In my last post, I suggested that a Christian should be able to answer the questions, what is God saying to me and how do I know that he's saying it?
Unfortunately, some Christians feel they need to discern God's will about what they eat for dinner. What we eat for dinner is not something that God is really concerned with, provided we eat with gratitude. An important reality, often overlooked in our anxious searches for God's will, is that many life decisions are left for us to make freely. Some Christians walk with an enormous weight of uncertainty, worrying about every jot and tittle of their lives, when God has allowed a certain degree of freedom.
Through Scripture, we know enough about God to make most decisions. Some questions have been answered with a "no" and others with a "yes," while many other questions are left to up to us. Imagine God gave you a watch. Would you honour him more by asking him for the time or by looking at the watch? I know that I ought to practice kindness and patience towards my wife, and I know that I ought not hate or judge my brother. However, what I eat for dinner is my choice.
Still, some decisions require more than logical reasoning and biblical knowledge. Some decisions we face beckon us to slow down and listen carefully to God's direction. Maybe it's prioritizing tasks for the week in order to make decisions well, or considering a career or relational opportunity that might change the direction of one's life completely. There are certain matters we know the answer to, other matters in which we are free to choose for ourselves, and still other matters that require thoughtful and prayerful discernment.
Let me illustrate:
Pretend a coach of a soccer team has drafted you into his team. When it's game time, it would be silly to ask about the rules of another sport, or whether or not you should try to work as a team with the other players. The first question is irrelevant and the second is obvious.
Likewise, to fret about God's will for my dinner or whether or not I should be "kind" to my neighbour misses the point of discernment. In the first instance, we're asking a question that has nothing to do with the game or even the sport, and in the second instance we're ignoring the rules of the game we've already been given. There are also moments in the game when passing the ball to player A or player B will be your choice, and to ask the coach for his instruction in that moment would be detrimental to the game.
I know the rules, I know the point of the game, I know that there will be moments where I must depend on my reflexes and choose accordingly. In this way, we can understand "God's will for my life" as referring to my position on the field and how I can best use my strengths to win the game according to the strategy.
In order for me to play well I will ultimately need to know myself: how am I built to play this game well? This is the task of discernment.
Seeking God's will for my life does not dismiss everything he's already revealed in Scripture, but seeks to understand my fit in it. What are my "gifts" in the context of the team and the strategy already given?
The particular will of God we seek is in the context of our participation in the life of the church.
One of the early challenges the church had to wrestle through was individual gifting, or vocation. Every individual equally contributed to the life of the whole, just like every part of a body contributes to the life of the body. And that body, being the church, exists for the common good of society. The question is: what is Jesus saying to me personally (now comes in the individual, the parts that make up the whole), in the context of our calling to be the church in our world.
We must learn to listen to the voice of Jesus for ourselves, but not apart from our team. So how will we do it?
Here are five voices we must be listening to in the dance of discernment:
1) We listen to Scripture, which speaks not only to our heads, but to our hearts as we contemplate its stories and teachings. Scripture has an authoritative power, not because it has special secrets about how old the earth is, but because it has a special way of igniting faith, hope, and love in us. In an overarching sense, Scripture tells us of the gospel news of God's rescue mission to bring the world to its intended harmony. It tells us the rules of the game and the strategy for winning. But to know how we fit in the game we need to learn to read the Bible personally: how is a passage, a verse, a story speaking to you, in this moment? When we take the time to slow down, listen, and contemplate God's word, it has a special power to speak to us in a personal way, because the Bible always brings us to the person of Jesus who is the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes this means sticking with one word, one verse, one parable or psalm or story that sticks out to you, and letting it resonate with you until your heart catches guides your head. Perhaps you'll receive a picture, an invitation, a sense of gratitude, or a memory. This isn't an easy discipline, but a very rewarding one.
2) We listen to people in our lives who can help us see our blind spots. Who are we reading the Bible with? Who are we worshiping with on Sundays? Who knows you enough and loves you enough to be honest with you about who you really are? But beware of people telling you what God is telling you: they may be able to guide, to advise, and even to offer an opinion, but only you can know the inner witness of the Spirit.
3) We listen to the friendships we find in the church, the local and the historical, the present and the past. Scripture has a personal and concrete word for us, yet keeping ancient friends from our Christian heritage will help us keep from making Scripture fit our own designs. Let the creeds of the church be the boundary markers of the soccer field, telling you if you're in, or if you're out. The creeds can also help you make sense of where you are on the pitch, providing you with an orientation that helps you know if you should pass or shoot. Our forefathers were at a different level in their prayer lives. Find an old prayer book to help you discover new ways to foster intimacy with God (Augustine's Confessions is one of my favourites).
4) We listen to our circumstances: how has God provided the context you are now in? Pay attention to the circumstances of your life. How are you to be faithful in your current circumstances? What do you like or dislike about your circumstances that you would like to change or not change? These questions force us to be honest about what is possible and what isn't. But don't eliminate the apparently impossible option, because God may indeed be calling you to something that in this moment, feels impossible. This listening is merely a matter of seeing clearly how God has been at work in your circumstances. Oppositions and obstacles need to be considered, but don't be quick to take them as signs that this isn't what God wants: God may very well be asking you to walk through a closed door.
5) We listen to our emotions, which help us identify what we love and what we dislike. We tend to be suspicious of emotions, for fear of emotionalism, and end up putting too much weight on our rational abilities. However, Descartes was wrong when he proposed that humans are merely thinking beings. We are thinking, loving, and acting beings, far more complex that what Descartes suggested. Emotions are at the heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human and in order to properly discern the voice of Christ, we need to develop the capacity to articulate what is happening to us emotionally.
All of these activities happen in the context of a life devoted to prayer. Prayer is the glue that helps us make sense of each sphere of our lives. Prayer is our response to God's initiation; in prayer, we are always responding to God's YES to us in Christ. Prayer is constant dialogue with the coach, cheering and guiding us on as we play the game.
Seeking the will of God is not as simple as a question and answer session. Discernment is a process, it is a game, or a dance or like being part of an orchestra. We attentively listen and watch the conductor move his baton towards a harmonious composition. As we learn to play in sync with the voice of the coach, God's team defeats opponents not by beating them but by winning them over to a new way of playing.
Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences on discernment and seeking God's will below.