Some Christians follow the Plan. We learn that we can lead. We have a desire to help people. So we become pastors and develop five-year plans based on reasonable options and clear procedures. Congregations follow the Plan as well, applying formulas for developing mission statements and flow charts. Following the Plan gives us a sense of accomplishment, but at times it feels a bit shallow. We ask, is there something deeper?
Others of us follow the Call. The event happens. We have a dream, or a passage of Scripture confronts us. The Call happens with power, with certainty. So we apply to seminary whether we are good at leadership or not. Or a congregation pursues a course of outreach whether it has the resources or not. Is this okay? Some of us have seen people blindly respond to the Call with disastrous results. Following the Call does give us a sense of God’s presence but at times we wonder if there might not be a more reasonable course.
Beneath the Plan and beyond the call there is a third way. The Christian tradition calls this third way discernment. Discernment combines elements of call and planning in the context of a sincere pursuit of relationship with God. Discernment is, as E. Liebert writes in The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (Westminster John Knox, 2008), “the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness” (8). As a process of becoming aware of God, discernment involves a necessary theological component. As a process of becoming aware, discernment involves ordinary human knowing. As a process of faithful response, discernment involves choice, plan, and action.
Christian discernment means cooperating with a God who is actively present in this world. Discernment is following the Trinity into a mission of restoration: an invitation by the Father into care for the earth and a holy peoplehood, an invitation by the Son into wholehearted love for God and neighbor, an invitation by the Spirit into transformative agency of the reign of God. Discernment lives at the intersection of these theological realities with the concrete circumstances of our own lives. Thus we ask: Where has our relationship with God led us with regard to each of these Trinitarian invitations?
God is especially present to Christians through the Spirit of the living Christ. Consequently, discernment involves learning to listen to the Spirit. The Holy Spirit enlightens our minds, opens our hearts, and shapes our relationships. As we pay attention to our experience, we can recognize conviction, outpouring, leading, prompting, and other movements of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit does call us, but this Call is not always perceived with certainty and is sometimes confirmed only through community and maturity. As we develop a life of attention to the mission and Spirit of God, we grow into a life of harmonious participation in the will of God.
Discernment is a coming to awareness. More specifically, it is an act of knowing the condition of our relationship with God. And as I am sure you know, the nuances of a relationship are not learned so much by accurate procedures as by sensitive people. How do you know the “will” of a loved one? Often through the ordinary give and take of being together. Developing virtues like trust, obedience, listening, humility, and wisdom is actually more important in the long run than trying to reproduce highly recommended “steps” of discernment. This is true not only for individuals, but for congregations as well. If we can foster a communal culture of prayerful trust, obedience, and listening, then when we face the tough questions of discernment with relationships to staff, buildings, and mission, we will be in a better position to find and follow the will of God.
At the same time, coming to know also requires the simple acts of clarifying questions and gathering information. What do we mean when we say we are interested in helping the homeless? Referrals to shelters? Building a small tent city in the vacant lot owned by the congregation? Advocating the repeal of anti-homeless laws in our local city? How much will my seminary cost? What new opportunities will likely flow from a seminary education as opposed to a certification in spiritual direction? These kinds of questions are naturally a part of ordinary knowing and they have a rightful place in Christian discernment.
What we usually find along the discerning way are impressions. Some of them feel more “supernatural”: a dream, an angelic visitation, a powerful sense of leading. Others are perceived as more “natural”: a conversation with a friend, a review of the history of our relationship with God. We examine these impressions to see if they reflect the character and mission of Jesus. Does the tone of this impression remind me of the character of Jesus? Do these impressions move me/us in an authentic way toward restoration?
Ultimately, as we collect and evaluate these impressions, we make a decision. Following the lead of Ignatius of Loyola’s “Times Suitable for the Making of an Election” in his Spiritual Exercises, I identify in my Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality ([Brazos, 2008], 394-95) three suitable times for decision making:
- Blasted: Sometimes the impressions are overwhelmingly clear. Although it is still wise to explore a wide range of wisdom to confirm our impression(s), when we are blasted, we simply recognize the obvious leading of God (though not the guarantee of “success”) and we press on.
- Led: Sometimes our impressions do not give absolutely clear guidance but rather simply sufficient reason to take the next step forward. Our community has prayed to the point that we are willing to explore developing temporary shelter for homeless, though we still must identify what that means. I decide that seminary is an appropriate response to the work of God in my life, but now I must explore the specifics.
- Ignored: Sometimes we wait and examine but find no clear step forward. It may feel like the Spirit of God is ignoring us. And yet, for one reason or another, we must decide. In times like these, I find it helpful to remember that God trusts us and gives us freedom to use our heart and mind. We plan for God’s glory to the best of our ability. Then we act, confident that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives.
The practice of discernment enables us to transcend the pitfalls of a mere Plan or Call. Discernment engages the whole person or community in an evaluation of our sincere relationship with God. Thus, by paying attention to God, to our knowing, and to our response, we learn to follow the path (or the range) of both God’s mission and our own authentic vocation.