Fifty-two years ago, I left my home country to spend my life (as it turned out) as a Jesuit missionary in the Philippines. But despite the fact I am strongly rooted here, my young years in the United States still help to define who I am today.
One memory and influence from those early years concerns the great religious music of African Americans. As a youth, I loved the way they melded faith, experience, and humor in their religious songs. A favorite for me (even now) is the hymn that begins, “Heaven, heaven. Everybody’s talking about it, but nobody’s going there!”
The point, of course, is that talk is cheap. For Jesus, the one who says, “Lord, Lord!” is not saved—but rather the one “who does the will of my Father.” This provides us with a very good metaphor for the art of discernment. In our day, religious people speak constantly of discerning God’s will. But how many of them are actually discerning? This issue of Conversations should help to highlight the challenge and importance of Christian discernment today. My task in this introductory article is to clarify the basic notions, rooted in the New Testament, concerning the what, who, and how of authentic discernment.
01. What Is Discernment?
I define discernment as discovering in prayer how God wishes us to act. Thus, it is a practical art and not a piece of speculative theology. Moreover, it presupposes a person (or a community) of prayer. Only those who pray genuinely can discern because only they have learned how to listen to the Lord. Also, discernment is (as the title of this article suggests) the essential link between our prayer relationship with the Lord and our life of loving service to His people.
02. The Scriptural Basis of Discernment
It is important to keep in mind, as Paul and the other New Testament writers often stress, that all sound doctrine must be rooted in Scripture. As St. Vincent of Lerins beautifully expressed it, there is development but not distortion; the adult person is the same person as the baby even though his or her limbs and other organs have developed considerably. I am now 6 feet 1 inch tall, but I am still the same person my mother held comfortably in her arms back in 1932. So, too, Vincent teaches us, there must be development of our faith over the centuries, but it must always be, in essence, the same faith that the apostles proclaimed in the book of Acts.
In the area of discernment, what is that essential biblical faith? Surprisingly, we hardly find the term “discernment” in the Old Testament. And yet in the New Testament it is given great importance, especially in the letters of St. Paul (e.g., Galatians 5) and the first Epistle of John. Why the difference? I believe it is because Jesus gives us a whole new understanding of our place in the plan of God. This is beautifully expressed in John 15:15, where Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants but friends.” I think he is really contrasting the two covenants here: the Old Testament shows a servant relationship to God. Servants do not have to discern; they simply obey the master’s instructions. But now, in the New Covenant, we are called to be co-responsible friends, partners in the work of redemption. Friends need to use their heads, ask questions, and weigh options. They need to discern!