Discernment is a significant challenge for many folks and this is an important part of learning to walk in the Spirit and to walk by faith. Discernment is the process of determining an action to be taken or not taken, a choice to be made or a direction to head when the way is not necessarily clear. For our general purpose, we have two fairly common strategies. While the goal of discernment is the same in each strategy, they take to polar opposite approaches.
The first is the idea that we don’t do anything until God expressly tells us to, and the second is to barge ahead with what we think we want to do and hope it is the will of God. Both positions have aspects of health and truth, but like most things in life, it’s not so black and white.
Doing nothing until God says so
Many people are convinced that we are not to do a thing unless specifically led to do so by God. I know people who grocery shop, decide what to wear and what they are going to do that day only if they feel God expressly tells them to. If Jesus doesn’t expressly tell them so... they simply don’t do anything. I appreciate the heart of this because it is really a desire for intimacy with God. The desire to be so surrendered that they do nothing unless the Father expressly tells them to do so. After all, isn’t that what Jesus did? Well, perhaps not exactly. Sometimes this bit of scripture can be taken in a way it was not intended. While it is absolutely true that Jesus did only what He saw the Father saying and doing, it wasn’t as if Jesus had to be told specifically everything He was to do. As we grow and mature in our relationship with God we learn what God likes and doesn’t like. We know He doesn’t like it when we steal but we do not need to be told not to steal over and over. In the Kingdom, we are called to be people of love and therefore we walk in such a way that is loving - so don’t steal, don’t lie, cheat, covet, etc. So we are free to walk in the freedom of love and allow love to direct our coming and going.
One of the major downfalls of this position is the tendency to paralysis. We find ourselves in a paradigm where we are so afraid to do anything for fear of dishonoring God, not being spiritually fruitful, failing or just plain old fear of stepping out and taking responsibility for our choices that we can literally get locked up! This is not freedom in Christ. The challenge is through these super-spiritual eyes we often miss the small, unseemingly spiritual things which are immediately in front of us to do because we can only see what to do in very narrow, hyper-spiritual way we think God communicates with us.
The reality is, in a healthy relationship we need to be growing and maturing. When my son was one year old, I had to get his clothes out for him and help him get dressed. Now that he is six, he doesn’t need that kind of input from me. Why? Because he has matured, learned what getting dressed is and how to dress. He doesn’t sit around waiting for Dad to come to dress him anymore! So it is with the Father, in relationship He teaches us what He likes, what Kingdom life is like. To this end, we no longer have to be told to do certain things because we have learned certain values and actions which are consistent with Kingdom.
We ought at all times to wait for the enlightenment that comes from above before we speak; for there is nothing so destitute as a soul philosophizing about God when it is without Him. - Hesychios, the Priest
Full Steam Ahead
There are those who firmly believe that God can’t steer a docked ship, so they put their sails up and head off into the wind hoping that God is at the helm but never entirely sure, or even worse, naively believing there is no doubt at all! In this vein, we hang tight to the idea that ‘God orders the steps of the righteous’ and we plow ahead with our plans and hope the Lord blesses them. This position can be equally as hazardous as we can find ourselves being blown about by the waves of whatever takes our fancy and feel pious about it with our Jesus veneer. People have used such wisdom to make important decisions hoping that God will simply rubber stamp their choice - with buying decisions, employment, spouses and so forth.
The challenge here is pretty obvious and can be spiritualized as well. While there are some situations where this may be the best course of action, this too may a reaction to fear. A subtle but driving fear that God can’t be trusted in a situation or is not acting in a way that we recognize or approve of. This leads us to take the reigns and drive on in our own strength and understanding. It may also be an indication that we are uncomfortable with silence, waiting and may be out of balance in rhythm with timing. Sometimes the most faithful inspired action is no action at all.
Faith is the divine evidence whereby the spiritual man discerneth God, and the things of God. - John Wesley
Living in either of these two ditches exclusively can be very treacherous and very shallow. More to the point, discernment is often living creatively between these two ditches, understanding that some situations may require a stance influenced a little more by one pole than the other.
Some situations are no-brainers. If a friend of ours (who we are in community with) has a need and we have the means in which to meet that need, the decision is obvious - you meet the need for your friend. But what if this is the 7th time you have had to meet this need for your friend and your friend seems unwilling to address this need in their own life? Then what? In relationship, it may become apparent that the loving thing may be not to meet the need. It may be that God is asking you and a few other friends to have a discussion with them about the need and ways to help them address that need in a healthy sustainable way. This requires more of a specific leading.
Consider Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. This is the story about Jesus visiting two sisters. While He was there a conflict arose between the two sisters. Martha was annoyed that she was busy preparing the meal and doing the work of hospitality and her sister, Mary, just sat at Jesus' feet and didn't help. I think the tendency isolate this piece of scripture and say we all need to be like Mary - period. While Jesus commended Mary for sitting at His feet, he did not condemn Martha for her activity. For Mary, in that situation, it was the best thing. It is an unhealthy dualism to suggest that being and doing are opposed to one another. There are many instances throughout scripture where deliberate action is encouraged - consider Matthew 25:31-45 - it is full of the call to action, as just one example. The reality is both are healthy and acceptable as a part of being a whole person living out healthy faith and we need to learn to live creatively between them.
Understanding that there are times in life where we keep on walking, knowing that certain things are healthy and loving to do and at the same time understanding that other things require that we ask questions of the Lord and wait on Him for an answer. Doing life in a healthy way will see us living creatively in the tension between the two ditches without being mystically paralyzed or blindly brash. This is learning to walk in the Spirit and by faith.
- Realize life is life. That life is lived and not simply paused put on auto-pilot or processed for one-size fits all.
- Evaluate the situation - is it a no-brainer? Then act. Mature followers of Jesus understand the values of the Kingdom of God and don't need to be micromanaged.
- Not so obvious? Take it to the Lord prayerfully using divine love as the plumb-line for discerning. Wait on God and be comfortable that in the end, it is really faith that we step out in.
- Remember child-like faith is what is required. Not to be confused with childishness.
- Be careful not to hide from real life and responsibility behind false piety.
- Ensure you are not barging through life with your own agenda simply asking God to bless your plans. Or as a result of not trusting God to lead you, even when that may seem like being still.
- No matter how you slice it, faith is spelled R-I-S-K.