There is a question that is close to my heart. Most Christians believe that God answers prayers, and many believe that the Holy Spirit can guide your life. What is the Orthodox doctrine about the Holy Spirit? Does the Holy Spirit provide personal guidance? How is this guidance provided? Most importantly, how can we be sure of this guidance—how can we tell what is the voice of the Spirit, from our own wishful thinking or pre-conceived thoughts?
This is very important to me because I once thought my course of action was guided by the Spirit, and later discovered that it was not. I’m very uncertain how I can know what is real anymore. I feel this as a real loss in my life.
I will try to provide basic answers, point by point. If you would like me to elaborate further, all you have to do is send another email and I will be happy to do so.
What is the Orthodox doctrine about the Holy Spirit?
We believe that the Holy Spirit is God, the third person of the Holy Trinity, co-eternal and one in essence with the Father and the Son. The basic doctrine on the Holy Spirit is found in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: “...And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.” I would refer you to John 14:13-17 & 26 for the words of Jesus Christ Himself on the Holy Spirit.
Does the Holy Spirit provide personal guidance?
We believe that the Holy Spirit guides us personally and as a community, the People of God. In the Sacrament of Chrismation each one of us was “sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” In this mystery our personal relationship with the Holy Spirit is imparted and underscored. However, this mystery is imparted within the context of the entire faith community, not apart from it. Hence, while being filled with the Holy Spirit personally, this is done in the midst of the Church—the worshipping and believing community—just as it is impossible to be a Christian apart from the People of God.
[While some religious groups may stress the ultimate importance of having a “personal relationship” with Christ or the Holy Spirit, Orthodoxy sees the fulfillment of such personal relationship within the context of the Christian community, not apart from it.]
There is a well known quote from Saint Seraphim of Sarov, in which he says that the goal of our lives as Christians is to acquire the Holy Spirit. This is essential, yet it is impossible to acquire the Holy Spirit apart from the Christian community, as some non-Orthodox may teach.
How is this guidance provided? Most importantly, how can we be sure of this guidance—how can we tell what is the voice of the Spirit, from our own wishful thinking or pre-conceived thoughts?
The Holy Spirit guides us in various and diverse ways.
First, as professed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Holy Spirit “spoke by the prophets,” indicating that there are those whom the Holy Spirit “uses” to guide, to encourage, to inspire, and to challenge the People of God to repent. There are still prophetic voices at work within the Church today, and we can say that in such cases the Holy Spirit continues to make His presence felt through those whom He chooses.
Second, we continually call upon the Holy Spirit to guide us in discerning His presence. Scripture warns of “other spirits” which can be deceptive and, hence, certainly not of God. The gift of discernment is critical in determining that which is genuine from that which is not—or, as you yourself state, to discern “the voice of the Spirit, from our own wishful thinking or pre-conceived thoughts.” On the one hand, the Holy Spirit guides us in discerning God’s will from our own will; on the other hand, we need to discern that which is from the Holy Spirit from that which is not. In this, prayer and meditation is critical, as one cannot begin to “discern the spirits” apart from these realities. It is difficult to explain such things in human words, apart from those of of Christ, Who says: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26).
Here we discover that
the Holy Spirit teaches us all things, enlightens us, and commends to our memory the way to salvation revealed by Jesus Christ
in discerning the presence and operation of the Holy Spirit, one must not do so apart from that which Christ revealed
Here we may say that discernment involves finding consistency in the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the revelation of Jesus Christ. In crass terms, we might say that if something seems to be of the Holy Spirit, yet it stands in opposition to all that Christ revealed in His life, actions, and words, then the “something” is probably not of the Holy Spirit.
Here we might make a simple example: Christ teaches us to repent, to shun sin, and to turn to Him and Him alone. Saint Paul expresses this by challenging us to “put aside the old man” and “clothe” ourselves in Jesus Christ, the express image of the Father. Now imagine that someone comes and claims that he or she has received a “new” revelation which states that, while we indeed must shun sin, we cannot do so unless we have first experienced sin—thereby urging us to go out and willfully commit sins for the express purpose of repenting of them at a later point. [Believe it or not, there have actually been individuals and groups which have taught precisely this!]
Here discernment is critical: We need to weigh what the person claims in his or her “new” revelation and measure it against the life and teaching of Jesus Christ Himself, as well as the ongoing life of the People of God, the Church. If we do so, it becomes clear that the so-called “new” revelation is absolutely inconsistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ and the teaching of Saint Paul and the life and experience, the Holy Tradition, of the Church. Hence, the “new” revelation is discerned to be false, devoid of the Holy Spirit, and consequently it must be rejected. [This is a simplistic example, in which I hope the point becomes clearer.]
Often we find ourselves in situations in which we are unsure as to that which we feel or experience is of the Holy Spirit or of “another spirit.” Carefully and prayerfully weighing such situations and measuring them against the revelation as delivered to us through Jesus Christ is critical. This may take time and patience, forcing us—as the Prophet Elijah did—to sit, quietly and patiently, in all stillness, and listen to the voice of the Lord. In discerning the promptings of the Holy Spirit, it is critical to lay aside our own desires, will, and wants, and to listen to what the Lord tells us.
On Holy Saturday, as we anticipate the revelation of eternal life through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we sing precisely this reality: “Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and in fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly minded. ...”
Sometimes we discover the answer on our own, through another person, through the community with whom we worship, or through the “least of the brethren”—but always in God’s good time, not our own. “The Holy Spirit blows as He wills.”
So discernment apart from prayer, fasting, listening, and spiritual openness firmly rooted in humility and the desire to discover God’s will is impossible.
What I write is in no way intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the questions you pose but, rather, a springboard or starting point for further reflection, study, prayer, and contemplation. In every instance, such written answers cannot replace the one-on-one relationship one should have with one’s spiritual father. But I pray that it gives further “food for thought” in terms of the specific questions you have asked.