I’ve been discovering that the word discernment has come back into the spiritual lexicon. Although this practice has an ancient Biblical and monastic history, in modern life discernments are often decisions made using business, educational or emotional paradigms. But for 300 years the Quakers have known that discovering God’s will for an individual or a faith community can be a spiritual experience, a prayer practice that brings hope and joy. Their Bible-saturated approach, augmented by those other sources of insight and advice, has much to offer us.
Disclaimer: Most of the content of this series of posts comes from the book Discerning God’s Will Together: a spiritual practice for the church, Danny Morris and Charles Olsen (Alban Institute 2012).
What is discernment? Dictionaries suggest these possibilities for the meaning of discern:
- to separate or distinguish
- to test in crisis or distinguish good and evil
- to find the authentic and valuable and to recognise the counterfeit
- to see to the heart of the matter
- to locate the immediate and particular ways within a vision of the broad and distant landscape (to see the trees in the forest)
- to possess immediate and direct insight
A more focussed Christian answer comes from moral philosopher Alasdair McIntyre:
The Bible is full of examples of discernment. The Old Testament portrays YHWH’s abiding presence and concern, and cites various ways God engages the hearing, sight, speech, imagination and minds of those Hebrews who would know his will. In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles sought God’s will and experienced the leading of the Holy Spirit into what 'seemed good.’
History shows us how wise Christians - monks and saints, reformers and nonconformists - developed ways of seeking God's intent. Some of their approaches were sourced in Roman Senates and English Parliaments, rather than from mystics and God-given imagination, but the Covenant promise is always that God is present and self-disclosing, and guides us by His Spirit.
Why would we want to exercise discernment? Because we want to understand and obey God’s will. God is revealed in Scripture and History, and in the character of Jesus the Word. But such wisdom is not always specific to our circumstance. There are times we long to know God’s plans and dreams for us, personally. That is why the Spirit was sent, so we can know God’s will - what Danny Morris calls God’s yearning (DGWT page 9) - and more closely align with his heart.
“The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you …...
What do you need to discern/decide? It may be something of huge significance, such as embarking on study that will led to a particular vocation, or whether you should marry a specific person. But buying a house, or choosing a school for your kids, or even changing churches can also have life-changing consequences. Using the discernment paradigm for a smaller decision will help embed the principles of the ten steps into your psyche so they come more naturally when you face a big change.
Like stepping stones, they can be done in a different order, or skipped.
One alternative metaphor for discernment offered by Morris and Olsen is that of sowing a field of grain. The seed is selected - that means having clarity about the territory for discernment. The soil is prepared and the seed is planted - processes of establishing guiding principles, relinquishing our own pride and prejudice, and grounding in Scripture or Tradition come in to the picture. The cultivating activities include listening to self and others, exploring options, and working on each option to improve it. The parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13: 24ff) is helpful here; as we consider possibilities, there will be wheat and weeds growing alongside each other. They don’t have to be sorted out at the beginning. Then comes the harvesting and winnowing, throwing the seed into the air so that the wind can blow away the chaff. The good seed will be sorted out and we can rest. Good things take time.
My next post will go into more details about how these steps can be applied in a group context. But here are some useful assumptions to bring to your individual discernment journey.
Consolation and Desolation
- We need to be willing to change our hearts
- We need to be open to the gifts of the Spirit
- We need to be ready to seek again, and again; it’s ongoing.
To Ponder: How have I discovered God's will in my life through spiritual practices? How could I use this practice more intentionally?
May God bless you richly as you seek his direction.