The Bible makes it clear that God has a plan for our lives and promises to guide us. Sometimes His guidance comes through the Scriptures, through other people, and sometimes by hearing directly from His Spirit. Isaiah 30:21 describes God guiding His people through the Spirit:
And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.
This is an amazing promise: God wants to guide us in what we do, how we live, and where we go. But how can we be certain that the voice we hear is the Holy Spirit and not our own? And how can we discern the Spirit’s voice in a group setting?
In A Hunger For God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer, John Piper encourages readers to emulate the prayer, worship, and fasting of the disciples in Acts 13:1-4. Paul and Barnabas were worshipping with some brothers and the Spirit directly spoke, sending Paul and Barnabas out to the mission field. The idea of the Spirit’s leading is an encouraging one, but also one that has the potential to be abused.
How can believers test subjective impressions of the Spirit like this one? John Piper shares a few thoughts:
First, we observe that in Acts 13:2 the Spirit spoke to five teachers and prophets as a group. Of course, the Spirit could speak to one person alone. But it would seem wise to say, where more people are obliged by a word from the Spirit, more people are informed about it by the Spirit…
Second, the normative guidance in the New Testament follows the pattern of Romans 12:2, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” This need not rule out the unusual impulses and impressions from the Lord, but it does suggest that the renewed “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), shaped by the word of Christ, and permeated by the Spirit of Christ will hold sway in the interplay of subjective impression vs. spiritual reflection.
Third, the claim to have an impression from the Lord would need to conform to the teaching of Scripture, either to specific texts if any is immediately relevant, or to the tenor, spirit, and trajectory as a whole…
Fourth, the misuse of Scripture to support otherwise biblical impressions will give sober Christians pause…[The Spirit] inspired the Scriptures and would, it seems, handle them according to the meaning that he gave them in the first place…
Fifth, the larger track record of the person speaking is relevant. How accurately and helpfully has he or she discerned with such impressions before?…How stable and reliable is the person in general?