Not too long ago, my husband and I found ourselves in a perplexing church situation. We had been attending the same small congregation for several years. We were involved, loved and felt loved by everyone, and cared deeply about the unique mission of this church.
Spiritually, however, we were stagnated. If spiritual vitality is a pilgrim going from strength to strength, over hill and valley, to God, her eternal home (Psalm 84), then we were pilgrims wandering in circles through a dense, muggy wood.
We weren’t sure of the way forward. Stay put and look for God to breathe new life into our situation? Find a new church home? Or eke out a different path?
At this point, the voices in my head started getting pretty loud. (As a people pleaser, I carry a chorus of other people’s opinions with me wherever I go.) I heard one of my favorite college professors talking about how we should commit to a church in the same way we commit to a marriage. I heard one of our church elders saying that our church wasn’t growing because its members weren’t dedicated enough. Other respected voices warned of the dangers of a consumeristic mindset toward church, of the futility of shopping for the “perfect” church.
I listened to these well-intended voices, which seemed to be pointing toward staying put. But as we slogged through the following months at our church, we felt increasingly lifeless and sapped. Eventually, tired of living in the stifling echo-chamber of others’ opinions, my husband and I started reaching into our own hearts. Instead of asking, What do others think we should do? we starting asking different questions, like, What gives me life? and What can I say yes to, without reserve? and What gifts do I have to offer to the body of Christ, and where can I best offer these gifts?
These questions cleared out space in our souls that had previously been filled with fear. Slowly, another voice emerged—a gentle, yet authoritative one. It was our inner voice of truth, the Holy Spirit. Listening to this voice, we felt permission to leave our current church and our longing for a different kind of community affirmed. When we followed this voice, we felt freedom and peace instead of anxiety and constraint.
We can trust our inner voice of truth not because our hearts are faultless, but because Christ’s Spirit dwells within us.
Through this experience, I discovered once again that the most important voice to listen to is the Holy Spirit. Other people may offer wise counsel, and listening to the members of our community can keep us from straying into the weeds. But when it comes to discerning major life decisions, listening to our “inner teacher,” as Parker Palmer puts it, is the only way to find a path that is sustainable and life-giving. Living out of obligation, based on what others think we “should” do, quickly leads to burnout.
We can trust our inner voice of truth not because we are good in and of ourselves, nor because our hearts are faultless, but because Christ’s Spirit dwells within us. He has begun the good work of renewing our hearts and minds (Rom. 12:2, Eph. 4:23). As we mature in our walk with Jesus, we move from being merely servants to being friends (John 15:15), children of God, and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
Through Christ, God invites us to be co-creators, co-agents. His Spirit enables us to participate in His purposes in the world, not just as passive doers of what He says, but as active collaborators. I picture this as the difference between a bricklayer, who is handed plans for a 9-by-10 foot wall, versus an architect, who consults with the master builder to design the house together.
To be given that kind of responsibility and freedom from God can be overwhelming, which is why many of us grasp for predesigned plans—step-by-step formulas for living the life God wants for us from bestselling preachers, no-fail guidelines for making the right decisions. But in listening so desperately to these outside voices, we fail to tune into our inner voice of truth. Or perhaps we don’t know how to hear this still small voice amidst the other voices yelling for our attention.
The questions my husband and I asked ourselves when we were making our decision were a starting point in learning to listen to our inner voice of truth. Other questions include, What makes my heart ache? What sets my heart aflame? What can I offer in this situation that no one else could? Questions like these open us up to the place where, as Frederick Buechner wrote, “[our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” and usher us into God’s calling.