So while people mostly want a MapQuest Jesus from whom they can request directions and find that a map pops up with five “to do” items, Jesus will have none of this mechanical approach.This is covered more fully in chapter 2 of Jan Johnson, Invitation to the Jesus Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2008). We hang out with One who will not be charted or check-boxed. Jesus insists on jumping in the car with us, always letting us drive, pointing out to us the people on the side of the road who need assistance or urging us to stop to scramble up interesting trails or eat at a roadside stand we’re about to miss because we’re addicted to work. Because such a journey takes a while, there’s time to pour out our hearts along the way with, “Have you seen what so-and-so is doing?” and “But what about this situation in my life?” The path becomes clearer only after driving many miles, navigating a mountain pass, and stopping to watch ducks. But we don’t mind this because we love being in the car with Jesus. Pretty soon we learn that the journey with Jesus is the point.
Discernment Flows From Within
A Way of Being
While post-Enlightenment folks think of discernment in terms of skills and techniques, Catherine of Siena called discernment a virtue, an inward capacity that grows as character grows. That’s why we speak of someone as “being a discerning person” more than as “practicing discernment.” Discernment gets behind the decisions you make to the kind of person you are.
According to The Dialogue, in which Catherine heard God speak (this having been recorded by her community), God said that those with the virtue of discernment “give what is due to me and to themselves. And then they give their neighbors what is due them: first of all, loving charity and constant humble prayer—your mutual debt—and the debt of teaching, and the example of a holy and honorable life” (emphasis added). Suzanne Noffke, O.P., ed.,Catherine ofSiena The Classics of Western Spirituality.Mahway, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1980, 41 (See also Romans 13:8: “the continuing debt to love one another” (NIV); also, “the debt of love I owe.”Isaac Watts, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?” (1707), published in Inspiring Hymns, ed. Alfred B. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Singspiration Sacred Music Publishers, 1951) 93.) You have perhaps experienced such persons—so different from others—who easily and happily honor God, themselves, and others. On the outside, said Catherine, such a life is full of charity and issues from obvious constant humble prayer, teaches others just by being itself, and gives others a close-up glimpse of a holy and honorable life.
Catherine linked love with discernment so closely that she pictured discernment as a branch of a tree, the tree being the charity within us: “Imagine a circle traced on the ground, and in its center a tree sprouting with a shoot grafted into its side. . . . The tree of charity is nurtured in [the soil of] humility and branches out in true discernment.”Catherine of Siena, 41–42. The growth of the branch (my capacity for discernment) depends on the health of the tree (my growing character and capacity for love): “only when discernment is rooted in humility is it virtuous, producing life-giving fruit and willingly yielding what is due to everyone.”Catherine of Siena, 40. Her close linkage of love and discernment recalls, and perhaps flowed from, Paul’s prayer for “love [to] abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:9–10, NIVScripture quotations marked(NIV) are taken from the HOLYBIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONALVERSION®. NIV®. Copyright©1973, 1978, 1984 by InternationalBible Society. Used by permission ofZondervan. All rights reserved.).
Rather than the “will of God” always being a matter of finding an answer for a certain decision, it’s more about being a humble, loving person in difficult situations. When a directee asked me if she should divorce her husband, I told her such advice-giving was outside the realm of spiritual direction, but we still had much to ponder together: “Let’s consider this question first: What will it look like for you to keep a right heart if you divorce him? What will it look like for you to keep a right heart if you stay?” (Before she could decide, he sued her for divorce, and so these questions became even more central.)
To discern the best way to go—to discern the will of God—comes not by getting magical answers from God, but by letting myself “be transformed by the renewing of [my] mind” rather than conforming to my old way of doing things (Romans 12:2). “What God gets out of our lives—and, indeed, what we get out of our lives—is simply the person we become. It is God’s intention that we should grow into the kind of person he could empower to do what we want to do.”Dallas Willard,The Divine Conspiracy:Rediscovering Our Hidden Lifein God. San Francisco, Calif.:HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, 250. A transformed person is free to do many things that would hogtie a world-conformed one.
Because discernment is about character, it’s not always a differentiated process or a special room to go to (“let’s have a time of discernment”). Instead this “knowledge and depth of insight” in people and organizations occurs all day long, or not: making wise choices about spending, or not; going out of my way to help someone, or not; sensing the body’s weariness and going to bed early, or not (see Philippians 1:10–11). The Holy Spirit doesn’t have to make an appointment with us, but seeks to move in and be constantly present to us.
Because discernment is about character, a wrong decision doesn’t have to turn out badly. Think of your last “wrong” decision. What did you learn? This became real to me many years ago when I chose a wrong speaking engagement over a right one for the same weekend. Rejecting one for which I was a perfect fit, I chose the one that would give me more visibility and result in more book sales. As soon as I arrived, I saw that my approach and content did not fit. As I stood by my much-trafficked book table and repented of my efforts at self-promotion, I seemed to hear God say, “No, you don’t belong here, but since you are here, don’t beat yourself up. Be who I have called you to be.” Within a few minutes, the convener found herself faced with too many of what she called “hurting people.” She pointed at me and said, “There’s our ‘hurting people’ person. She’ll help you.” Over came the “hurting people,” and we began an informal support group out in the hallway that convened now and then throughout the entire weekend. “Making a mistake in one choice does not mean forever missing out on God’s will. God’s will for one’s life is found in the process of living in love and obedience, not in one crucial choice we made or failed to make.”Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 201.
Motives: The Why of Choices
Discernment not only gets beyond the decisions you make to the kind of person you are, but it moves beyond your choices to why you made those choices. To Catherine of Siena, the soil around the tree of charity is humility “born of [this] self-knowledge.”Catherine of Siena, 41. Discernment as “depth of insight” involves the “ability to assess our spiritual condition”Diogenes Allen, Spiritual Theology (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1997) 94. and to examine our motives.
Yet such self-reflection is difficult because the heart is wily and even deceitful—who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Self-focused motives often mask themselves as angels of light and require time to be exposed. So as we make decisions, we must also untangle the motives behind our actions, especially our noble actions. Am I helping this person because I am drawn to help her or because people will admire me for it? Since motives are usually not black and white but mixed, they must be pulled apart in the safety of quiet contemplation. In fact, the motive in the early stages is often pure, but after we get congratulated and thanked enough for a good deed or successful work, it easily becomes about us.
If we detect self-congratulation, the discerning question then deepens to these: What is behind this need for self-congratulation? What within me is crying out for attention? How might I recognize that God is paying attention to me and soak in that attention? How might I absorb the truth that “God is crazy about [me] and there is nothing [I] can do about it” (as a mug at a church where I taught recently says)? As this desire for God and God’s attention is addressed, we can move outward to such a questions as, How can I help this person without soaking in the admiration of others?