Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 18, 2016

Discerning God’s Voice in Times of Transition


crossroadThe season of transition that we are entering as a church is also a season of discernment. This fall our transition team will be facilitating a process of listening and discernment for us as a church. There are a lot of questions on the horizon. What should the next chapter of Longview Community Church look like? What type of leadership do we need? What is our vision as a church?

I think many of us struggle to know how discernment actually works. Does God really speak to us? If so, how? How do we know if what we are hearing is from God or is simply our human agenda clothed in Christian language?

When I took a course on spiritual discernment from Gordon Smith at Regent College, he argued that evangelicals have a very limited understanding of discernment. Sometimes we talk about God opening and closing doors, but what if there are no doors open, or five doors open that could all be good possibilities? Other times we talk about “having peace about the decision,” but what if that peace is simply the result of us getting what we want instead of what God wants? Our language around discernment needs some more depth to it.

This summer I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking around the topic of spiritual discernment and there are a few common themes that have emerged for me.

First, there are some important prerequisites to discernment.  If we are not committed to our own spiritual transformation we will struggle to know what God’s voice sounds like when we need guidance. Dallas Willard writes, “Only our communion with God provides the appropriate context for communications between us and him” (Willard, Hearing God). Discernment requires us to know what God’s voice sounds like. If we aren’t spending time with God we are not cultivating a listening posture. So the disciplines of scripture meditation, silence and solitude, prayer, and worship provide an important foundation for discernment.

Another prerequisite for discernment is that we develop a humble openness to God’s leading. Thomas Green writes, “Discernment presupposes a person who truly desires to accomplish God’s work . . . it further presupposes a person who is truly open to be taught by, and led by, the Lord.” (Green, Weeds Among the Wheat). Discernment requires us to be able to echo Jesus’s words in the garden of Gethsemane when he says, “not my will, but yours be done.” Ruth Haley Barton suggests that we begin the discernment process by asking, “Is there anything I need to set aside so that I can be open to what God wants?” (Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together). Sometimes fear about what people think or our attachment to comfort, possessions, or success can tip the scales prevent us from getting an accurate read on the situation.

These prerequisites are important but they still leave us with our original question. How do we actually hear God’s voice? I want to suggest that scripture points us to three ways of hearing. The first way that God speaks to us is through scripture. Scripture sometimes gives us very specific answers to what we should and should not do. If we are wondering whether God is calling us to rob a bank or not, the answer is pretty clear! The general will of God is revealed to us through the word of God.

Often, however, the bible doesn’t speak specifically to the decision at hand. The Bible doesn’t tell me exactly who to marry or whether to take a new job or not. In this case, it is important for us to consider whether the decision we are considering lines up with the character of God and the general principles of scripture. Will the decision we make lead us to love God and others? Does it bring about the fruit of the spirit? Dallas Willard suggests we ask whether the impression we have about a decision lines up with the tone, quality, and content of Jesus’ voice that we encounter in the Bible (Willard, Hearing God).

Paul says that Christ-followers are “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:1). As we engage with the scriptures our mind begins to be fashioned after the mind of Christ. This enables us to discern the specifics of life from a Christlike way of thinking, which is often different than a worldly way of thinking. In the context of choosing a pastor, for example, we may tend to look primarily at external factors like experience, education, and track record of success. The scriptures, though, often emphasize the need to look at a person’s heart. In the choosing of David, for example, God says to Samuel “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” By immersing ourselves in the Word of God, then, we begin to look at situations the way the Lord does.

The second way we hear God is by paying attention to the movement of our hearts. The scriptures teach us that the movement of the Spirit leads us to love, joy and peace (Galatians 6). Paul says that through prayer we receive a “Peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4). It is important to note that this is describing an affective response. Peace and joy are things we experience not just think about.

Ignatius of Loyola draws on this biblical tradition by pointing out that one of the ways we discern God’s leading is by noticing whether there is an underlying consolation in our hearts. He believes that if we are in God’s will it will be accompanied by a sense of rightness, hope, and peace, even if we are called to a hard task. By contrast, when we are outside of God’s will we will experience a desolation marked by a troubled spirit.

A practical exercise one can do when seeking a decision is to imagine you say yes to a decision and notice what affective responses emerge for you. You can then imagine a no to a decision and do the same thing.

The affect aspect of our spiritual journey and the discernment process is something that we are sometimes to reluctant to embrace as westerners. Our culture tends to privilege detached rational analysis over affective knowledge.  Yet as Jonathan Edwards (a pretty intellectual guy himself) acknowledges, “The Holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal.” In other words, the scriptures testify to the fact that our encounter with God touches not only our mind but our emotions and our experience. God is not just an idea to figure out but a living being that we experience and relate to.Y

If we are honest I think we all rely on the affective aspect of decision-making. When you decided to get married I suspect that you didn’t just do a cold cognitive calculus about the decision. You didn’t just make the pros and cons list and evaluate the data about your potential spouse. There was most likely an accompanying sense of joy, passion, or rightness that moved you toward that decision.

The same thing happens in spiritual discernment. I remember having a major breakthrough in my decision to enter ministry when my professor asked me, “What is your heart saying?” At first, I thought that this was a trivial question. Yet, as I reflected on it I experienced a deep consolation in my heart about entering the pastoral vocation. I had been overthinking this decision and made the most extensive pros and cons list you can imagine, yet this simple question brought a deep and lasting clarity.

Of course, we must always test this consolation. We need to bring the heart into conversation with biblical thinking. Sometimes we can have peace for the wrong reasons. We may have a false consolation because the decision gets us off the hook or because it furthers our worldly agenda. So we must test for false peace (Gordon Smith, The Voice of Jesus).

This is where the last component of discernment is important. We also discern by entering into conversation with the community of faith. When the early church made big decisions, they did so in a group (Acts 15). They listened to scripture and the Holy Spirit together and sought consensus through dialogue and prayer. The reality is that we can interpret both scripture and spiritual experience incorrectly at times. That is why it is important for us to be in conversation with other trusted friends and guides as we seek to hear God’s voice. God often speaks to us through other people.

How might these principles for discernment help you as you seek to hear God’s voice in your life? What aspects of discernment might you need to put more emphasis on in your journey?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: