Are Disciplines Necessary?

This post is based on a presentation made at the ACW Regional Retreat in September 2020.

Are Spiritual Disciplines really that important?

Why are Spiritual Disciplines important?    Is not believing in Jesus enough? Are disciplines just a form of works righteousness, some mistaken attempt to earn our salvation?  Do we really need to worry about things like church attendance, prayer, or reading the Bible?   

Have you ever asked yourself these questions?

Some may see an emphasis on spiritual disciplines as just a fad.  After all, the language of spiritual formation, and spiritual disciplines, emerged popularly in 1978 with the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  Since then, other works began to surface – and today, there is quite a lot in this field.  Thus, some may say that this whole emphasis on disciplines and formation is just a flash in the pan.   Yet this is not only to misunderstand what Foster speaks of in his book, it is to misunderstand what it means to be a member of Christ’s church. 

God’s people have always sought out ways to live out their faith. Spiritual practices do not stem from some individual simply thinking up some creative or interesting things to do (and then saying to everyone that they need to do it too).  Rather, spiritual practices – that which we call disciplines – are based on how Christian people have continuously expressed their faith in Jesus.  The disciplines are nothing new.  Sure each new book may have a different ordering of disciplines, a way in which the author thinks of them or characterises them, yet the disciplines themselves have journeyed with the people of faith, ever since there was a people of faith.

Understanding the historicity of spiritual disciplines, however, only takes us so far.  Disciplines are important in our spiritual lives for a myriad of other reasons.  Below is an exploration of three of those reasons.

  1. Discipline are how we live like Jesus.

What is the purpose of Christianity? To what does it aim to, or pursue?  Growing up, I, like so many people, believed that I knew the answer. Christian faith is about going to heaven. After all, that’s where we end up.  

It can be easy to think that Christian faith is mostly about what happens to you when you die -about getting to our eternal destination.  Have you ever heard people refer to the Bible as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth?” Such a slogan assumes that leaving the earth is that to which the faith ultimately aims.  If we believe in Jesus and accept the truth of what he did on the cross, then we will have obtained the minimal entrance requirement to get past St. Peter at the pearly gates.  “For God so loved the world that those who believe in Jesus will get into heave when the die.”  At least, that is how that verse can be easily understood.

But if faith is only concerned about what happens to us at death, then we are saying that our faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives.  Forgiveness is not about freeing ourselves, or others, from spiritual baggage, it is about managing our sins so that they do not mess up our chance for a heavenly mansion!  Faith is merely about passing God’s final exam.  But if we think that faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives here, then we will miss about 90% of what Jesus was on about.  After all, why did Jesus talk about forgiving our enemies, loving our neighbours, or tackling anger and prejudice in our hearts, if, in the end, none of that matters?

Disciplines help us answer the question “how do I live my life the way that Jesus lived his?’  If we understand that Jesus was perfect in faithfulness, then would not his life be one we would want to emulate? Reflecting on Christ’s life naturally leads us into certain habits and practices.  Jesus prayed.  Jesus served others.  Jesus engaged in times of silence and solitude.  Jesu was knowledgeable of the scriptures. If we want our lives to reflect the presence of Jesus, then these practices help us do just that.  

2. Spiritual disciplines help our faith grow.

You cannot grow in any area of life without diligent discipline. If one wants to be good at piano, one must put in the time necessary to cultivate a habit of piano playing. This is discipline, the willing acceptance of activity toward growth in a particular area.   Athlete’s discipline themselves to perform certain activities at certain times. A quarterback, for example, trains his muscles so that when he needs to make that game-winning pass, he can do so.  A figure skater trains relentlessly so their bodies know how to execute a triple axle. The point of the discipline is to make the activity an engrained part of lif, so that the individual can perform that action without conscious effort or thought.

The biblical writers often take up the image of athlete to describe the spiritual lives. In the same manner as we talk of the training of athletes, Paul exhorts us to “train yourself to be godly.” We need to create the necessary habits which will produce the life we want to grow into.  If we have a vision of what Christian life is about, and the intention to pursue that life, then we must cultivate the means of achieving that growth. 

This is a far cry away from works-righteousness.  Works righteousness amounts to an attempt to earn our salvation, to merit our way into the kingdom of God.  Spiritual disciplines vehemently reject any notion that we earn grace.  Still, this does not mean we are to be passive.  To rework one of Dallas Willard’s phrases, spiritual disciplines are opposed to earning, not effort.  Disciplines help us grow in our faith precisely because they call us to intentionally engage, and embody, our faith.  Disciplines focus us.

After all, we live in a world of competing voices, competing intensions, and constant distractions.  It can difficulty to turning our attention fully to spiritual matters.  In this way, living the Christian life, is not always easy.  Therefore, it takes dedication, devotion, and discipline.  In the same way that a person who has never played the piano will never waken to miraculously find themselves able to play Rachmaninoff, it is a safe bet that we never simply stumble into spiritual maturity.  A healthy spiritual life takes effort.  We grow into it.

3. Spiritual disciplines occur in cooperation with the Holy Spirit

We are not merely talking about disciplines of activity merely for the sake of activity.  Spiritual disciplines are not the same as an exercise regime.  We are speaking of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are activities engaged in cooperatively with the Holy Spirit.  For most people, on any given day, our questions of faith are not the grand theological questions of doctoral dissertations.  Rather, our questions or concerns, or the wrestling in our faith, are about how we experience the dynamic of God’s presence in our lives. They are the boots on the ground kind of questions: “Why don’t I feel God with me all the time?”  “How do I develop a deeper prayer life?”  “Can I recognise God’s voice?”  Disciplines help us work through these questions, and in doing so, recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we deny the role of the Holy Spirit in our Christian life, we too often attempt to tackle our questions with the unhelpful word of just “try harder.” Struggling with Bible reading? Well just grit your teeth, pour a double shot of espresso, and dive into 2nd Chronicles!  If your mind wanders in prayer – well concentrate harder.  When we do this, we often find that the efforts of our will only get us so far. Richard Foster says this

God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God, so that He can transform us. The Apostle Paul said “He who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”…That is the way with the Spiritual Disciplines; they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. (6)

Spiritual disciplines are not how we try harder, they are how we open ourselves to the activity of God.  In this way, spiritual disciplines are actions we do in our own power, to open ourselves to that which is beyond our own power.  We move with the Spirit in our disciplined activity, and in doing so, experience the empowerment of the Spirit.

The Way of Discernment

This post first appeared in “Ministry Matters” under the title: “Discernment: it’s not just pointing at random verses” on Medium.com

Whenever we aspire to live the Christian life with any intentionality, an inevitable question arises. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know I am making the right decisions? How do I perceive or recognize the specific parameters of how God wants me to live my life? The answer to all these questions is the same: discernment. Discernment is the spiritual discipline through which we listen for, and respond to, directions God’s voice. Simply put, discernment is the process of recognizing God’s will for our lives.

It is important to recognize that discernment is not a routine set of steps. It is not a codified system of checks and balances by which we can streamline our decision-making. Nor are there any shortcuts. One can’t, for example, simply close their eyes and point to random verses, expecting to uncover the fine nuances of God’s plan for their life. That’s not discernment; that’s biblical roulette, and it can be devastating to someone’s faith. It is best to think of discernment as a way of prayerfully relying on God. It is a function of an active relationship with the Lord, one that establishes a certain kind of life. Thus, before we even think about how we discern God’s will for our lives, we should endeavour to cultivate the type of life in which recognizing God’s direction is conducive.

There are three foundations upon which this type of life rests. Firstly, you need to cultivate a sincere desire to live in God’s will. If you are not actually concerned with living the life that God desires you to live, there is no point in trying to discern God’s voice. It’s as simple as that. Or, if you think that God will simply rubber stamp any decision you make, discernment is simply a façade. In order to rightly discern God’s direction for you, you must first desire God’s will above and before all things. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Similarly, in the Lord’s prayer, we are instructed to pray for God’s kingdom and will to be established before we pray to receive our daily wants or needs. We need to root ourselves in the primary longing for God’s ways to be revealed in and through our lives. This is what Ignatian spirituality calls “indifference” — wanting God’s will to be established, whatever that may entail, instead of my own interests, desires or plans.

Secondly, we need to cultivate an active engagement with Scripture. God has given us Scripture as the primary way that we become familiar with God’s voice. Now this doesn’t mean that every answer is written in the pages of the Bible — again we aren’t talking about biblical roulette here. However, by immersing ourselves in the Bible (the whole Bible — not just our favourite verses), we continually grow in our familiarity with the weight and the tone of God’s voice. The continuous engagement with Scripture also aids us in becoming attuned with the kind of things that the Lord may say to us.

Lastly, in order to rightly discern God’s will for our lives, we must establish an ongoing conversation with God, in prayer. We need to learn how to listen to God’s voice — and you only do that by establishing a conversational relationship with the Lord. In prayer, we bring God the matters of our day, the desires of our hearts, and we cultivate a habit of listening through the practices of silence or solitude. An active prayer life helps us identify those thoughts or impressions that are indicative of divine nudging. In prayer we learn to highlight such things and say “there’s a different quality to this”, or “there’s something about this feeling, thought, word, impression that is not just a function of my own pondering.” Jesus indicated that his followers, like sheep before a shepherd, are able to recognize and know His own voice. We become familiar with this voice through the sustained habit of prayer.

If you are in the midst of trying to discern something but have yet to establish this way of life, this is where you start. But let’s say you have cultivated this life of active reliance upon Jesus… what now? What does discernment actually entail?

Keeping in mind that there is no one surefire process of discernment, there are three components of God’s guidance that can be mentioned. In his classic book, The Secret of Guidance,F.B. Meyer refers to these components as the “three witnesses” of discernment. He writes: “The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and with the Word of God.” Circumstances; the inward promptings of the Spirit; and Scripture are the three areas we look to when attempting to discern God’s direction for our lives.

First, circumstances are the particulars of whatever situation you are in right now. Is there anything about the contours of your life, the decision you are trying to make, that speaks to where God is working? Discernment is never done in a vacuum. God is at work in your life. God does speak. In discernment, we want to look at the specifics of our life situation. Meyer also mentions that it is good to pray that God close the avenues or opportunities that are not conducive to God’s way. Ultimately, discernment isn’t like receiving a divine memo. It is about looking for the signs of God’s leading in our the everyday tapestry of our lives.

Second, the Lord often guides us by prompting our inward selves through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will often begin to work with our inner dispositions, we will feel “drawn” in a particular direction. This is why an established lifestyle of reliance upon, and interaction with, the Spirit of God is so important. In discernment we ask our selves questions like: “What is Jesus doing within me?”, “What does my heart say?” and “Where do I feel Jesus drawing me closer to Him? Conversely, is there an option or way that seems to lead me away from God?” Ignatius terms these inward dispositions consolations and desolations, and they provide good insight into how God is leading us. Importantly, you might not be able to fully articulate these internal sensations. However, if inwardly you are feeling one way as opposed to another — and that feeling just wont go away — this can be an indication of divine guidance.

Lastly, we turn to Scripture for guidance. Does the Bible say anything — or give any principles applicable to our situation? Again, this isn’t about finding a certain answer — or pointing to random verses — this is about recognizing that God has provided for us a written voice. And while we may not be able to turn to a specific verse for “the answer”, God does us the scriptural word to speak to us. Thus, the more we are familiar with Scripture, the more we will find it has the uncanny ability to speak into our lives.

Meyer’s emphasis in highlighting these three witnesses is that, in proper discernment, these three components converge. Scripture reinforces our inward dispositions, which help us to recognize God’s movement in the present circumstances of our lives. One always points to the other.

Of course, discernment can be a trying process. There may be a lot of emotion surrounding that our discernment. Also our discernment may impact others. Because of this, discernment can seen as a highly stressful endeavour. To combat this, it is best to keep in mind three remembrances:

  1. Discernment takes time. We live in a world of instant gratification, and so often we want direction at the drop of hat. We turn to God and expect to get the answer within a heartbeat of a moment. Discernment, however, is a way of wrestling with something, and sometimes this takes a while. It may be God wants us to sit with a decision for a time, or possibly God wants other things to be revealed or shown before we get the final direction. Meyer points out that discernment is always about the next step — never the full picture. We are to enter our times of discernment slowly, being willing to receive what God offers, in whatever time-frame that occurs.
  2. Like so many other disciplines, we are to involve others. As you enter discernment, seek the counsel and partnership of a trusted friend or guide — a spiritual director or perhaps your parish priest. If you have come to a conclusion, ask for a sense of confirmation. Although Meyer doesn’t list the community as a particular component of discernment, the voice of the community has an important role in confirming the guidance we have received. Do not be afraid to ask others to help you with this discipline.
  3. Claim grace. Discernment is not only different for each person, it is different in each circumstance. Do not get discouraged if discernment does not appear “easy.” We can, at times, feel an undue sense of responsibility to perfect this practice. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our sense of wrestling with a decision indicates a failure to adequately listen to God. On top of this, one may mistakenly believe that choosing the “wrong” path means will be cast out of God’s good graces for ever. This is simply not true. We trust in grace. We trust that God will work with our frailties. Furthermore, in discernment, as in all of our Christian life, we can trust that God’s love and grace for us prevails over all things.

If we take the time and effort to establish the certain way of life in which discernment is conducive, then I believe we can have confidence in discerning God’s will for our lives. We can have this confidence because, ultimately, discernment is rooted in the fundamental truth that God speaks. Not only does God speak, God speaks to us. We can hear God’s voice. We can know God’s will. May each of us uncover the particular nuances of God’s direction and will for our lives. Amen.

Spirit-Filled decision-making: the way of discernment for individuals, councils, and communities.

Life can be messy.  The path ahead is not always clear.  In such moments, we can be left with the daunting task of having to decide what course of action to engage in, which path to follow.  Sometimes it’s a decision between A and B.  Sometimes it’s a decision to act or not act.  Sometimes there are multiple variables to consider.   These decisions can weigh upon us.    What is the best way to make these decisions? How much emphasis do we place on our ‘gut feeling’ as opposed to a more rationalist and intellectual approach?  Where does the wisdom of those who have gone before us come in to play?

On top of all of this, Christians add another layer to their decision making.  We are not simply concerned with discerning what is ‘best’, or deciding what we believe to be the correct solution; we are concerned with hearing the voice of God.  In addition to all the structural considerations to how we make a decision, there is the spiritual matter of how we hear God’s voice.  What does God say about the matter at hand?  What is the difference between God’s voice and my own?  How can I know the difference?

How do we make decisions in a spirit-filled way?  How do we value our own intellect and feelings, yet recognise that ultimately we are concerned with God’s intellect and God’s feelings?  Are there things we can do, questions we can ask, that may aid us in recognising the Spirit’s promptings in our decision-making?

Sadly, the art of discernment, or spirit-filled decision making, is not something that we speak about in church circles very often.  We drift into a functionalism that treats God’s will as that which best fits into Roberts Rules of order.  God’s will is simply the will of the majority.  It’s fast, its logical, its uncomplicated. But does God always bless the loudest voices?  How does this fit into the scriptural dynamic of God choosing the weak and foolish to shame the wise?  Similarly, discipleship lessons rarely speak about discernment.  The Christian life is too often focused strictly on doctrinal matters, and not the messy reality of living out faith doctrines in the intricacy of life.

In a world that is so complicated, and changes without notice, the task of discerning God’s voice in our decisions is more pressing than ever.  Thus, I offer five considerations by which we can prayerfully approach the decisions we make.  I write ‘prayerfully approach’, because I don’t want to suggest that quickly answering these five questions will mean we have made our decision prayerfully, or have rightly discerned God’s voice.  Discernment takes time.  We hold matters in prayer.  We search the scriptures.  We talk to mentors, advisors, and spiritual friends.    It takes a humble willingness to hold a matter before the Lord, and to wrestle with the ‘unknowing’ for a period of time as we engage in discernment.  The larger the decision is, the more time in prayer we should take.

Firstly, where am I in this matter?  Seeking God’s voice in decision making is not a convenient way to avoid our own thoughts, or the need to investigate the matter thoroughly.  The appeal to God’s voice is not an argument for ignorance.  The first step is being true with ourselves.  What do we think and feel about the matter at hand?

This is more than just figuring out the result I would like to see. The recognition of what we think and feel about the matter also calls us to uncover why this might be the case.   What about ourselves do we bring into this decision?  Ultimately, we are asking ourselves “If it were up to us, what decision would I make?”  This may seem like we are rushing to the end of the matter, but we aren’t.   We simply cannot lay our will before God, asking for God’s direction and guidance, if we are unaware of what our own will is.  Probing the depths of the self may provide important revelations into what insights we bring to the matter, or what biases colour our perceptions.

Secondly, where does God lead me to comfort in this decision?  St. Ignatius talked about ‘consolations’ in the art of discernment – the feeling of assurance of God’s presence and plan.  As we seek God’s voice regarding any matter, we seek to find that place where God provides comfort and assurance.  Is there a sense of peace about a particular decision?  Do we feel settled in a course of action?

Intuition is key here.  God gave us our emotions to help us feel our way through life.  There may be times, where like Christ, we are moved in our inward being toward a certain action.  Such feelings of peace and contentment over a matter is not intellectually based.  We may not even know from where it comes from, or even how to describe our ‘gut-feeling.’ Sometimes our feeling of comfort is just that. . . a gut-feeling, a response of faith that causes us to discern a way forward.   Just because we may not be able to write such a feeling out in a three-point argument doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention to feelings God may be prompting in us.

Thirdly, where does God lead me into discomfort?  The flip side of consolations are desolations.  These are the feelings that we, somehow, are drifting from God’s plan and presence.  Just as in our comforts, we may not even know why we feel our discomforts.  We may simply be responding to a feeling deep down in our souls.  Yet if we are trying to make a decision from the stand-point of faith, and if we actually believe that God will lead us and guide us, then such a feeling should be acknowledged and listened to.

Discomforts may not point to a complete denial of a certain outcome.  Feeling uncomfortable about a decision doesn’t necessarily suggest that God is against a certain decision.  Rather, Discomforts may signify that there is something in the matter that still needs to be addressed.  A discomfort can be about how a decision is being made, and not about the result.  Discomforts may also speak to the effects, the motives, or even the timing of a decision.  Therefore, taking the time to pray about the matter at hand is important.

Fourthly, what action(s) does God wish to bring about in this decision?  Decisions are never mere intellectual exercises. Decisions effect life.  As such, making a decision from a spiritual standpoint has implications on how we live faithfully.  It calls us to embody the kingdom of God in a certain way.  At times, these actions may be easy to discern, at other times, the actions resulting from our decision may be less clear.

When the actions God wishes to bring out from a decision are relatively unclear we have yet another discernment to undergo.  It may be good to go back to look at comforts/discomforts.  Is not knowing an action actually a form of discomfort?  If we don’t know a precise action, yet feel comforted about a decision, does this mean we called to make a decision in faith, trusting that the actions will be revealed in due time?  Teasing this out in our lives is never a simply matter.  This matter must be held in prayer.  Deciding not to move ahead with a decision at this point, because the actions are unclear, is not a failure in discernment.  We act on God’s time-frame, and we trust that God will lead us appropriately.

Fifthly, what are the implications of this decision?  Decisions always reach beyond ourselves.  We must consider the wider scope of our lives, and the people with whom we live and work.  Sometimes our decisions hold ramifications beyond our own thoughts on a matter, or how we ourselves treat a certain subject.  What does the decision mean for how we relate to those around us?  What message do we embody as we live out the decision?

For example, a decision to move to closer to family may bring the need to reconcile a previously strained relationship.  A decision to take a new job may mean we step away from a ministry we love. Thinking more broadly, others may become upset, resentful, even hurt about decisions we make – as good or positive as we may feel the decision is.  The prayerful consideration of implications helps us recognise that the way of Jesus is not necessarily the path of ease and tranquility.  Christ calls us to bear the cross, to walk through the dark valleys, and to ‘scorn the shame for the sake of the hope set before us.’  Ultimately what we seek is not a decision based on blind faith.  We open our eyes to the real-life ramifications of following the way of Jesus.

None of these considerations outweigh the other.  While it may be useful to go through them in order, in many ways, each consideration flows in and out of the other.  Considering the implications of a decision will naturally inform our feelings of comfort and discomfort.   The reality of comfort and discomfort with further influence the actions we are willing or not willing to take.  It is for this reason that the basis of spiritual decision making is humility and prayer.

If life for the individual can be messy, then life for a community of faith can be messier still. It is not just one person who makes a decision.  The community, gathered together in faith, is tasked with living out the mission of God.  This is a task that all people (we hope) take seriously.  Yet we cannot ignore the fact that member in the community may disagree – sometimes vehemently.  Two individuals, going through the five considerations about the same subject, may come out with two opposite decisions.  How does this occur?  Is this as simple as saying the other side just didn’t hear the voice of God?

Community discernment is not opposed to individual spirit-filled decision making, or the five considerations mentioned above.  The community is made up of individuals, and therefore it is important that all individuals in the community engage in the considerations.  Just as we cannot appeal to ‘the will of God’ as an excuse for ignorance, neither can we abdicate individual responsibility to the mere will of the majority.  A community only functions when each person values their role as a member of the community.   Given the task of decision making then, a community is a body of people who passionately embody a willingness to seek God’s voice together.

This sense of togetherness brings forward some key matters to consider as we engage in communal discernment.  In community, not only are we seeking the will of God corporately, we are also concerned with embodying the love of Christ to each other.  In community, a decision should never be reduced to ‘this side versus that side.’  While individuals or groups may differ in opinion, there should be an acknowledgement that all are united in seeking God’s will for the community.  This means that we live, pray, and make our decisions, in a spirit of peace, humility, and love.

As a community, there are a few additional considerations that will help us embody this spirit of love and humility.  Again, all of this presupposes that we spend time in corporate in prayer, bible study, and fellowship.

Firstly, we seek indifference.  Indifference doesn’t mean that we do not care about the result of a decision, or that we don’t have an outcome we want to see.  Remember, the first consideration is ‘where am I in this decision?’  Each individual voice, individual perspective, and individual sense of comfort/discomfort is to be valued an honored.  Yet as a member of community, we cannot decide that our comfort/discomforts are normative for the entire body.  In humility, we recognise that others in the community may have the opposite thoughts and feelings than we do – and those are just as valuable, Godly, and honorable as our own.

Given the fact that a community may not think or feel the same way about any decision, indifference calls the community to seek the will of God.  It takes bold humility to lay down our personal agendas.  Laying down our agenda is not the same as denying our voice.  However, in community we never seek our own will.  When members of a community walk into the task of decision making with a personal agenda, no matter how noble and right that may be, we move away from place of seeking God.  We must constantly echo Christ’s words of ‘not my will but yours be done.’  Indifference means that, ultimately, our first concern is that God’s will is known and followed.

Secondly, we own results.  We can never deny that we have passions, desires, and dreams.  When approaching decisions, in even the most spirit-filled way, we must recognise that there may be certain results that we want to see take place.   Indifference is not about negating the individual will, it is about laying it down willfully and humbly, so that we can take up the will of God.   In similar fashion, seeking God’s will as a community does not deny the individual desires and will of individual members.  This does not, however, give us licence to disregard the discerned decision of the community, simply because the result went against what we would have decided had we been in charge.

When individuals choose to act in contravention of that which the community has discerned through prayer, discussion, and finally vote, it severs the very fabric of community.  In such an action, the individual choosing to disregard the decision steps outside the community, rendering judgement upon it.  By such action, he or she declares the message “I am only a community member insofar as the community agrees with me.”  To be clear; this does not mean that one must agree with, or even like, the decision that had been rendered by the community; Individuals may grieve over decisions made.  However, the messiness of community is also one of its strengths – not everyone agrees with each other.

There is a deeper issue at play, however.  When an individual, or group of individuals, choose not to bear the results of a community’s discernment, one declares that they were never an active part of discernment in the first place.  To go into any decision, having settled in one’s mind what one will do or not do given such and such an outcome, is to deny the very spirit of indifference in which one is to approach matters of discernment.  It is to make decision making a matter of pushing forward an agenda, an execution of personal will.  Thus, the community at large simply becomes something to manipulate for personal agenda.  This may sound harsh, but such a triumphing of one’s personal decision works against the humble spirit of self-giving love by which we embody community.  To truly and authentically lay down our wills before God, one must actively commit to living out the results of the decision regardless of what occurs.  Obviously, if such decisions contravene legality, or amount to personal harm or injury upon another, such decisions are to be invalidated by good conscience and moral behaviour.  However, in such extreme situations, why would one wish to remain in such a wayward community anyway?

Thirdly, we hold decisions lightly.  The quality of a community’s decision is only seen over time.  We must recognise that there have been instances in our own history, and in the history of the community to which we belong, where wrong decisions had been made.  Furthermore, the community may have made such decisions in the full belief that they were being faithful to the will of God.  Wrong decisions have been made prayerfully, based on the current understanding of scripture, and out of a humble desire to follow the way of Christ.  Yet in hindsight, after years of growth and further prayer, such decisions were clearly seen to contravene God’s desire, and were appropriately overturned.

The humility in which we approach discernment as a community means that we recognise that we have not reached such an enlightened status to render human error inconceivable.  Thus, all decisions that are made are continually held in prayer.  Reaching a decision is never the end of the matter.  Rather, even when a decision is made, we hold the matter open before God, continually seeking God’s further guidance and clarification as we move forward in the way we have discerned.  Recognising our fallibility helps us recognise that God’s will is not synonymous with human will.  The infinite God does not always follow linear pathways.  Gods ways are beyond our own.

Could there be a reason, known only by the full revelation of God, whereby the best decisions (in a human sense) are seen to be faulty? Could there be a future learning that will turn all our current understandings on it’s head?  Obviously, such questions are unanswerable.  The point is not to answer such questions, or to figure out what the ‘future learning’ might be; rather, holding open the possibility of discovering of our well-intentioned errors helps to ensure that we do not assume that God’s will is contingent upon our reasoning.  God is beyond us and beyond our councils and forums.  In the end, it is not the correctness of our decisions in which we will be judged, but by the extent in which the community passionately longed-for God’s face and guidance.  As we move forward in our decisions, we ask for God’s blessing and leading.  Yet we also maintain the attitude that seeks out forgiveness for ‘hidden faults’ and unknown sins.

Maintain Community.  Decisions can be hard. They involve one’s heart and soul.  Difficult decisions find people placing personal investment in the matter being discussed by community.  When this happens, the community does not discuss issues, or matters, or points of order; they discuss people and lives.  Individuals in the community see themselves in the discussion, and the results of the decision bear implications in personal lives and histories.  We must remember that unless the community has reached one hundred percent consensus, there will be those who find themselves grieving over the results of a decision.

This speaks to the matter of implication.  In discernment, we seek the implications as they may be played out amid the community.  It could be that the implication of any decision is that the community will become divided and hurt.  Some will rejoice in a decision, others will weep.  This does not necessarily mean that a decision should not be reached, but this is something for which every member of the community should be aware.  How much worse it is when a community is so divided that it will become wounded no matter what decision is made!

When this occurs, we must actively choose to maintain community in prayer, humility, and sacrificial love.  We must give of ourselves to one another.  Those who rejoiced in the decision must seek out those who weep and hear the cries of those feeling lost and rejected.  Each individual member of the community should grieve over the fact that others in the community feel so hurt, lost, or abandoned.  In this way, we embody the fullness of what a community life.  We offer the same radical love that Christ offered to us – a love that enters the messiest of places for the sake of fellowship and grace.

A decision is never a victory.  In the moment of discernment, how the community responds to the decision is paramount.  Will we choose to maintain community? Will we choose to flaunt the ‘rightness’ of our decision?  Will we choose to disregard, discredit, and deny communion with those who decided ‘wrongly’?  How will we embody the love of Jesus to ‘the other’ when after a hard decision, ‘the other’ has a new face?

None of these reflections make discernment easy.  Spirit-filled decision making is an art; while there are lessons to be le learned, and a way to improve, it always be beyond our step by step processes.  In the end, discernment calls us to bend the knee before our Lord and maker.  God leads, we follow.  The path may be circuitous; we may wander in the desert for years, this way and that way and this way back again.  In discernment, however, we never search for the final resolution, only the next step.  What is more, as members of community, we recognise that we do not take these steps alone.  We journey with brothers and sisters who are as passionate, opinionated, flawed, insightful, and precious as we are.  Such a journey may, at times, get messy.  However when we give ourselves to each other, acting in a unified desire to embody Christ’s majestic kingdom, then the messiness of the community just might become beautiful.