Tag Archives: Listening

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.

3 hints when practising Lectio Divina

Recently, Facebook reminded me that we have been doing the practice of Lectio Divina at the church for over one year.  Since that time, many have asked me to come and help them explore Lectio Divina further.  As one clergy-friend remarked; “Lectio Divina is your thing!”  I’m not complaining, I love this discipline, and I love encouraging others to explore it.  I have spoken at several churches, and lead various small group in the practice of Lectio Divina.  I have also received several emails asking me about various dynamics this discipline.  Thus, I thought I would offer three helpful hints which may serve to encourage others in their exploration of Lectio Divina.  I have found these hints profoundly helpful in my own practice of Lectio Divina.  These hints pertain to three spiritual attitudes we would do well to keep in mind whenever we attempt the discipline of Lectio Divina.

Spirit of Boldness If you think of it, Lectio Divina is really quite radical.  It is not a quaint or timid discipline.  One begins the practice of Lectio Divina in the radical assumption that scripture will speak into our lives.  We boldly claim the promise that ‘the word of God is living and active.’  You can think of this spirit of boldness as involving three different affirmations.  Firstly, we boldly affirm that we gather in the presence of God.   This may seem like a silly thing to write, however unless we believe that our heavenly Lord surrounds us, then there really is little point in practising the discipline.  The goal of Lectio Divina is intimacy not information; it is fellowship, not facts.  We are called to affirm that Jesus is present with us as we go through the movements of Lectio Divina; through the Holy Spirit, we can interact with him.

Secondly, we affirm that God speaks into our lives.  Again, there is little use of Lectio Divina if we don’t believe that God will speak to us.  In fact, throughout Scripture, this is one of God’s fundamental critiques of idols.  Idols are mere objects crafted by human hands, with no eyes to see, ears to hear, or mouth to speak.  In contrast, God’s word does not return empty.  The word is not only spoken, but it is also incarnated in our lives.

Lastly, we must boldly affirm that God’s voice can be recognised.  We simply must believe that, if God has a word for us, God will speak that word in a way we can discern it.  After all, Jesus says ‘My Sheep know me, they listen to my voice and they follow me.’   This is the grounding of Lectio Divina.  The distinguishing characteristics of God’s voice can be identified; we can become familiar with the cadences and rhythms of the Lord’s words.

Spirit of Intimacy:  Lectio Divina is not about results, it is about intimacy with our Lord.  In prayer we attend to the voice and the presence of the one who made us and redeemed us.  It is important to remember this fundamental goal of the discipline.  Often, when people begin Lectio Divina, they find that it produces a ‘spiritual high’; a hearing of God’s voice in some profound way never experienced before.   This encourages them to continue on in the practice.  Yet, as time goes on, they find that the practice doesn’t produce the same experience.  Frankly, this can seem upsetting, even disturbing, to some.  We need to remember that Lectio Divina isn’t a spiritual ATM machine dispensing products for our consumption.  Our relationship with God has ups and downs, ebbs and flows.  There are times, in God’s own purposes, that we hear the activity of God’s voice clearly and profoundly; similarly, there are times where, in God’s love for us, we sit silently together.  This doesn’t mean that Lectio Divina ‘failed’ or that we did something wrong.  In Lectio Divina, we open ourselves to experience God’s presence in whatever manner God wishes that to occur.

Spirit of GraceLectio Divina includes a lot of silence, a silence that we might not be used to, or comfortable with.  Because of this, as we begin to quiet ourselves down and attend to the presence of God, we can end up experiencing a wandering mind.  Henry Nouwen called this dynamic ‘jumping monkeys on a banana tree.’  Despite our desire to listen and pray, our mind seems to jump from one thought to another.  When we experience this wandering mind we either A: condemn ourselves for our lack of spiritual strength; or B: begin to fight against our wandering mind.  Either action leads us away from the discipline of Lectio Divina.  After all, if we spend our entire time meditating on our wandering mind, then we are not meditating on God’s voice.  The ancient writers on prayer stress that the way we push through the wandering mind is to acknowledge it, not fight it.

In Lectio Divina, we claim grace.  Grace is the very atmosphere of the discipline.  The fact is, everyone experiences a wandering mind in prayer; it is but a dynamic of being an imperfect person, living in an imperfect world.  So if your mind wanders, don’t beat yourself up.  It’s ok – You aren’t failing at the practice.  Simply acknowledge that your mind has wandered, and go back to your meditations.  This is why it is good to have a candle lit, or a cross placed in the centre of the room. These things are reminders of God’s Lordship and presence, but they are also aids for us if we need to refocus our minds.   Similarly, if there was a word or a phrase that seemed to have more weight to it (as you began the practice of Lectio Divina), repeating that word or phrase can help you focus on the presence of God. Even if you spend 9 minutes out of 10 with wandering thoughts, the grace of God is such that God rejoices in that one minute of heartfelt, meaningful, meditation.

None of these hints are earth shattering by any stretch of the imagination.  Still, I have found these hints beneficial for me as I have practised Lectio Divina.  Ultimately, Lectio Divina is never a skill that you master.  Our goal should never be to get ‘good at’ Lectio Divina.  We are labouring to hear God’s voice, spoken into our lives through the pages of the Biblical text, and it is to that end that these hints can prove helpful.

150 at 2:51

I recently returned from our annual clergy retreat. There was a speaker and a schedule, but these things were punctuated by extended times of silence. We woke in silence. We ate in silence. Even our moments of free time—where the schedule is lax and there is nothing to do, silence was held. I did a variety of things in these times. Sometimes I napped. Other times I read. If it was nice out, I will go for a walk.

During this last retreat, I took advantage of this silent space to sit in my room and do Lectio Divina with Psalm 150. Lectio Divina has become a practice of that I have grown to appreciate very much in my spiritual life. The habit of slowing myself down, and allowing the words of the scripture (read 4 times slowly) to sink deep, deeper, and deeper still into my life, has awakened and informed my walk with God in profound ways.

Don’t get me wrong, not every time spent in Lectio Divina provides awe-struck inspiration. Sometimes it is simply a time of silence. Such was the case for my 30 minutes sitting with Psalm 150. Nothing earth-shattering took place. No epiphanies, no visions, no grand insights into the nature of God or the life of faith. My time in Lectio Divina was simply a pleasant and soothing time reading this Psalm.

But then I woke up at 2:51am.

Almost as if I was roused to wake, my eyelids sprang open and my mind raced with a multitude of questions, all inspired by the Psalm. Clearly that the words of the Psalm had not left me, or rather, the voice of the Lord had not left me. During my waking hours, I had attempted to hold the words of the Psalm with me. Now it seemed that the words of the Psalm were holding me. I could not get my mind off the questions that seemed to come racing in, I had to wake up and write them out.

What does it mean to praise the Lord?

What does it mean to praise the Lord in his sanctuary – in those holy spaces of our lives defined not by brick or mortar but by the mighty Spirit of our God?

What does it mean to see all of life as being lived under the dome of the heavens, so that we are always called to lift our heads in wonder and praise?

What does it mean to praise God in such times when we are arrested by the hand of God pressed in upon our lives, where the awesome greatness of God is both inspiring and terrifying at the same time?

What does it mean to praise the Lord through the different soundtracks of life;

In times of regal trumpets, of processions and glorious excitement?

In times of lute and lyre, subdued movements of mourning and sadness?

In the times of tambourine and dance, times of joy and festivity, laughter and happiness?

In the times of string and pipe, wherein we are called to stand motionless before the Lord?

What does it mean to praise the Lord when our cymbals are rung in celebration and triumph or when they crash in upon themselves, adding only noise to the din of chaos that sometimes surrounds our lives?

What does it mean to praise the Lord, not as an act done in a place, or in a time, but as something united to our breath, a movement of the soul by which our lives become the Hallelujah to our God?

I have no answers. If you do, I would love to hear them. But truth be told, I don’t think figuring out the ‘right’ answer to these questions was the point of my early morning meditations. These are not problems I need to answer. Rather, I feel called to sit with these questions, awaiting the time when God will bring to my life such resolutions. Perhaps it is in holding these questions that I find I will truly live out the answers.

May the Lord bless you as you work out these answers in your own Christian life. Praise the Lord!