Discernment – The act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment.
– The Free Online Dictionary
We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
– Paul of Tarsus, 1 Corinthians 2:12 [niv]
Test everything. Hold on to the good.
– Paul of Tarsus, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 [niv]
Judgment is an ambiguous word, in Greek as in English: it may mean sitting in judgment on people (or even condemning them), or it may mean exercising a proper discrimination. In the former sense judgment is depreciated; in the latter sense it is recommended.
– F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus
What do you do when you have an important decision to make and you want to move forward with confidence that you are in God’s will? How do you test if your “bright idea” or vision is from God? How do Christians bear one another’s burdens, speaking the truth in love? For background reading, consider 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Ephesians 4:11-24, and Hebrews 10:24-25.
As Quakers, we believe that Christ is the head of his church and arrange our practice around this present-day reality. We believe he has come to teach his people himself. However, rather than conceiving of this as strictly a matter between Jesus and each individual Christian, Quakers have for centuries valued the discernment of the community of believers gathered in Christ’s presence. After all, if Christ is the head of the church, is the church not his physical presence with us?
Friends have made use of a structure traditionally known as a clearness committee. This essay is not intended to be an overview of Quaker traditions, but it may be helpful to point out that this discernment process owes much to this tradition. Of course there are other precedents, not least of which might be the council at Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. There are other means by which God offers his guidance. This is one that has proven useful to many of his people in our experience.
Preparing… For those seeking discernment
Discuss your thinking ahead of time with others. Don’t feel as if you need to keep your thinking to yourself. Communicating and discussing ahead of time is good so long as it respects that fact that you are gathering a group to offer you their discernment in the end. So communicate and explain and think out loud. Establish a context with the people who will be helping with your discernment. But if you’ve already decided, then don’t gather a group that is unaware of where you are in the process. Keep an open mind.
Here are some questions that you might consider in preparing to share your idea or question with others who gather with you for corporate discernment.
- Where are you in the process of defining your project or goal?
- What prayer is being focused on your project or goal? Your own? Others?
- What key scripture is guiding your thinking?
- How are those closest to you in the Lord involved and responding?
- What counsel from trusted, mature Christians have you sought and heard?
- Is there more information that should be gathered?
- How would you describe the orientation of your project or goal along to
the following “dimensions”:
- connect – grow – serve
- personal or corporate
- discipleship or leadership
- church or community
- Practically speaking, are you ready for the discernment process? Who should be invited to participate in this discernment process? What is the schedule you have in mind for making a decision? Have you allowed the time needed to extend invitations and explain to others and allow them to pray?
- Do others experienced in this process think you are ready?
Remember that you are presenting an idea, a vision, or a question. You do not need to have a detailed plan of action worked out. Those asking questions and giving feedback can ask about practical issues, but should not expect that a detailed plan is already in hand.
There is much about the Christian life that is assumed in this process. Some of the sections of this essay – those at the end – are intended to help in shedding some light on the context that is necessary for a process such as this to work.
Preparing… For those serving in a meeting for discernment
Your role is simple, really. Listen. Learn what you can in advance from the person who wants discernment, but don’t fret too much if you still have questions. Begin ahead of the meeting to pray for God’s blessing on this person. Ask for clarity in His will, ways, and purpose for them. Offer yourself to God to be used in this process in any way that He chooses.
There is one caution. Hold your role in this process with “an open hand”. Your opinion is not what is important. It is your role in gathering with other believers to seek Jesus’ guidance that is important. It is your support for his direction in the life of the one who is seeking discernment that is important.
During the meeting, as the time for prayer approaches, allow the words read from scripture to focus your mind. They have been chosen by the one seeking discernment as somehow representing this occasion. Let other concerns drop from consciousness and clear your mind to be filled by the Spirit of God. As the prayer time begins, offer yourself to God to serve him and your brother or sister who is seeking discernment. Then listen quietly, trusting that He is present to guide. Speak up during the prayer time only if God moves you to speak.
During the feedback time of the meeting after prayer, humbly report what you have received from him. Present it just as he gave it to you – no amplification, no commentary, no extra thoughts or opinions. Just report. Sometimes you might see a picture. Or certain words in scripture may come to seem important. Contribute what God gives you. That’s all you need to do.
After the meeting, keep listening, praying, communicating, and encouraging in the Lord. The group might meet again, but usually once is enough.
Here is an outline of a discernment process meeting. Plan for one cycle of this process to take about one hour. There’s nothing critical about the one-hour time period or how it is broken up below. This is a suggested pattern for when a schedule of one hour is appropriate. For important decisions where time permits, longer in prayer is better. More clarification time could also be useful, but not at the expense of the time in prayer. Appoint a host who can humbly lead the group through the meeting.
- The host briefly explains the process, if necessary. (1-2 minutes)
- The person asking for discernment presents a vision or idea with a key scripture. (10 minutes)
- The group asks clarifying questions. (5-10 minutes)
- Someone from the group (a different voice) reads the scripture passage again.
- Pray for discernment, asking for God to give discernment and clarity. Generally this is silent, waiting prayer time, but one or more may speak as led. Often no one will speak. (15-20 minutes)
- The group gives feedback and discusses impressions. (10-15 minutes)
- Close in prayer, the group praying aloud to bless the person seeking discernment. If culturally appropriate, gathering around the person seeking discernment with your hands on them can be powerful.(5 minutes)
There is usually much to talk about after such a meeting. Some, usually those closest to the one seeking discernment with recognized spiritual authority will take more of the lead in following up. The one who is seeking discernment should, of course, remain in contact and communicate their thankfulness to the community that has supported them.
Questions to ask yourself when seeking discernment
Consider the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. The life you have is what God has already given you. How have you invested it? Why would God invest more in you if you have not done well with what he has already given? So, when asking for direction or discernment for the future, one must consider the present. Make good with what you’ve already been given before expecting more. Here are some questions based on a set I once wrote for myself as a sort of ongoing spiritual self-evaluation. I’ve incorporated suggestions to improve them. You may find them helpful. Of course, they are intended for one who is trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior already.
- Do you have credibility with the poor?
- Do you study and understand scripture?
- Do you pray?
- Do you see God working around you?
- Are you dealing with conflict and unfair criticism or accusations well?
- How do you react to gossip? Do you gossip?
- Are you bearing spiritual fruit?
- Are your relationships good (as it depends on you)? Do they honor God?
- How do friends and co-workers regard you?
- Do you speak the truth in love?
- Do you have mature Christians who know you well supporting you in your decisions?
- Are you tithing?
- Are you serving God where you are in all you do?
- Do you confess your sin appropriately?
- Do you pursue excellence in what you do?
- Do you control your emotions or do they control you?
- Are you consistently winning the battle against temptation?
- To what extent are fear, ambition, greed, lust, vanity, guilt, shame – and the like – affecting my present decisions?
It is rare to be unable to find areas in which I fall short. (Actually, it has never happened.) However, there is a difference between falling short and harboring sin. Harboring sin is when I know that something is wrong; but I choose to go ahead with it anyway, giving it place in my life. The sin grows stronger as I allow it to remain intact and do not war against it. This is a sure way to spiritual death. Consider the warning of Paul in Galatians 6:7-10! There is no way to be sure of God’s will for the future when one is harboring sin in the present.
Personal Steps to Knowing God
Every Christian is called to live a life following Jesus’ teaching. (Think Sermon on the Mount. None of us have that down yet!) Every Christian is called to use whatever gifts and talents they have to serve God, serve the body of believers, and serve the poor. (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Peter 4:10, 1 Corinthians 12:7, Matthew 25:31-46) These two areas of God’s will for us are clear. There’s no need to ask, though there may be more we need to learn. It is easy to fall into the pride of asking for God’s special will for me and my life when what I really need to do is practice obedience in what I already know!
In that same vein, here’s another list I made for a sermon some years ago.
- Offer your life to God. Be available. Anything – anywhere – anytime; nothing is held back! Romans 12:1-2
- Do what you know to be God’s will where you are now: job, school, family, friends, church.
- Renew your mind with the scriptures. Learn God’s ways and purpose.
- Practice spiritual disciplines.
- Prefer a low place. Prefer the poor. Serve.
- Purify your heart. Get rid of sin.
- Seek God’s will with other Christians. Worship. Fast. Pray. Ask.
- Put yourself where you can hear God. Give time to listening, and stretch yourself in circumstances.
- Be strong and courageous.
- Be patient. Don’t hurry. Wait for clarity. Go when you know. Moses spent 40 years as a kid, 40 years in the desert, and then led Israel for 40 years. Jesus spent 30 years living a private life and a bit over 3 years in public ministry. Most of life (some would say all) is preparation.
For Further Reading
The two resources that I am recommending are not specifically about this process. They are, rather, about the larger context of hearing and experiencing God. You will be able to see where a process such as this one fits into the larger picture as you consider them.
I highly recommend the book Hearing God by Dallas Willard. This is the best overall consideration of this topic that I know of.
In addition, a practical approach to this question can be found in Experiencing God, a 13-week workbook put together by Henry Blackaby, Richard Blackaby, and Claude King. I’ve worked through this workbook more than once. Friends from diverse walks of life such as college presidents and professors to high-school drop-outs have found it very helpful. I don’t know of any other extra-biblical resource with that kind of track record! (FYI, it’s cheaper at Lifeway Stores than at Amazon.)
On the importance of love for proper discernment, consider Philippians 1:9-10.
Love leads to obedience leads to knowing God… John 14:15-31.
Remaining in Christ and loving one another… John 15:1-17.
The Spirit makes things known… John 16:12-16.