What Is Good and Acceptable and Perfect”
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When we hear the word “discernment” we might think we’re just talking about making decisions. Decisions that we make as we’re following Christ are going to be involved in discernment, and we’ll be talking about this a little later on. It’s not primarily about decision making though.
Foundationally the practice of discernment is about living the whole of one’s life in alignment with God. In some way, I see all of the practices which we’ve looked at leading to this point – divine reading; self-examination; the prayer of the heart; solitude, taking time to be alone with God. All of these practices and others which we haven’t looked at – things like sabbath keeping, honouring our body, which leave us open to God transforming us into the image of Christ, which in effect means God transforming us into being like Christ.
Being love. Being grace. Being mercy. Being justice. Doing love. Doing grace. Doing mercy. Doing justice.
Living one’s life in alignment with God. Not filing our following of Christ alongside our other hobbies, interests, or likes, where it might have to compete for our time and energy. Not compartmentalizing our following of Christ. I know what this is like. There was a time in my life when my relationship with God was pretty much relegated to Sunday morning. Not completely but by and large a couple of hours on Sunday morning and it didn’t really inform very much of my other 110 weekly waking hours. The thing is, this was not a very exciting thing. Reducing faith to a couple of hours weekly (or monthly or twice yearly for that matter) is not something that I would be keen to invite someone in on.
But I would invite someone in on this. Taking up Christ’s invitation to follow him, and in so doing, moving toward living the entirety of one’s life in alignment with the will and purposes of our loving God – the creator of all. The ruler of all. The one who is perfection and compassion and kindness and steadfast love. I say moving toward because none of us are there yet.
I have to tell you that I’m closer than I used to be. Not through any goodness of my own but through the gift of God’s love, God’s forgiveness, the Holy Spirit of God in me. Moving ever closer to living the entirety of one’s life in alignment with the will and purposes of our loving God is an exciting prospect if you’ve experienced what I’m talking about, isn’t it? And so we hear words like “Do not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may know God’s will.”
Being in tune with God’s will, because I want to stop saying alignment. It’s making me think about how I need to get our car serviced. Go with alignment though if you like. What words or images might help us get ourselves around this wonderful possibility? I like the image of being in tune with God’s will. Living life in tune with God’s will, as we are God’s instruments. Make me an instrument of your peace, is the way one prayer goes. I like that. Of course, I would like that. As anyone who plays a stringed instrument with tuning pegs knows, you must tune your instrument every time you go to play. I’m pretty assiduous about tuning my guitar, something tuning it before rehearsal and then again before it’s time to perform. Mind you I can get a little assiduous about certain things, especially when it comes to music. There it is though as an image for us – living one’s life with one’s heart tuned to God. What might that be like?!
Here’s another image from the days when ships at sea used celestial navigation when they travelled. Think of a ship leaving one port and bound for another across an ocean. The sailors check their instruments once per week. How on course is this ship going to remain? A second ship makes the same journey. They are checking their instruments once every day. How much more on course is this ship going to be? Now I have to hear when I first heard this illustration I thought that was pretty good, and I don’t have to draw out the allusion here. But then I heard about a third ship, whose navigators were on their instruments constantly, always checking their course against the sun and the moon and the stars. How on course was that one?
Paying constant attention upward. It’s the foundational movement in all of the spiritual disciplines. Reading God’s word, expecting God to speak to and change us because when God speaks things happen – new situations are created. Examining ourselves secure in the knowledge before we ever start that we are loved by God, that God hems us in before and behind, and that God’s hand is on us. Coming to God in prayer and silence and solitude and listening. Hearing God’s call on our lives and responding to the point that we’re finding that the Holy Spirit in us is making this upward look an all-of-life thing that is affecting our inward look (how we see ourselves) and our outward look (how we see everyone else and indeed how we see all of God’s good creation). This is an exciting prospect no?
Learning ever more what it means to say along with Mary “Let it be with your servant according to your word.” Learning ever more what it means to say along with Jesus “Not my will but yours be done.” “Your will be done,” as we pray. Discerning God’s will for every aspect of our lives. Practices like self-examination (theo-examen) help us to be in tune with God. Dwelling on where we experienced the presence of God in a day or a week. Dwelling on where we heard the voice of God. Dwelling on how God loves us. Asking God to shine God’s light of grace on us that we might know where we are unlike Christ, coming to God in confession and being forgiven. Confessing to and forgiving one another. Listening for God’s voice in prayer and solitude so that we might come to recognize God’s voice the way sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd.
Living our lives with our will in tune with God’s. How could we ever claim to be able to do such a thing? On our own, we never could. In her book, RHB voices this concern – “For many of us… knowledge of God’s will is a subject fraught with doubt and difficulty. Is it really possible for me to know the will of God? we wonder. Do I really trust him to do what’s best for me? How do I know whether I have ‘discerned’ God’s will or if it is just a good way to justify what I want? How do I make sense of those times when I thought I understood the will of God but it ended up being a mess? It was hard enough to trust God the first time. How can I trust God again?”
When we consider these questions, I want us to think of how much they emphasize ourselves. Is it really possible for me? Do I really trust? How do I know? How do I make sense? How do I trust God again?
If there are five things that you remember from me when our time together has gone (I was going to say one thing but I do hope there’s more than one), let this be one of them. When it comes to matters of faith, it never ever starts with us. It’s never primarily about what I can or cannot do who I can or cannot be. It starts with what God does and who God is. The practice of discernment, like all the spiritual practices we’ve looked at is a gift of God’s grace. This is why, before Paul writes to the Romans about us discerning God’s will, he writes of the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. In whom we rest. Transformation is a gift of God’s grace. It never starts with us.
We often talk of what it means to die to self. In this context, it is to die to our own will so that God’s will may be done in and through us. It seems like I haven’t talked about a good paradox for a week or two at least. Listen to this one – “Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus’ words, Matthew 10:39. What are we to do with this? Isn’t finding ourself or our life supposed to be a good thing? Who wants to lose their life? Is all this talk about “Not my will but yours be done” not just a sort of self-abnegation; a repression of our own desire that surely can’t lead to anywhere good? Are Christians simply a bunch of people with low self-esteem?
Here’s the thing. All of this starts with God. Jesus also said that no one takes his life from him, he lays it down of his own accord. Jesus, throughout his life, lived out his identity as the beloved son of his Father. In order to lay our lives down, as someone has said, we need to, first of all, claim them. We need to claim who we are in Christ. Adopted into God’s family. Beloved children of God. Resting in all this means, dwelling on what this means, encouraging one another in what this means.
What does all of this talk mean in practice? There are three beliefs which underlie or provide a foundation for the practice of discernment. The first is a belief in the goodness of God. This is not earth-shattering, I realize. The question for us all though is, do we really believe that what God might will for us is good, or do we prefer to hang on to some level of belief that we know what’s best for ourselves. RHB puts the questions we might ask like this – “Is God really good? If I trust myself to him, isn’t there a good chance that I will wind up where I least want to be or that God will withhold what I want the most?” Are we coming ever more to a place of trust that God wills nothing but good for us?
The second foundational belief here is about what I call “God’s big will.” We might agonize over decisions big or small to the point where we’re afraid to make a move at all. Someone has called it our primary calling, I call it “God’s big will.” What is our primary calling in life? What is God’s big will for us? Love is the answer. This can be a challenging thing of course. We like to be in control. We like to be able to control decisions. Manage them. Make lists of pros and cons so that we might discern what’s best. Love may call for something completely different. Love makes things risky. It hurts sometimes. It makes us vulnerable. It is our highest calling. The third foundational belief is that we have the Holy Spirit in us to help us. Jesus promised in John 14:26 that he would send the Holy Spirit to remind us, to teach us. To guide us. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” We don’t do any of this on our own. A couple of weeks ago we heard this – “Jesus came to us to become as we are, and left us to allow us to become as he is. By giving us the Spirit, his breath…”
You have the breath of God in you. To remind, to teach, to nudge. We could never purport to know God’s will for our lives without recognizing and responding to the presence of God in us. I said that this practice informs our decision making. This is not something that we’re going to be able to take part in together now, and quite rightly because discernment as I said is really more about a whole of life orientation toward God. There are steps that can be taken, however.
The first is the prayer for indifference. Often we think of indifference as a bad thing but here we’re talking about indifference to our own wills out of deference to the will of God who loves us, whose big will is love, and whose Spirit lives in us. It’s asking God to help us put aside the desire for our own ego-gratification or comfort or looking good in front of others of the things of self which can drive us. It’s to pray “Your will be done” and mean it. Secondly, it is to notice as we go through our days which things bring us closer to Christ and which things drive us away from Christ. The most important movement of our lives is toward Christ or away from Christ. Continue in those things that bring us closer to God. Things that are life-giving. HN has said “When you get exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, or run down, your body is saying that you are doing things that are none of your business. God does not require of you what is beyond your ability, what leads you away from God, or what makes you depressed or sad. God wants you to live for others and to live that presence well.” Many of us may be missing things that are life-giving to us right now. I’m missing getting together with our friends from Horizons For Youth on a Thursday for volleyball and sitting around a table for dinner. What might I do in the meantime when I’m too much alone in my office?
Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. We listen for God speaking to us in God’s word about a decision. We ask ourselves if what we’re feeling led to decide is in line with the life and love of Christ and God’s bringing all things to himself in Christ. We ask what the decision means in terms of the Kingdom of God. We speak with a trusted friend/spiritual advisor.
Desiring to know and do God’s will is an all of life orientation, and it involves risks. In her book, RHB puts it like this: “Discernment is risky and there are no guarantees, we can never be absolutely sure we have discerned everything correctly. We are, after all, limited and fallen. But what we can know for sure is that God is with us, that the desire to please God does, in fact, please him, and that he will never leave us, or forsake us. This is the most important thing we need to know.”
We continue to step out into the unknown as individuals and as a church. I’m thankful for having had these five weeks together to look at ways in which we might leave ourselves open to the Spirit of God changing us, in the love of God and the grace of Christ. As we continue to travel along into unknown paths and new paths. Thomas Merton was an American Trappist monk of the last century. This is his prayer. May it be our prayer. Let’s pray:
'My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself. And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in everything I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire and I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”