Part 5: Leading in Rhythm: Discerning and Doing the Will of God
If you are joining us for Part 5, you might want to also access other eReflections in this series, Leading in Rhythm:
“Spiritual leadership springs forth in grace from our very desire for God’s presence. This does not take effort or striving. It takes courage, a kind of showing up, attentiveness.”—Gerald May
At this point in our summer series you might be wondering, how in the world does anything get done? Paul answers this precise question in Romans 12:2 when he says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect.” With this simple statement he establishes a cause and effect relationship between our commitment to the process of spiritual transformation and our ability to discern and do the will of God.
The ability to discern God’s will is a natural by-product of our transformation. Beyond the chaos that gets stirred up as we face ourselves more honestly in God’s presence, the debris of our false-self patterns is cleared out and the true-self-in-God emerges more fully, available for what God wants to do in and through us. As disciplines of rest, solitude, and silence rescue us from the brink of dangerous levels of exhaustion, we are restored to a state of quiet alertness, ready to receive guidance from God about what we are to do in the world.
A knowing comes…a still, small voice whispers…some new wind of the Spirit blows… and we are awake and alert enough to recognize it.
Of course, the endgame of discernment is that we actually do it! Then as we get out there and actually do the will of God as we have come to understand it, we inevitably come to the end of our own wisdom which then propels us back into discernment mode. What develops is a back and forth rhythm of discerning and doing and then discerning again. This is the sacred rhythm of ministry.
The Gift of Discernment
Discernment emerges in the context of our friendship with God as it is cultivated through prayer. As we grow more comfortable in solitude and silence, we discover that the things most needing to be fixed, solved, and figured out in our lives will not be fixed, solved, figured out at the thinking level anyway. They will be solved at the listening level where God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit about things that are true (Romans 8:16) and where wisdom is given as pure gift (I Corinthians 2:12, 13).
Discernment is first of all a habit, a way of seeing that eventually permeates our whole life. It is a quality of attentiveness to God so intimate that we develop an innate sense of God’s presence and purpose in the ordinary moments of our lives. As Ignatius of Loyola defined it, the aim of discernment is “finding God in all things in order that we might love and serve God in all.”
Discernment is also a spiritual practice we can enter into when we face the larger decisions of our lives. It begins with praying for indifference to anything but the will of God and being aware of how attached we are to what it is we want. As God works in us to bring about this indifference, we are free to gather all kinds of data and notice everything without judging—trusting God to speak through it all. In seasons when discernment is most needed, we might be drawn to increase time spent in solitude and prayer as we seek to distinguish God’s voice from all the other voices that clamor for our attention. Certain kinds of questions can help us become more adept at listening and noticing:
Direction and Calling. How does this choice fit with the over-all direction and calling of God upon my life? Is there one word that captures my sense of calling these days and does this choice enable me to continue living into my calling?
Consolation and Desolation. Which choice brings the deepest sense of life, inner peace and freedom? (Deuteronomy 30:11-20, II Corinthians 3:17, Philippians 4:7) Is there a growing sense of wholeness, authenticity, and congruence with who I am in God or a sense of being disconnected from God and off-center within myself?
Scripture. Is there a particular Scripture that God is bringing to me relative to this choice? What is God saying through it?
Life of Christ. Is this choice consistent with what I know about the mind and heart of Christ and his redemptive purposes in the world? Is there some aspect of the life of Christ that speaks to the choice I am facing?
Character Growth and Development. How will this direction nurture the fruit of the Spirit in me—particularly the fruit of love. What does love call for? What is God doing in my character and spiritual growth and will this choice continue to nurture this growth?
Eternal Perspective. Does this choice value what is eternal and permanent, and holds the deepest value rather than what is transient and impermanent? If I imagine myself on my death-bed, which choice would I wish I had made?
Community. How does this choice fit with others’ observations of who I am and what God is doing in my life? Am I willing to open up every facet of this decision to a trusted spiritual friend for their wisdom and insight? Is there anything in the overall tradition of the Christian faith that might inform my decision?
Just Do It!
Jesus actually set aside extra time for solitude and prayer at important choice points in his life. In Matthew 4 we find him in the wilderness struggling with subtle temptations regarding how he would respond to his calling. In Luke 6 he spent the night alone in prayer before making his decision about which disciples he would choose—certainly one of the most important decisions of his life in ministry. And in Luke 22 we witness him alone in the garden struggling with his calling to go to the cross. He did not leave his solitude until he had wrestled all the way through it, convinced of what God’s will was for him and ready to submit himself to it. If Jesus needed time and space to practice discernment, surely we do, too!
If Jesus’ life shows us anything, it shows us that discerning the will of God and doing the will of God can be two very different things. While he seemed to always have a fairly good grasp on what the will of God was for him, the real challenge was to actually get out there and do it—which he always did—even when it involved blood, sweat and tears. Discerning and doing the will of God was the faithful rhythm of his life in ministry.
Beyond False Dichotomies
Unfortunately, some in the Christian community today have created a false dichotomy between being and doing, prayer and action, formation and mission. Happily, the rhythm of discerning and doing the will of God is what brings it all together in a somewhat cyclical way: spiritual transformation leads to the ability to discern the will of God so we can do the will of God. As we do the will of God, we are confronted even more profoundly with our need for deeper levels of spiritual transformation so we can continue discerning the will of God.
Our spiritual formation is not really Christian if it is not expressed through God-ordained mission and ministry in the world that God loves. At the same time, mission cannot be discerned apart from our commitment to an ongoing process of spiritual transformation; it cannot be sustained without regular rhythms for opening to the transforming presence of Christ. The journey inward must precede the journey outward so that whatever action we take in the world is God-initiated, God-guided, and God-sustained.
And that is how the work of ministry gets done.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013. Not to be reprinted without permission. For more on the practice of discernment see chapter 7 of Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (IVP Books, 2006).