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:

• Part 1Beyond the Bondage of Busyness 
Part 2Rhythms of Work and Rest
Part 3Solitude and Community
Part 4Three Moves in Self-Examination

“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).

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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We in spiritual leadership as board and staff of our church, are finding this to be such a beautiful and reassuring way to recognize and submit to God’s work and desires in, through and among us. Thank you so much, Ruth, for articulating this invitation to us all in such practical, formative terms and shining a light on this call of God as depicted throughout scripture. It’s all right there! Very grateful.

Thanks, Kristin! It is such a joy to be on the journey of discerning and doing God’s will with Church of the Open Door.

Which organization are you a part of?

I am part of New Life Advance International. Maybe you ask because you are leery of some who have commented on you and your teachings with a super-critical attitude. I am setting aside their criticism to ask you personally where your convictions are. Thanks for taking the time to respond. Your transparency will be appreciated.

No…I just appreciate knowing who I’m interacting with when asked for further self-disclosure–more as a basic human courtesy than anything else.

My mission organization is preparing an activity this weekend and it is planned to use some material from one of your books. I e-mailed you and called your office hoping to communicate with you before the weekend. I was told that this blog may be the best way to communicate with you. There is some concern over you studying in the Shalem Institute which seems to embrace eastern religious practice and encourage Christians to do so as well. It would help us if you could clarify how you feel about connecting Eastern religion with Christianity and what has been your personal experience.

It sounds like you have read some of my work so you probably know that I teach and write about the Christian disciplines of solitude and silence relying on the biblical characters of Elijah, Moses, David in the Psalms, Paul, and Jesus himself. Yes, I have studied broadly–which I hope has lent breadth, depth and substance to my work–and I am always searching the Scriptures “to see if these things are so.” When I studied at the Shalem Institute years ago they always encouraged me in this. I/we prefer to take a positive approach to these matters, affirming what we believe from a Biblical, orthodox Christian point of view without standing against others by criticizing or critiquing them. We believe this is God-honoring as brothers and sisters in Christ. I trust that the Biblical foundations you see in my work will give you confidence in using the materials you have chosen for your conference. God bless you in all you are doing in his name!

Thanks for your response. I thank the Lord who always works love in the hearts of His children and I place my confidence in Him that any criticizing or critiquing would only be in agreement with Jesus’ passion to see people walk in truth rather than in error (Matt. 5:20 for a mild example or Matt 23 for an increasingly strong criticism). My hope is that no criticism is necessary and I pray for you and for my friends that have been studying your writings. It seems from your response above that you sincerely want to present Bible truth to your audience. However, on your website you seem to show a strong tie to the Shalem Institute. Please clarify how you feel about incorporating teachings and/or practices from Eastern religion into Christian disciplines. Please.

As someone who has been through the Transforming Community, and worked closely with Transforming Center, I wanted to jump in and speak about my experience. One of the most beautiful things about the Transforming Center is that there is such unity among leaders around their common pursuit of desiring to become more like Christ. Leaders from different denominations and theological traditions are present in every community. While in the Transforming Community I was always encouraged to search God’s word, and I did! Coming from a background where lines were easily drawn and there was only black and white, I find myself with a deep desire to be more humble about my beliefs where there is room to hold more than one view. Yes I do have theological differences with others, but I feel like outing and name-calling is not a good testimony nor does it draw brothers and sisters in Christ into more unity. I admire Ruth’s commitment to these same ideals even though it costs her a lot being in a public position. She is committed to cultivating a community not for people to take sides, but a place where leaders become more Christ like and lead from an experience of God’s presence in their life and ministry.

Maybe taking it out of the Christian context would be helpful. We would not assume that a trained scientist who is also a Christian scientist and chooses to attend a secular university would believe everything every professor taught him. In fact, many of us went to secular universities! Would we not value a scientist or other trained professional by the contributions he or she made rather than assuming that s/he is secretly trying to indoctrinate others with anti-Christian beliefs just because he studied at a secular institution? I would truly like to understand how the fact that because Ruth studied at Shalem shows that the Transforming Center has a strong tie to the Shalem Institute. No institution has the corner on truth and it is discouraging when we resort to guilt by association. I sense you mean no malice, and am grateful for your honesty as I think many others likely have the same questions.

It IS amazing how all the spiritual disciplines are related to each other and are only complete when practiced in good rhythms with each other. I love that you are experiencing the connection between rhythms of rest/surrender and discerning/doing the will of God. They are indeed deeply related to each other!

I am especially surprised of late by the absolute necessity for rest/Sabbath in the discernment process. In a way it is acknowledging at the most human of levels that I am not God and that He is God, and in that surrender finding His will for the next steps. Without the rest and the surrender that comes in that rest and quietness I cannot know what His will is. Thanks, as always Ruth, for the reminders:
“…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.”

I love hearing and reading your words after your time spent in the “Tent of Meeting.” Thanks for going there to listen to the Spirit, and then sharing with those of us in the desert.

You’re welcome! Thanks, all, for such wonderful contributions to this conversation. I am grateful these thoughts have resonated and am encouraged by the insights each of you has added. May we all be utterly committed to “leading in rhythm”–refusing to do anything apart from the sacred rhythms of ministry. God knows how much we need them!

I thank you for sharing – in seeking there is discernment. Seeking the Lord … continually – through prayer, through His Word, through His servants –

“Now set your mind and heart to seek the Lord your God.” (1 Chronicles 22:19)

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1–2)

Pride keeps me from seeking – “In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him.” Psalm 10:4 Humility is essential.

Grateful for the promise to those who seek the Lord He will be found – “If you seek him, he will be found by you” (1 Chronicles 28:9). And , “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Plus “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!” In His presence is fullness ever more.

So well expressed, Ruth. Also see a little-known book, Inviting the Mystic, Supporting the Prophet by Katherine Marie Dyckman.

Have picked it up and am enjoying it. Thanks!

“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.” A profound truth, statement and blueprint.
Inside out. First within, then without. I continue to enjoy the fruits of your listening that comes through your writing and insights. With sincere gratitude!

Thank you, the last paragraph reminded me of Henri nouwen’s book the inner voice of love, page94, ” the father the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be. And that reminds me of the scripture in the message bible that talks about the more persecution we experiece the more it drives us deeper into God ‘s kingdom…its a safe place to be…

Ruth- Yes and Amen!!!! Beautifully written!!!! Thank you.

Powerful message, Ruth. Thank you.

I love that notion that things needing to be solved with be solved at the listening level. And thank you for the challenge of not just knowing the will of God but doing it. I needed that today.

Bless you, Ruth.

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