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Discernment: A New/Old Path

By Donna Sperry and Carolyn Brock

“To be a nurse or not to be a nurse,” that was the question I [Carolyn] could not seem to answer. I had finished my freshman year of college; taken vocational guidance tests; talked with counselors, friends, and family; wondered, thought, and prayed. Still there was no clear sense of direction. In the fading light of a summer evening I walked along a country road near my parents’ home in central Oregon.

Walking and talking to God in my head (and sometimes out loud), I once again went through the reasons for and against nursing school. I asked over and over again for God to show me the choice that would best fit for me and for God’s call in my life. Finally I stood very still, looked at the deep blues of the approaching night, and felt the wind on my face. There was a subtle shift or opening inside to whatever I needed to know in order to make a good decision. I asked the question one more time as I felt a growing convergence of thoughts in favor of nursing. This time I put it in the negative: I can’t just say right now that’s what I want to do, can I? In response, a flow of affirming, confirming energy came over me that moved past the quandary in my head. There were no words, but the feeling of peace and certainty kept flooding over me until I knew the answer was, “Yes, you can! This decision will bring you blessing and growth.”

Discernment is an intentional process of opening to God’s will, utilizing reason, faith, and prayerful reflection, so that our choices are aligned more closely with God’s purposes. Discernment flourishes in a context of regular spiritual practices, a suspension of personal agendas, and a desire to join in God’s creative action in the world.

Discernment, a term newly emphasized in our faith community, is nothing new. We engage in discernment every day. We continually examine the options before us and make choices among myriad possibilities. However, as servants of Jesus Christ, we also intentionally allow the light of Christ to shine on those options so that we make faithful, life-giving choices. Each day most of us offer our prayers, attempt to hear the still, small voice of God, and sincerely seek to align our lives with Christ.

We are people of faith who join a great and long tradition of faithful people seeking God’s will for our lives and struggling to live within the sensed direction we receive. In the process, we discover, along with the faithful throughout all time, that discerning the will of God is not simplistic or easy. The direction we seek is not always clear and we recognize our great capacity to replace God’s will with our will. While discernment is nothing new, perhaps a renewed examination of the concept of discernment will lend insight for our day and time.

Prayer and discernment are inseparable. Authentic prayer opens our hearts and minds to God’s presence and purposes. There are many ways to pray but all of them are grounded in the desire for deep experience and relationship with God. In the work of discernment, we turn our attention to God and allow the mystery and reality of God to move in us; shaping our awarenesses and responses. Our prayers may include active forms in which we use words to articulate our questions and needs or to express trust in and gratitude for God’s faithful wisdom. Prayer may also include spaces of silence, listening, and waiting in which we become receptive to God’s response to our petitions, God’s transformative movement within us. Whatever the form, prayer is essential to the process of opening to God’s love and aligning with God’s will in our lives.

Although prayer is a primary condition for discernment, the utilization of our intellect and reason is also employed in any discernment process. Each of us has a lens through which we view the world. We categorize information and experience through the filter of that lens. When we are conscious of this process, it serves us and helps us make sense of the world. When we are not conscious of this lens, it can present challenges for discernment. Debra Farrington in her book Hearing with the Heart: A Gentle Guide to Discerning God’s Will for Your Life writes:

“When we are unconscious of that lens—when we think that the way we see and understand is Reality—we limit our ability to discern well. We will end up forcing God into our systems of thinking rather than expanding the mind of our heart to accommodate God” (Jossey-Bass, 2003, p. 96).

Studying (scripture as well as other books), taking classes, talking with others, reading, deepening our engagement with sermons, and allowing ourselves to be challenged by other viewpoints are all ways we utilize reason and intellect in a discernment process. It never supplants prayer but is joined with prayer to allow God to break in and surprise us with an unexpected word.

“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” —Psalm 51:6

Faith provides the foundation for our whole life in God and certainly undergirds our discernment. We begin discernment in trust that the God we claim and have come to know in Jesus Christ will be with us in the process. This faith is not something we do—it is a gift of love from God. Faith offers the assurance that our spiritual yearning has been placed in us by a generous God who desires to be in communion with us. God begins a mutual interchange: God places in us the yearning to know God more fully; we respond and share our deepest selves with God; God answers with self-revelation:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith, our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. —Hebrews 11:1–3 NRSV

Discernment requires an inner disposition of freedom to want most what God wants. In both personal and communal discernment processes, most of us come with a set of preconceived notions about how things need to turn out. We are asked to adopt an attitude of “holy indifference” until the call of God becomes clear. This does not mean, of course, that we do not care or that it doesn’t matter. It means that we are willing to let go of our particular preferences and hoped-for outcomes while we prayerfully wait for God’s call to form more fully in our awareness. This is no easy task. We hold our own understanding in high esteem and it is hard to release it. Sometimes we simply pray for the desire to move into a more open attitude in the discernment process. It is not easy, but the work of reigning in our own preference and personal agenda is worth it. An inner disposition of freedom allows the Spirit to move in and surprise us with a new way we had never dreamed of before.

We may seek God’s wisdom for many decisions and situations in our lives. But ultimately our call to discipleship invites us to align with God’s will for creation itself. Jesus yielded himself completely to God’s presence and purposes. His central passion was proclaiming and incarnating the good news of God’s shalom. His obedience to the divine will was continually renewed by prayer, listening, receiving, and then by responding to the Spirit. God continues to brood over creation yearning for its healing, envisioning the final beauty of its wholeness.

Discernment ultimately invites us to make our minds, hearts, bodies, our very lives and selves available to God’s agenda of restoring and redeeming all that is and is yet to come. The invitation to engage in discernment is an invitation to join in God’s creative action in the world. The joy and freedom of Christ await us as we open ourselves more fully to the will of God for us as individuals and as a community of disciples and friends.

In the end, discernment, like faith, is not something we do. It is something we receive. Our part in the process is to pray for openness and receptivity to the Spirit, engage our whole selves (body, mind, and spirit) in coming to clarity around the issue for discernment, allow personal preferences to be supplanted by a desire for listening to God’s preferences, and trust that the Spirit will join us in our commitment to live more faithfully. And then we wait. We wait until a confirming flow of Spirit infuses all our efforts and direction becomes clear. The gift of discernment has come.

But we are not finished yet. Now we respond. The response may not be what we imagined at the beginning. It might seem too simple, too clear. But there it is. What joy is ours when we step out on a path designed by God, led by the Holy Spirit, and nurtured by the compassion of Jesus Christ. Discernment is nothing new, but the gift offered to the world is completely fresh and life sustaining. It is a touch of the kingdom.

Further Reflections

The beginning of a new year often prompts people to look backward and forward in taking stock of their life. How might the process of spiritual discernment change the way you approach a new year?

The authors contend that discernment is “an intentional process of opening to God’s will, utilizing reason, faith, and prayerful reflection….” Recall times in your life when you may have been engaged in discernment without actually calling it that or even realizing that was what you were doing.

Because discernment is not limited to individual practice and effort, what steps would you take to use the process in a congregation? If you have ever been involved in that kind of formal discernment effort, share your experience.

Why is waiting for God’s input often so hard? What do you do when your discernment efforts are met by silence?