01. Discernment: Where Prayer and Action Meet
Thomas H. Green
Many Christians talk about discerning God’s will, but few actually do it. Green tells us that discernment is a practical art, not simply a place where we are meant to get lost in speculation. He takes us through the “who, what, and how” of discernment, defining the “what” of discernment as “discovering in prayer how God wishes us to act.”
Although the Old Testament has few references to discernment, the New Testament is full of references, perhaps because, as Green suggests, we are no longer simply servants who “obey”; we are “co-responsible friends.” The call to discern is for every Christian. The prerequisites are (1) a desire to do God’s will, (2) an openness to do what God wishes, and (3) knowledge of how God speaks. Green sees the second prerequisite as challenging because many live their lives trying to persuade God to do what they want him to do—making God no bigger than their own minds. Jesus’ prayer in the garden—“Not my will, but yours be done”—is the prime example of openness.
For the knowledge of how God speaks, we can gain information from others’ experiences but also in the rhythms of consolation and desolation as described in Ignatius. Consolation (peace and joy in the Lord) should be the “feeling” indication that God is speaking. Desolation (depression, anger, restlessness) is never God’s voice. To make sure the consolation is not superficial, certain questions can be asked, such as, Am I in the right place for the right reason? What is happening with me during the consolation? What does my feeling of consolation lead me to do or say? If all is good, we move forward with faith, not seeing the end result, but trusting God all the way.
- Is your experience that people talk a lot about “discerning” God’s will without actually practicing it?
- How might the feeling of consolation be misleading if we do not ask the questions indicated?
- Are peaceful feeling necessarily holy feelings?
- Is trying to persuade God to do one’s own will a challenge for anyone you know? For you?
- What is underneath trying to force-fit God into our own agenda for life?
02. Discernment: Recognizing and Responding to the Presence of God
Ruth Haley Barton
In this excellent article, Barton talks about discernment as the practice of recognizing the presence and activity of God. Discernment is a habit, a way of seeing, that moves us from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight. This allows us to develop an “intuitive sense of God’s heart and purpose at any given moment.” When we sense God’s movement, we give ourselves to it.
The foundational blocks of discernment are as follows: (1) It is always a gift from God. (2) It comes out of friendship with God developed through prayer in which we grow into a deep confidence of God’s goodness. (3) We believe that love is our primary calling. And (4) We believe that God does communicate with us through the Holy Spirit.
Moving into discernment requires certain practices: first, the prayer of indifference, in which we relinquish our will and want God’s will more than anything else; and second, the prayer for wisdom which may often seem like foolishness to the world. Patterns of consolation and desolation can also be key to discerning God’s will and getting in touch with our own deepest orientations and desires.
Staying faithful to our calling is another component to this process because our true calling is akin to who we are and who God made us to be. Choices we make can be led by asking questions to which we don’t know the answers: questions about Scripture, the life of Christ, character growth and development, eternal perspective, etc. These questions are important in discovering more about God’s guidance and may require a greater time of solitude with God before the way becomes clear.
At some, however, it is important to act. Discernment is risky, and yet we are called to make decisions in faith as best as we can, after doing all that we can to decipher God’s will. “We see in a glass dimly,” yet we live by faith. Ultimately, discernment is all about falling in love with God and letting that love determine everything.
- How have you made decisions in the past when you have really wanted to make sure what you decided was God’s will?
- How do you interpret the last line of this summary?
- Why do you think falling in love with God allows us to discern more clearly?
- How is this process of discernment risky? How is it exciting?
03. The Call of Communal Discernment
The call of communal discernment seeks God’s guidance for our life together. The ultimate aim is not simply to get to a “decision,” but rather to learn a way of being together in God’s presence. It is not a “quick fix” method, but a journey in community. Some essential components to this journey are key to communal discernment:
Trust: We must trust God and believe that God longs to work in the midst of all our diversity and giftedness, no matter what the makeup of the group, and also trust each other enough to pray together and share faith stories that build relationship.
Willingness: Each individual in the group must give up willfulness and embrace willingness, trying to emulate the surrender of Jesus’ prayer—“Not my will but yours be done.”
Deep, Prayerful Listening: This can be done as a group listens together for a period of time, asking questions or making requests of God like, “Help me understand.” The voice of the group together after this process is often surprisingly unified, and it is the voice of the group, not the individual, that prevails.
Openness to God’s Time: God’s work is deeper and more surprising than our own timetables. It is important to allow God to be God even when deadlines impose themselves.
Practices that help us discern God’s will in community include “living with long-term questions” that can sharpen our spiritual eyes; seeking God’s guidance together in silence restores God to the center and allows us to live from God’s lead, not our “own narrow attachments. Scripture study, faith sharing, and prayer are also important disciplines for communal discernment.
- Have you ever been part of a group in which together you discerned God’s will? Is this common?
- What is the scariest part of communal discernment for you? The most comforting?
- Why do you think moments of silence as a group “listening” to God can re-center everyone in God’s presence?
- What do you think the church might look like if we had all our boards and committees listen to God before discussing pressing issues?
04. Mining Below the Surface: Discerning the Gift of Presence
Cepero’s challenge in this article is to “mine below” the surface of our fear, using writing and other forms of creative expression, because it is often where fear resides that we find the greatest treasure.
Clearly, fear itself can be its own deterrent to exploring below the surface, whether it is fear of failure, success, doubt, or pain. Still, when we write into our fear, fear becomes the friend of the writing because it is precisely in our fears where God wants to meet us the most. Sometimes we discover our fears as we write; often we find our greatest desires when we pull back the film of fear and look more deeply. “At the intersection of our deepest fear and greatest desire, God waits for us with the gift of Presence, the hope of grace.”
Cepero points out that the most frequent command in Scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” It is not courage that allows us to face our fears, but rather it is the awareness that we are loved by God. She also advocates for good spiritual companions in this process. “Gold is often best mined in the dark places. Good spiritual companions wear their own searchlights on their helmets…to help us see what is underneath all of our living.”
If you have a small group, go to the end of Cepero’s article and choose one of the writing exercises to do together. When you have finished, share together some insights gleaned from the experience.
05. Discernment of Spirits
Paulin-Campbell uses the metaphor of a couple dancing to illustrate the process of discernment. One’s whole attention needs to be attuned to the subtleties of change in the other. The focus is no longer on one’s own movements, but on the movement of the partner.
She also shares with us Ignatius’ description of what tends to happen when someone is truly seeking God’s will. True consolation is a sign of God’s action and invitation. It is any increase in faith, hope, and love. Usually it is joyful, although sometimes sorrowful, but always it brings a deep sense of peace. Desolation is the absence of God’s presence, but the awareness of being separated from God and the pain of this is more acute for those who earnestly desire God’s presence and actually know what they are missing.
People who direct others need to assure their directees that feelings of consolation and desolation are both a part of the spiritual growth process. Resisting evil, being aware of our vulnerabilities, and sharing our struggles are important when we experience times of desolation. For the more mature, the temptations to evil are more subtle, and after a profound experience of God’s presence may result in an “afterglow” period when rash decisions can be made that are not necessarily God’s will although they may seem very “holy” in the moment. A spiritual director can help discern and remind people of their vulnerabilities, keeping people on track.
Examen, or Awareness in Prayer, is an Ignatian practice that gives us a structure for the end of each day. In the evening we are to think about the times of consolation and desolation in the day. When did I feel a sense of creativity, hope, and love? When did I feel trapped, ill at ease, and decreasing in faith? If one reflects on these each night, patterns will begin to emerge, and the raw data can be interpreted for discernment purposes. We can lift each moment of consolation up to God with thanksgiving, and each moment of desolation up to God for healing.
- In this day so far, can you think of a time when you had a moment of consolation? Desolation?
- Which of these two feelings is more familiar for you?
- Why do you think it is important to do the Examen at the end of each day, and how might familiar patterns aid in the process of discernment?
- How does experiencing the desolation part help us grow spiritually?
Kim Engelmann is a Presbyterian pastor and is currently working at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, where she has served as Caring Ministries pastor for seven years. She is the author of seven books, including her most recent book, featured in this article, Running in Circles. She has also written Seeing Jesus, A Walk With God Through Friendship, and three children’s books entitled the Joona Trilogy. A new book on how to experience God’s presence in small groups will be coming out next year.