From my earliest memory, I have known of and loved the Lord Jesus Christ. At the age of 11, I became one of His disciples. Ten years later, He decided I would serve Him in the ministry and called me out. As I write, I am 67 years old. You can do the math.
Through these years of reading Scripture, of praying, studying, obeying, trying to grow and striving to honor Jesus by serving His people, I have learned some things about the ways of the Lord. Few of these insights came in advance, but only after the events, when I looked back and gave thought to what the Holy Spirit had done, to how He had led and taught me.
Jesus promised His people that the Holy Spirit would be our Teacher. “He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (John 14:26) “He will guide you into all truth…He will take of mine and will disclose it to you.” (John 16:13-14)
The best I can figure, there are 984 ways the Holy Spirit uses to teach any of us. So far, looking back over all these years of serving the Lord, here are the top ten ways the Holy Spirit has taught me.
1. The Holy Spirit teaches us in our failures.
As a college student, I struggled in my attempts to witness for Christ. Before attempting to share with friends or strangers, I literally sweat bullets, the inner agony was so horrific. Then, after three or four years of this–by now I was a student in seminary–I picked up a booklet in a Christian bookstore that might as well have had my name on it: “Here’s How to Win Souls.” A Texas minister had put in print and even in photographs the method he used to present the gospel. I bought the booklet, studied it, learned it, and went across town and led someone to Christ using the principles Gene Edwards and the Holy Spirit had cooperated to send my way.
2. The Holy Spirit teaches us in our everyday experiences.
My friend Fred told me his pastor was letting him preach from time to time and he was enjoying it. “But,” he said, “I have a hard time with illustrations.” He and I were about to spend several hours together, traveling to a funeral and having lunch with another friend, so I suggested he open his notebook and write down every sermon illustration we found that day. By the time we parted that afternoon, he had written down his account of six or more lessons the Lord had sent. One was a quote from our waitress, one something our luncheon friend had said, two or three were insights from the funeral sermon, and at least two were revelations that arose from our conversations.
“Why haven’t I noticed all these things before?” Fred asked. I said, “You haven’t been needing them. Now that you’ll be preaching, the Lord will be sending them your way. It’s your job to pay attention.”
3. The Holy Spirit teaches us in our successes.
This one is so obvious, I’ll make only one comment.
The lesson most people learn when something goes really well is, “This is how it’s done.” That surely is why we learn more from failure than from our successes. With the former, we struggle and agonize over what we are not doing right and where we need to improve. With the latter, we tend to settle down, pat ourselves on the back, and congratulate ourselves that we’re finally getting it right. We rarely look back after a success and study all the lessons the Lord just sent our way. It’s human nature, but if so, it’s not something to be proud of.
4. The Holy Spirit teaches us in our pain.
Dr. Paul Brand wrote a great book on this subject with the intriguing title of “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.” His work with patients in leprosariums taught him how valuable the gift of pain is, and the tragedies that beset people who no longer experience it.
When I lost a job, I learned the nearness of the Lord, the sweetness of fellowship with Christian people, and the sufficiency of God’s promises. When I lost a loved one in death, I learned the power of the prayers of friends. When I went through a battle with cancer, I learned to treasure the promises of Scripture. When I fought depression, I learned to understand what others were battling in their personal lives.
5. The Holy Spirit teaches us in our struggles.
My friend Monica had just finished college and was in training to go overseas for a two-year missionary assignment. One Saturday during the orientation period, she and the other trainees were taken into a large city and dropped off in small groups at various locations. They were instructed to interact with foreigners, to meet them, and try to bring someone closer to Jesus. The introverted Monica struggled with this last aspect of her assignment. Toward the end of the allotted period, she began to pray with passion that the Lord would confirm to her that He was really leading her for this new ministry.
As she ended her prayer, Monica noticed down the corridor a woman standing behind a table filled with African handcrafts. She walked to the table, nodded to the lady, picked up an item, and began a conversation. Within two minutes Monica learned that the woman was a native of the very city in Africa where she would be working, that her two granddaughters were students in the same Christian academy where she would be teaching kindergarten, and that they had often witnessed to this grandmother about Jesus. An hour later, as she rejoined her group, Monica had prayed with the woman and held in her pocket two letters the lady had just written to her grandchildren. In Tanzania, Monica became the teacher of one of this woman’s granddaughters.
When struggling to do the Lord’s will, it’s a great idea to turn to Him for direction and power.
6. The Holy Spirit teaches us by repetition–sending the same message by different sources over a short period of time.
In a ten-day period, four seminary students said to me, “We don’t plan to join a local church.” Now, bearing in mind that I am not a professor at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and often go weeks without setting foot on the campus, this was most unusual. Then, a call came from the administrative office inviting me to speak in chapel a few days later. I knew just the subject the Holy Spirit was assigning me. My message to the students was: “Join a local church!”
Those who read this blog will sometimes notice a particular article that draws in various quotes from friends, insights from Scripture, and experiences from daily living. Nine times out of ten, I had no thought of writing such until the Lord started hammering me with the same message from different directions. Finally it all came together and I realized how it all made sense. As the message takes shape on the computer screen, I sense that this really was from the Lord. Later, when I find that other websites and the occasional printed magazine has picked it up and reprinted it, there is a deep satisfaction from knowing that this is all of the Lord.
7. The Holy Spirit teaches us in our questions.
As a college student, I came across the novel “Elmer Gantry” and found myself influenced by a doubt raised by a preacher. He was leaving the ministry, he said, because of a lot of things, including all the contradictions he saw in Scripture. I smiled at the ones author Sinclair Lewis mentioned, because even though I was perhaps 20 years old and still immature in many ways, I had encountered those same superficial problems and had dismissed them as too trite for a serious discussion. But then the preacher in the novel nailed me. “If Jesus were who He said He was–from Heaven and God–instead of doing all those miracles which had only a temporary effect, why didn’t He do something of lasting benefit for mankind, like give us a sanitation code?”
I thought to myself, “What a great question. Wonder why He didn’t?” It was nearly ten years before I found the answer. In a little book called “None of These Diseases,” missionary doctor S. I. McMillen pulled insights from Scripture, chiefly the Old Testament, to show how the Lord had taught people the ways and means to stay safe and healthy in that primitive world. In fact, the writer pointed out, many of those boring religious rites in books like Leviticus actually constitute a sanitation code, meant to protect the people from disease and infection.
The reason Jesus did not give us a sanitation code when He came to earth is that God already had. If we were too lazy to read it, it was our problem.
In a similar way, I struggled with questions about the resurrection of Jesus during my college and post-college years. Then, in my second year of seminary, I read an article in Christianity Today by a London law professor named J. N. D. Anderson on the proofs of the resurrection. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that there was actual evidence available for us today for the return of our Lord from the dead. I thought it was a matter of blind faith. Later, Anderson and others were to write numerous books–and I was to buy them!–to help us know the reality of the resurrection of Christ.
Had I not struggled with the question, I would never have appreciated the answer when it arrived.
8. The Holy Spirit teaches us in the least likely people.
Jack was the unhappiest member of my church. A year before I arrived as pastor, the church had made him a deacon and I had to endure his criticism and negativism. Another deacon encouraged me not to take Jack’s comments personally, assuring me that they had served on the city council together and he had been the same way there. One day, when I visited in his home, I learned an important lesson. Jack lived with constant back pain. On my way back to the office, I asked God to forgive my impatience with the man and grant me greater love and compassion for him.
I think of Miss Annie Cogsdell, a tiny elderly member of my congregation who lived in the poorest of circumstances a few blocks from our church. As the result of some ancient infirmity, she was drawn over, spoke haltingly and weakly, and weighed no more than 75 pounds. When she no longer was able to take care of herself, church members arranged for a room in the nursing home. Every time she was at church, she never left without making her way down front to speak to me. When she was no longer able to come, I visited her in the nursing home. On every occasion, without fail, she would reach her tiny bony hand out and place it in mine and say, “I… pray… for… you… every… day.” When she died, I told that story to many a teary-eyed church member and said, “I wonder now who will be praying for me every day now.”
After being gone from that church for 21 years, only two months ago, I was back for the church’s 175th anniversary. During a Saturday time of reminiscing in the sanctuary, several people rose to speak of Miss Annie Cogsdell, the least likely person in a large congregation of influential people.
9. The Holy Spirit teaches us by snagging our attention with a Scripture text.
During the summer months of my late teenage years, I plowed the family mule on our small Alabama farm. Anyone who has ever done that has had the never-to-be-forgotten experience of the plow snagging on a root. You’re moving along steadily, the day is lovely, the air is fresh, the animal pulling the plow is cooperating, life is good. Suddenly, the point of the plow catches a root under the soil. The plow stops, the mule is jerked backward, and I slam into the crossbar of the plow, almost losing my breath. The animal regains his balance, the plowboy recovers enough to grab the handles and straighten the plow, then to pull it back from the root. Then, he digs around in the ground for the offending root and pulls it up, to make certain this does not happen the next time he plows this field.
Now, you’re reading the Scripture. It’s a great passage, you’ve read it before, this is good. Suddenly, a verse jumps off the page at you. You’ve never seen this before, where did that come from? The Holy Spirit has snagged you.
Two months ago, Luke 14:14 jumped out and grabbed me. “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous,” Jesus promised. I must have read that text a hundred times over the years, but it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. That’s when I knew the Holy Spirit was sending me a message. This insight, this promise, was to become part of my arsenal, a treasure in my heart, something uplifting to share with those who hurt, an encouragement to those who serve. Since that time, I’ve written about it, preached it to congregations, and shared it in a number of funerals including the one for my father just a month ago.
Take care of the people who cannot repay you, Jesus was saying. But you will be repaid, make no mistake about that. However, the one who will pay that debt is the Lord Himself at the resurrection of the righteous. In reflecting on that promise, I wonder about His hearers, if this was motivation enough for them to do what He said. Could they wait that long? Believe that strong? It’s an intriguing thought.
In the mid-1970s my Mississippi church was experiencing a tiny racial crisis. For the first time, an African-American person was joining our church. I had seen the devil use this to tear up congregations and destroy the witness of God’s people and was determined not to let that happen. As I prayed and studied the word, the Lord called my attention to a verse in Psalm 119. What was unusual about this is the way He did it. The verse made me angry. Now, there is not a thing in that chapter that should have made me mad, but it did. The verse read, “Those who fear the Lord will rejoice when they see you because you waited on the Lord.” I read it and thought, “What in the world does that mean?”
One minute later, while praying, the Holy Spirit taught the contents of that verse. “Those who fear the Lord,” that’s God’s faithful people. “Will rejoice when they see you” refers to how they will accept what you recommend when you stand in front of the congregation. “Because you waited on the Lord” is a reference to the fact that you have made this a matter of prayer, seeking to do it in the Lord’s way.
The following Sunday was one of the great red-letter-days in the life of that congregation as we welcomed a sister into the fellowship of the church, and did it enthusiastically and almost unanimously.
10. The Holy Spirit teaches us in nature.
Joe Joslin and I were standing on the walking bridge that spans the lake in front of Connemara, the North Carolina home of writer Carl Sandburg. It was a brilliant August morning and the white clouds in the sky were being reflected off the surface of the lake so faithfully, you could almost lose your perspective and think that down was up. As we gazed downward, I said to Joe, “Isn’t that incredible?” He said, “Yes, and I’ll bet some of those babies would dress out at two pounds.” I said, “What?”
Joe is a fisherman. He was looking beyond the surface of the water and watching the large fish just underneath.
Later, it occurred to me that my friend and I had just experienced the two ways people come to the Scripture. Some open it and see a reflection of the world around them. They pick up pointers on how to live, how to lead their family, how to serve the Lord in their world, and off they go. Others delve deeply into the biblical world to see how people lived in those times and those cultures. They study the languages and learn the customs in back of the teachings.
Both ways are correct; neither is right to the exclusion of the other. I’m indebted to the Holy Spirit for this memorable way of getting the point across.
There are still another 974 methods the Holy Spirit uses to teach us, most of which I haven’t discovered yet. This is just where my list stands at the moment.
Not far from where I live is a company that specializes in helping students who are having difficulty or have fallen behind in school. They advertize that “You will have your own private tutor.” No doubt they have found the value of this one-on-one instruction.
Sooner or later, every believer learns and begins to treasure that in Christ he has just that kind of Helper.
The Holy Spirit: the believer’s own personal, private Tutor.