Updated: Oct 13, 2022
“For what man can learn the counsel of God? Or who can discern what the Lord wills? For the reasoning of mortals is worthless, and our designs are likely to fail, for a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. We can hardly guess at what is on earth, and what is at hand we find with labor; but who has traced out what is in the heavens? Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your Holy Spirit from on high? And thus the paths of those on earth were set right, and men were taught what pleases you, and were saved by wisdom.” (Wis 9:13-18)
I was asked to present a teaching on the spirit of counsel to our church, and thought it would be worth sharing with you here. We have been creating content for parish small groups, and doing a special series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11. May God inspire you in some way, reflecting on this amazing gift:
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the gift of the spirit of counsel “allows a man to be directed by God in matters necessary for his salvation”. Or in other words, it makes us docile and receptive to the counsel of God as He guides our actions according to His ways. The gift perfects and elevates the virtue of prudence, guides our discernment, and helps form our conscience. Now, the difference between the spirit of counsel and the virtue of prudence, is that the virtue is a disposition of our reason, while the gift is a working of the Spirit in us – and is a sign of His presence. By the virtue of prudence, we analyze and consider situations, and the more important they are, the more we tend to reflect on them. But the spirit of counsel is often more immediate. For example, when Jesus said to the disciples, “When they hand you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:17-20).
In the original Hebrew, Isaiah describes the gift of the spirit of counsel using the word “ay-tsaw”, which is also translated as “advice, a plan or a purpose”. The word is used in other places where we see the spirit of counsel operating, such as in the lives of the Old Testament prophets, who were anointed by the Spirit. Their gift was often recognized by others, and they were frequently called to serve as counselors and provide divine strategies and plans for problems that were being faced. As a result of this supernatural gift, they gained favor, and many rulers actually came to faith in the God of Israel.
Scripture says that “God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel” (Sir 15:14), but being prone to “reason unsoundly” (Wisdom 2:1), and our designs being “likely to fail” (Wis 9:14), God invites us into relationship, to seek His counsel. Proverbs 19:21 says: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand”. Sometimes we don’t appreciate this gift of the Spirit enough – especially when we’re overly impressed by our own ideas. In order to grow in this gift, we need to grow in our relationship with the Spirit Himself, and that our minds are renewed in the process. St. Basil said that “the Spirit is continually present with those who are worthy, but actively works as He is needed”. Or as we read in the Book of Wisdom 6:16, that the Holy Spirit, “goes about seeking those worthy of Himself, and graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.” (Wis 6:16)
Perhaps the most significant way in which the counsel of the Holy Spirit comes to us is through the words of Scripture. For example, when St. Anthony of the Desert heard the words of the Gospel, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor… then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). He understood it as a personal word from the Lord, which led to him starting monasticism in the early church. This was also the way that St. Francis of Assisi received his inspiration that led to the movement of the Franciscan Order – which renewed the Church, when he heard at Mass the passage where Jesus tells his disciples to go into the world and “take nothing for your journey: no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics” (Lk 9:3). And example of the spirit of counsel benefiting others, is in the life of St. Catherine of Siena, who, even though she was young and without much training, counseled and even admonished Pope Gregory 11th – and it was largely through her influence that he returned to Rome, ending the Avignon Papacy.
So we can see how the spirit of counsel is significant in guiding our lives according to God’s will. But it also helps preserve and form in us a good conscience, as our decisions and actions are led by the Holy Spirit. St. John Vianney described that “The Holy Spirit leads us as a mother leads her child by the hand, and as a person who can see, leads one who is blind”.
Practically, it often starts when the Spirit causes a “check” in our hearts, where we begin to ask ourselves questions, like, “Is this act true to Christ and the teachings of the church? Does it strengthen love? Or lead to me closer to God?” But it always comes with an invitation to relationship with God, who provides the counsel we need. This is significant when we consider that some of the most important decisions we make happen deep inside of our hearts, and they’re often decisions that no human being can really tell us what to do. So, we need an intimacy with God; a closeness with the Spirit, where we live as much as we can in His presence, and seek His counsel.
Therefore, it’s important that we become teachable, and it starts by recognizing the limitations of our own reasoning, AND being intentional about processing our plans with God. Wisdom 6:17 says “The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction”, so this is a means of becoming wise. For, “the way of fools seem right to them, but the wise listen to counsel” (Prov 12:15).
A lot of what theologians have written, about the gift, also applies to the charism of discernment. Through the gift, the Spirit helps us to judge actions as being “good and ought to be done”, or as “evil and ought to be avoided” – which is similar to the discernment of spirits, which enables us to distinguish between the “Spirit of God” from “the spirit of the world” (1 Cor 2:12), the flesh and the devil. They both rely on the active presence of the Holy Spirit, since no one can test the spirits to see if they are from God unless God gives discernment. That’s why it’s sometimes said that “discernment is the mother of all virtues” (Baldwin of Canterbury). The bottom line is, we need the spirit of counsel, because there are times when the choices we have are not between good and bad, but between one good and another good. This is why St. Bonaventure said that the gift “acts like a new breath in the conscience, suggesting to it what is licit, what is becoming, what is more fitting for the soul”. Or as St. Paul said in Romans 12:2, having our minds renewed, we may “prove what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God”.
Now, I’ve focused a lot on how the spirit of counsel operates in our minds, because our thought life is so important. Every thought, unless we intentionally guide it, becomes a desire. And desire becomes an action. And every action, becomes a habit. That’s why scripture calls us to “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ” (in 2 Cor 10:5). It’s the Spirit alone who can purify our minds, and this gift transforms our reasoning, and enlightens our conscience. There are even times when our hearts condemn us. The spirit of counsel is key to transforming the scrupulous state we can find ourselves in. We read in 1 Jn 3:10, “if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything”.
So, as a final suggestion for how we can grow in the gift of the spirit of counsel, is in the practice of an examination of conscience. Often, we practice the examen in preparation for Confession, but for many of the greatest saints, it became a continuous exercise of placing themselves before God, and letting him search their hearts. When we limit an examination to when we prepare for confession, it easily becomes just a list of imperfections and failures that we confess so that we can feel better, without the attitude of real repentance. And, it doesn’t give much room for a deeper, and more authentic relationship with the Lord.
The discipline of the examination of conscience helps us entrust ourselves completely to God, and seek His counsel – which is like free “spiritual direction” with the Holy Spirit! And as we cultivate this relationship, and come to more intimately perceive what grieves and stifles Him, it becomes easier to respond to His promptings, we are more attentive to His voice, and our prayer becomes simpler - where all we need to do is turn our glance toward Him, in a simple movement of the heart.
It's fitting, then, for us to end with a prayer: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.