Need Discernment? Who doesn’t?
I read a line from Michael Hyatt’s blog the other day that really struck me as practically discerning: “If you don’t like what you see in the life of the messenger, it’s usually best to ignore the message.” In essence, Michael is advising us not to take advice from people aren’t getting the results you want to experience.
It is of great comfort to us to know that Jesus is perfectly sinless. In the face of unjust suffering He did not sin. He was proven perfect in the suffering. Therefore we can trust Him and His message to us. Since we know He is perfect and we can trust that what He says is true, and that as we are obedient to His word, we will have a good result. We seem to have a hard time taking His advice. There are any number of reasons that keep us from being obedient, but what keeps us from really discerning His voice so we can follow Him?
That question leads us to another question: What is spiritual discernment?
It is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God – both personally and in community.
The story of the children of Israel in the wilderness was an ongoing story of discernment. It was about a group of people learning how to recognize the presence of God and then follow as God led. Moses as the leader of the people would routinely ask God what he should do and then lead the people in that way. Moses’ responsive obedience was crucial to the survival of the people he led.
Wilderness survival required the people’s ongoing response to the presence of God, shown through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. When the presence of God moved, they followed it, and when God stopped, they stopped (Numbers 9). He gave them discernment.
Discernment is about intimacy with God. The people of Israel had an intimacy with God that other nations didn’t have, and that caused the other nations to be jealous and watch in awe.
“You… will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who… will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-7)
The opportunity to be intimate with God and discern His ways was at the heart of their identity, and it was one of the main traits that would distinguish them from other nations.
For us today, it is a lot more difficult to have discernment because we don’t have a pillar of cloud or fire to follow. We don’t get to hear God’s voice thunder from Mount Horeb. We must rely on the subtle, still, small voice of the Holy Spirit witnessing with our human spirits about the things that are true.
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:16)
Spiritual discernment requires us to move beyond our reliance on cognition and intelligence to a place of deep listening and response to the Spirit of God within and among us. To start this means we maintain our commitment to Scripture, silence, worship, intercession, self-examination, and confession as the container for the discernment process.
Characteristics of Discernment
- Discernment is a way of seeing that is first of all a habit, enabling us to see the works of God as they are being revealed in our lives.
- It is a way of being in which we are steeped in listening and responding to the Spirit.
- Discernment is grounded in our belief that God is good, this His intentions toward us are always good and that He has the power to carry them out.
Without this conviction it would be hard, if not impossible, to give ourselves freely and fully to the discernment process. Discernment is also grounded in the belief that the call to love God and to love others is our ultimate calling as Christian people. Thus in every decision we make we could hope that somewhere along the way we will ask, what love would call us to do?
Entering the Discernment Process
A true discernment process begins with a commitment to pray without ceasing. It is a commitment to pray that we would be indifferent to everything but the will of God. We question ourselves as to what has to die in us for the will of God to come forth. As we process our way toward God’s will we are ready to ask for wisdom, which God promises to generously bestow upon us (James 1:5).
Next, we must listen deeply to the experiences that caused us to be asking the question we are asking. Then we must listen to what God is saying to us.
The discernment process involves a commitment to listening with love and attention to our experiences, to the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit deep within ourselves, to others, and to Scripture. We need to list the pertinent facts and information, to those who will be affected most deeply by our decisions, and to that place in us where God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit about those things that are true.
It is also good to note whether the discernment process in us is being dominated by the opinion of those with stronger personalities or those who talk the most. It is important to enter into silence and “listen within” when human dynamics are getting out of control, when there have been too many words, and when words are no longer helping. Silence can help us cease striving and find our rest in God. It can help us to deal with our inner dynamics and listen to God.
If we are filled with chaotic emotions and neurotic conditions, our affective states will provide no positive guidance. Our goal will be to bring order and discipline into our affective life. As we achieve that discipline, we die and our lives become hidden with Christ in God making discernment more effective.
Is there an area in your life where discernment is needed, where you know no amount of human thinking will provide you with the wisdom you need? Take a few moments to rest in God’s presence and experience your longing for God’s direction relative to the matter at hand. Notice whether you are indifferent to anything but the will of God or whether you are attached to a particular outcome.
A Prayer for Discernment
The Book of Common Prayer gives us a wonderful prayer:
Oh God, by whom we are guided in judgment, and who raises up for us light in the darkness: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do; that your spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and in your straight path we may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.