The young woman sat in my office and expressed her frustration with God. “I was so certain that God wanted me to take this job. The doors seemed to fly open. I know it was God’s will. But it has been terrible. I have never been so unhappy. Why would God do this to me?”
The topic of discernment is a familiar one. I teach at a university and have many conversations with young people about the choices they are making—the career God wants them to pursue or the person God wants them to marry. This is a frequent conversation. And it is not limited to the young. At all ages we are continually faced with choices that we must make. Some of these choices are as small as whether I talk to the person I am passing on the sidewalk or as large as the career path I will follow. We discern on a daily and even minute-by-minute basis. How can we determine God’s will for our lives?
Spiritual growth can be viewed through the analogy of a ladder. As we grow in our relationship with God, we ascend the rungs of the ladder. On the lower rungs, our focus is on ourselves. If we do not see something in it for us, we will not enter into a relationship with God. Thus, it makes sense that we see this relationship as being about meeting our needs. As we continue up the rungs of the ladder, our focus begins to shift from ourselves to others. We want to draw others into this relationship that has blessed us. As we reach the upper rungs, the focus shifts to God. God becomes the center of the relationship. It is not about how God can meet our needs, but about how we can enter into God’s work in this world. Of course this is not a linear ascension, but more of a spiral gradually moving upward. There are times in my spiritual journey when I move down the ladder and center on myself, but I then continue my ascent and shift my sight back to God.
This shift in focus is foundational to the discussion of discernment. Who is at the center of my attention as I choose one direction or another?
There are two perspectives regarding discernment. The first is that an answer is imposed from the outside. God has one answer for me and I wait until it is given to me. This viewpoint is common to many. It is, of course, important to recognize that God does care for me and is interested in my life. Unfortunately, if I am not given an answer, I grow frustrated with the perceived lack of interest that God is showing. Or, as the above example of the young woman illustrates, I may be given an answer and if it doesn’t go well, I believe I misunderstood or think God is not treating me well. The problem with this perspective is that by definition, I am at the center. It’s all about me and what is best for me. I passively wait for God to take care of me.
Rose Mary Dougherty articulates the second perspective. She states “In the process of living life faithfully, lovingly, freely we create meaning with God.” This perspective is a much broader view of discernment and portrays a partnership with God. I live my life in service to God and as I seek God’s will, I move in a direction that fulfills kingdom purposes. God is at the center of my focus. I seek to be available for God’s use.
Dougherty expounds further “Discernment is the habit of viewing all of one’s life through the eyes of faith and in that faith-stance noticing the movements of the heart to determine which of these movements are leading to greater love and authenticity, focusing one in God, and which of them are turning one in on self.”
I ask myself if my life and choices line up with who God is. I make myself available to serve as God’s instrument in whatever way God may choose. The question is “Whom shall I be?” rather than “What should I do?”
In order to accept the latter perspective, we must know this God with whom we are in relationship. This necessitates a firm grounding in scripture and the ability to see God’s character as it is portrayed in the entirety of the Biblical narrative. In addition, I recognize that God is actively involved in this world in the here and now. Many Christians live as deists with the perspective that God set the world in motion and left it on it’s own. Randy Harris refers to this as “functional atheism.” Although I believe in God, I live as though I am entirely on my own. There is no difference between the anxiety and stress experienced by me and by an unbeliever.
Even more important is that I have a capacity for and willingness to notice what God is doing. My eyes and heart are attuned to God in this world. By way of explanation, I teach an undergraduate course at Lipscomb entitled Disciplines for Christian Living. We explore disciplines throughout the semester and I have them journal each week. The first journal prompt that I give the students is “Where do you see God?” As they journal each day, they start with grand examples. Examples such as seeing God in worship, in the large chapel, or in the lives of their professors (if they are trying to butter me up) are given. We talk about God in class and their entries begin to change. They start to record more minute examples of the ways they see God at work. They record examples such as “a friend smiled at me when I was down” or “my roommate was kind to me when I acted like a jerk”, or “a person let me go in front on them in traffic on a busy street.” Their capacity and willingness to notice God expands. They become fine-tuned to the manner God is working. It is exciting to see the lights go on and their perception change from that of God only being present when things are going their way to God is always present and always pouring down blessings on me.
Earnest Larkin states “Discernment in its fullness takes a practiced heart, fine-tuned to hear the word of God, and the single-mindedness to follow out that word in love. It is truly a gift of God, but not one dropped from the skies fully formed. It is a gift cultivated and brought to perfection by a prayerful life and the search for self-knowledge.”
Discernment does involve decision-making, but it is much broader. Dougherty talks about it as a habit of discernment. It is a way of being. It is who I am. Soon I do not have to be intentional about looking for God’s work in this world or acting in a way that reflects God’s love and goodness. It becomes as natural as breathing. It is the stance from which all my decisions are made and it allows a freedom to choose any number of options as whatever I do, I will seek to have God at the center of my life.
Benedict, Fry. T. The rule of St. Benedict. New York: Random House (1998).
Dougherty, R.M. Discernment: A path to spiritual awakening. Washington, DC: Shalem (2009).
Harris, R. Personal lecture, July 2009.
Larkin, E.E. Silent presence: Discernment as process and problem. Dimension (1998).