Prepared by Colette Williams
One of the things that most challenges Christians is the question of discernment, of knowing God’s will for us in a particular situation so we can do it. Jesus exemplified this attitude in his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done…” In the Garden of Gethsemane, when faced with a life and death struggle, he embodied this principle in his prayer, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”[i] Consider what we would have lost if Jesus had not prayed that prayer.
For church groups and for individuals, this discernment takes place within a faith relationship. We have a close and growing relationship with God first, and within that context we are able to receive direction and guidance. That discernment in turn gives us faith and courage to act on what we have received.
Jesus is the head of the Church, and we are the body.[ii] As such, we can only be the body if we are doing what the head tells us. Try describing a clockwise circle in the air with your right foot, then draw a figure 6 in the air with your right hand at the same time. The head will not allow it! Likewise, if as the body of Christ we try to do our own thing without consulting our Head, the result will be chaos rather than harmony.
God wants us to know his will so that we are not dithering around in confused circles, but moving strongly forward in the power of the Spirit, confident that we are doing his will. And he has promised that, if this is what we sincerely seek, he will give it to us.[iii]
The Bible has many examples of how God has made his will known to his people.
In the exciting story of the Exodus, God directed the Israelites by appearing to them as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night.[iv] Oh that God’s direction could be as plain for us! And yet, in dealing with the Israelites he was interacting with a people who had been out of touch with God for 400 years. They still had their L-plates, and were learning from scratch how to relate to God and how to act as his people. A more directive approach was required.
For us who are people of the Spirit, a more subtle approach can be used. However, there is no single method that guarantees how the Spirit will be discerned, because the Holy Spirit cannot be restricted to a formula. As often seems the case with God, it would appear that the journey to discernment is as important as the destination. And the journey always involves a close relationship with God, actively seeking and listening.
The book of Acts illustrates a variety of ways used by the early church to gain direction from God.
When the disciples were looking for a replacement for Judas they cast lots,[v] but this apparently arbitrary act was preceded by communal prayer (v.14) and a sincere desire to know the mind of God (v.24).
Later, when a practical matter of food distribution was raised,[vi] the disciples gathered the people together, stated the issue, and sought a solution in line with their vision of what it meant to be God’s people. Even in this simple domestic matter there was no distinction between the mundane and the spiritual (v.24).
Acts 13[vii] paints a different scenario. The believers were not seeking guidance on a particular matter, but were worshipping the Lord and fasting. Because they had put themselves in a position where they could hear from God, he directed them in a certain way at his initiative, not theirs.
On another occasion[viii] a meeting is called, the issue is addressed, scripture read, and those wonderful words uttered, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (v.28) In yet another instance God spoke to Paul through a dream or vision.[ix]
God spoke to the early church in a variety of ways, some supernatural and some ‘normal’, reinforcing that the Holy Spirit would not be confined to a particular method. However, in all these situations the believers expected God to speak to them and were open to hearing from him. Their hearts were true and their motives pure, and God honoured that. And so it is for us.
Learning to discern is a spiritual discipline that will not be acquired overnight.
We need to spend much time in prayer and study of scripture, so that we are familiar with the ways in which God acts and the things he cares about. This will also help us to recognise the still, small voice of the Spirit[x], and to distinguish between other voices that can influence us, e.g. our egos, the ways of the world, evil, or even good intentions. We need to study diligently and with a teachable spirit, sincerely looking for truth and not just support for our own position. Discernment for groups and for individual Christians needs to become a lifestyle, not something we ‘put on’ before a meeting or a crisis situation.
One of the keys to discernment is surrender, yielding our will to God’s will and setting aside our personal agendas. This is an on-going struggle for the Christian, and one we can never say we’ve mastered. The Quakers, who spend a lot of time in silence listening to God, actually have a policy that those people who already have an opinion on the subject for which they are seeking guidance, should exclude themselves from the process. Many people think that listening to God is fine as long as God agrees with what they think!
Sometimes people claim to have had a word from the Lord, but their saying so doesn’t make it so. We are told to “test the spirits” and to beware of false prophets.[xi]
But how do we test to see whether something is from God?
Our best tool is of course the Bible. Most of the situations where we are looking for direction are not covered specifically by scripture, but there are solid principles there to guide us. If something is contrary to scripture or to what we understand of the nature of God, we will not go ahead with it. The voice of the Spirit will never be in conflict with the Bible, as the Bible was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.[xii] God’s motives and priorities are the same now as then.[xiii] So the word of God remains our most objective and reliable reference in these matters.
Other methods of receiving guidance include spiritual gifts operating in the lives of people whose Christian maturity we know and trust, especially gifts such as prophecy, wisdom and knowledge.[xiv] Our conscience can be a guide, although consciences can be conditioned by external influences, and are not infallible. Common sense and human reason can also play a part. Circumstances sometimes suggest a course of action. And of course, prayer.
It must be said that hearing directly from God trumps common sense, and almost everything else except scripture. It made no sense for Gideon to reduce his fighting men from 32,000 down to just 300, but this is what he did at God’s command, and won a great victory.[xv] Likewise at the Battle of Jericho,[xvi] common sense yielded to God’s instructions. God’s ways are not our ways.[xvii]
If, having discerned a way forward that we think is from God, there is a check list of points which taken individually may not mean a lot. However, where several of these are in place we can have confidence that we are on the right track.
Does this idea centre on Jesus? Does it build up and equip the Church, or someone else? Is there a passion or enthusiasm for it? Do trusted Christian friends agree? Does it fit my gifts and talents? Has there been a chance encounter with just the right person? Has there been a thought or conviction that keeps growing? Has there been something from the Bible or a conversation that keeps coming to mind? Has an opportunity suddenly opened up? Has there been that light bulb moment when we say, “Of course!” and it just feels right. Is it motivated by love? Is there a sense of peace?
Having tested this as far as we are able and coming to a decision we believe is from God, we can still encounter opposition. In fact, there will very likely be a counter-attack from the Enemy, using people who are operating from a secular model or from their own agendas.
If there are no leadings from the Spirit, perhaps God doesn’t want us to make this particular decision at this time. If the leadings are confused or conflicted, we need to spend more time in prayer, perhaps with fasting.
The decision-making bodies of the Church have a special responsibility to listen for God.
The Church’s life is not decided by democratic process, or by people who speak the loudest or most forcefully. There is no place for party interests, personality clashes or power blocks. Church meetings are not based on a parliamentary model, or on business, government, service clubs or other secular agencies. We are unique. We are the Body of Christ, being led by our Head, Jesus.
This requires a commitment to seeking God’s will versus our own, to hearing and respecting others, being open and not defensive, and doing it all in an attitude of humility. Genuine and mature prayer is required here. Individual prayer before the meeting, intentional group prayer when all are gathered, asking for the guidance of the Spirit, extra time for prayer before making key decisions, and stopping for more prayer if there are conflicts, or if the meeting has reached an impasse. Saturation prayer indeed!
May we always be a people of God who take the time and discipline to listen and recognise his voice, and obey it.
[i] Matthew 26:39
[ii] Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:22,23, 1 Cor. 12:27
[iii] Jeremiah 29:12,13, Romans 12:2
[iv] Exodus 13:21
[v] Acts 1:23-26
[vi] Acts 6:1-6
[vii] Acts 13:1-3
[viii] Acts 15:5-20
[ix] Acts 16:6-10
[x] John 10:4,14
[xi] 1 John 4:1, 1 Thess.5:19-22, Jeremiah 29:8,9
[xii] 2 Timothy 3:16,17
[xiii] Malachi 3:6a, Hebrews 13:8
[xiv] 1 Corinthians 12:11
[xv] Judges 7:1-7
[xvi] Joshua 6:1-5
[xvii] Isaiah 55:8,9