Following the Heart vs. the Spirit

Psalm 23:3, He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

Everybody is looking for direction from something in life as a guide to lead to greater fulfilment. Many people look at wrong sources, such as daily horoscopes or the large variety of false religions that teach people they need to do things in order to earn salvation. Others look to themselves for what is right. “Just follow your heart,” they say, “and all will turn out to be fine.” Even Christians will preach this message. While the idea sounds attractive, it is not biblical. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Just because it might feel good does not mean it’s necessarily good for us. We have to be able to discern between our heart and the Spirit. I think we are sometimes confused between the two. At times we may think we’re following the Spirit, but are really following our heart.

Following our heart is a lot like fast food. Fast food tastes so good, but it’s not good for you at all. Likewise, following our heart feels really good, but it’s not always good for us. Or you can follow your heart into a relationship that’s sexually impure. It might feel good but it’s not spiritually—and sometimes physiologically—good for you, neither is it God’s will for a sexually pure and healthy relationship. So, how do we know whether something is from the heart or from the Spirit?

The answer is easy, but discernment doesn’t always come to us so easily. In order to discern between the heart and the Spirit, we need to look at Scripture. If it’s in line with God’s Word, it’s safe to say it’s from the Spirit. If it does not line up with God’s Word, then it’s probably from the heart (i.e. the flesh). Of course, there are areas of life that Scripture isn’t always clear on. For example, if you have a chance for a new job, how do you know whether the Lord wants you to pursue it or not? This isn’t something we can find directly from Scripture. Yet God has given us prayer to pray for discernment as we consult with our brothers and sisters in Christ and our family. I’ll share a personal experience of mine as an example.

After the Fall semester of 2014 ended in college, I decided to leave the Pre-Seminary programme and pursue a career in Human Resources and Marketing. There were a lot of reasons why, which I won’t get into for the sake of brevity. The heart of the issue was that I was unsure of the pastoral calling I had felt—whether I was truly meant for the job. I struggled with this for the next year and a half. I was still feeling God tugging my heart towards ministry. I could not discern whether this was my heart or the Spirit. So, I continued to pray and talk to people I trusted.

I also continued to tutor Old Testament and Greek as part of my job on campus, and freshmen who didn’t know me before I left the programme assumed I was going to be a pastor, because apparently I’m really good at relaying scriptural information. My desire to preach the Gospel and learn the Scriptures in their original languages didn’t go away either. I kept coming across these people who assumed I was going to be a pastor because they saw the passion I have for biblical truth. So, I kept praying to God, “Please show me what You want me to do. Make it blatantly obvious to me.”

I kept praying this prayer for a year and a half until February 2016 one night when I was lying in bed and I couldn’t sleep. I had all these sudden images (not visions) and thoughts in my head about being a pastor, and suddenly I couldn’t imagine being anything else other than a pastor. So, God made it blatantly obvious to me through the words of these people I pondered on and by invading my thoughts, and the next day I went to see my former academic advisor when I was in the Pre-Seminary programme, and I’ve been in ever since. I still cannot imagine being anything else other than a pastor. God made it blatantly obvious to me through people and He occupied my thoughts. I haven’t regretted going back. The best evidence I have that this is the Spirit and not the heart is the wisdom God provides me through this blog, my fellowship with Christians and other people, and how well my academic studies are going and my success in the seminary entrance exams so far. This doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, however. The pastoral call is very challenging academically, spiritually, and relationally.

My testimony is just an example. To discern between heart and Spirit, if God makes it blatantly obvious to you through the people you talk to and/or by occupying your thoughts, it’s probably the Spirit. Seeking counsel with people who are involved in your life in this sort of situation, I believe, is essential. If you’re married, definitely consult your husband or wife. As a single man, I sought the counsel of my parents, my pastor, and my professors often. They all saw in me the great potential to become a pastor, which aided in my decision to continue pursuing my inward call. The Holy Spirit is our guide and He will make it known to us what God’s will is.

Conversely, the flesh reveals to us what our will is. Paul actually describes to us how we can discern between the flesh and the Spirit. The works of the flesh consist of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21a). In stark contrast, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). When Scripture isn’t clear about what God’s will for your personal life is, such as a new job opportunity, think on what’s driving it. Is the job an idol—something you’ve been striving for and place above God and family? It’s probably from the heart and not the Spirit. Do you want the job because of greed—because by it you will become wealthy? Then it’s probably from the heart and not the Spirit. Do you feel a sense of peace about the job? Do you have control over your own desires? Is your family at peace with the new opportunity? Then it’s probably from the Spirit.

From my own example, one of the reasons why I was seeking a career in HR and marketing was because it offers a lot of money and job security, at least in comparison to a pastor’s salary. My drive was greed, and I did not trust God to provide me with the resources I’ll need for seminary and afterwards. Instead of following the Spirit, I followed my heart even though I believed at the time that it was God’s will for me to pursue a career in HR, but I was wrong because I followed my heart. And now that I’ve finally listened to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I have joy and a sense of peace and steadfast patience and self-control over my lusts. That is how I know that where I’m going career-wise is from the Spirit and not my heart (i.e. the flesh).

Take some time for self-reflection. What is it that you are pursuing? Is it from the heart or is it from the Spirit? Take some time and pray what God’s will for you is. It may not come in one night or the next day. Remember, it took me a year and a half to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance, which was really due to my own ignorance. As you begin discerning whatever it is you’re struggling with, and if Scripture is not explicit on it, think on the things that consist of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit and compare them to what’s driving you. Also seek the counsel of those who are involved in your life, such as your spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend, your parents, close friends, professors, whomever. Then you will know what God’s will is compared to what your will is, and then you will have to make your decision.

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