Posted by: Philip Rushton | November 19, 2013

Discerning What Is Best: Why contemplation must precede action

I have had a number of conversations lately about the challenge of discerning what God is calling us to do. When I grew up people often advised me to follow the what Gordon Smith calls the “open-door / closed-door” theory of discernment. This essentially says that God will lead us by opening or closing doors for us. The problem is that we often have multiple doors open to us at the same time. How do we discern between good things? How do we remain faithful to God without completely burning out?

Yesterday was my first day back in the office after a week away and this question hit me with full force. I had a serious case of the “mondays.” Not only was I playing catch-up, I also made the mistake of reading a very convicting article about how the church should be doing a better job of empowering the poor. I say it was a mistake because I was not in the best place to be reading that article. I need to save those kind of articles for days when I am not already feeling swamped. Yesterday, I confronted the frustration of seeing all kinds of needs and not knowing where to even start, or what I should prioritize as I consider the next season of ministry here at the church.

Today I found some helpful guidance in my reading of the gospel of Luke. In Luke 10 (yes I’m a week behind in our reading!), there are two stories juxtaposed together. The famous story of the good Samaritan is followed directly with the story of Mary and Martha. In the first story Jesus talks about the need to sacrificially love our neighbors. In the second story he chides Martha for being too busy to simply sit at his feet.

I think it is instructive that these stories are placed next to each other. At first glance they seem to be saying contradictory things. Jesus is extolling the virtue of action in the first story and contemplation in the second story. So what story do we align ourselves with. Are we to be the busy good Samaritan that looks out for the needs of the poor, or the contemplative Mary who is able to resist the busyness of live and find space to sit at the feet of Jesus? The answer, as one commentator puts it, is “both!”

On Sunday John emphasized the importance of letting prayer precede our action. I think this is essential. There are a million things we could be doing with our lives, but in order for us to know what God is calling to we must begin with contemplation. We need to take time to rest in the presence of God and listen to his voice so that we might discern what to do. In the book of Philippians, Paul urges us to discern, “what is best.” This means that we might need to say “no” to good things in favor of doing what is best.

I recently read a great book by Ruth Haley Barton that explores how to pursue God’s will together with others. As she has gone deeper in the practice of corporate discernment she has found that the process usually involves learning to say no to good things in order to focus on what is best. Her leadership team would often have multiple great ideas but then had to do the hard work of learning to say no to things that did not align with their gifts, mission, passions, resources, and needs.

There are a lot of important things for us to attend to in this world. In the midst of the demands of life and ministry let us be sure to carve out space to attend to the voice of Jesus. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” I believe Jesus is able to say that contemplation is the one thing needed because it is only through contemplation that we will be able to discern the action we are to take.


  1. hard to balance–even more so for action orientated types. Henry

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