to the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 35:21, 22, 26, 29; 36:2).
13. A group comes to a wise decision, and trusts that God was the one who moved them to that decision.
Example: At the Council of Jerusalem, James spoke these words: “it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28; cf. 15:25).
14. Followers of Jesus speak or respond in moments of persecution, but God is the one who moves them to say or respond in a particular way.
Example: “When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it isthe Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).
15. A person does his best to speak a wise word in the moment, but in retrospect, the story suggests that God moved the person to say what he said.
Example: Hushai the Archite spoke a word to Absalom that contradicted the counsel of Ahithophel, because Hushai thought his counsel would protect David. This counsel, though, was from God: “for the LORD had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel” (2 Samuel 17:14).
16. God directs someone away from a wrong perspective and toward a proper perspective.
Example: “and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you” (Philippians 3:15).
Example: “Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).
17. God internally reminds a Christian of something related to his or her relationship with the Lord.
Example 1: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
Example 2: “…my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 9:1).
18. God reassures someone’s heart—no specific message is involved.
Example: “We will assure our hearts before him” (1 John 3:19; cf. 3:20-21).
As you can see from this list, there exists in the Bible a spectrum of guidance from the Lord. At the top of this list are examples of direct, undeniable, and sometimes even dramatic communication from God. At the bottom of the list are the more gentle workings of guidance through encouragement, redirection, urges, and the like.
Note, however, that even at the softer end of the spectrum, there are not any biblical assurances that we will always experience special guidance each time we have a decision to make. This means that we should be prepared to make decisions solely through the exercise of biblically-saturated missional wisdom (which is a type of guidance itself—if you pause to think about it for a moment—since the broad parameters we employ have already been revealed by God in the Bible). Still, the Christian who desires to be truly biblical in decision-making needs to allow space for the occasions when God chooses to guide—sometimes directly and unambiguously, but at other times through urges, promptings, and redirected thoughts.