People of Discernment

We all make hundreds of decisions every day – when we’re going to get out of bed, what we’re going to wear, what route we’ll take to the office – and most of the time those decisions are easy to make and don’t demand much thought on our part. There are also those times in our lives when we’re faced with choices that require us to make a decision that will have much more impact on the direction of our lives. Much more energy and thought needs to go into the making of those decisions and for Christ-followers, this is where discernment is an integral part of the process. We do want to know that our decisions resonate with God’s will for our lives and that requires us to be people of discernment.

A number of years ago I was wrestling with some choices, struggling to make a decision and in essence, getting nowhere. I shared this with my network and discovered that I was not alone. It was during this time of discussion that Bob Lay recommended a book that he had read, put into practice himself, and found to be helpful. I accepted that recommendation, put it into effect in my own life and agreed with Bob. The book is “Listening to God in Times of Choice: The Art of Discerning God’s Will” by Gordon T. Smith. While I don’t fully agree with every point Smith makes, the general principles and ‘how-to’s’ are helpful.

Smith describes discernment as the ability to distinguish the voice of God from the noise of the world and the lies of the evil one. When we do this, we’re able to make decisions based on God’s best for us, given our current situations. There are no short-cuts in this process, though. Smith states that discernment is learned by doing and that one’s capacity to discern increases with practice. So often we’re tempted to go to another person (someone with skin on) for our answers rather than God. It’s easier. Yet that won’t help us learn to know our Father’s voice.

We can be people who practice discernment – that is, we treat it like a resource guide on the shelf that we pull down for reference when we’re faced with making a critical decision- or we can be discerning people. Smith presents some qualities and components that he believes are present in mature, discerning people, that I’ll briefly share here:

a. Prayer and Spiritual Receptivity: Discerning people foster a deep relationship with God through listening prayer – that is, prayer that is both speaking to God and pausing to pay attention to the still small voice of God, who speaks through the inner witness of the Spirit. These people have done something about their inner longing for God and have developed a lifestyle of spiritual response.

b. Emotional Self-Understanding: Discerning people recognize and understand their own emotional states. They get in touch with their emotions, being honest with themselves and God, so that they are not blinded nor controlled by their emotions.

c. Humility and Self-Knowledge: Discerning people know that humility is the only posture from which we can hear God, because we are easily self-deceived. They have an honest assessment of their strengths, talents and abilities as well as their limitations. This self-knowledge also includes self-acceptance.

d. Self-Knowledge and Culture: Another element of self-knowledge that discerning people possess is learning to recognize how they have been shaped by their culture. We are shaped by societal values, expectations and norms.

e. Conscious of the Strategies of the Evil One: Discerning people, who know the voice of the Spirit, are also alert to other voices and are aware of how the father of lies tends to work in their minds.

f. Structures of Accountability: Effective discerners live within structures of accountability and authority, in Christian community. While we are all ultimately responsible for the decisions that we ourselves make, we do not need to be alone in the process of coming to that decision.

g. Routine and Order: Discerning people seek and find an order in their daily lives, where there is a rhythm of prayer, service, work and rest. They can find the peace necessary for discernment.

I’ve thought about these components again and how they essentially describe people who are growing in maturity and wisdom. The points serve as a check-list for some self-reflection – do I have a rhythm of order in my life? Am I working on my own emotional health? How well am I doing at ‘listening prayer’? They are good questions for all of us to ponder and then, should there be need for growth, get to work on. If we allow God to prioritize for us, I believe we’ll discover the order unfolds one step at a time.

As leaders, we need to model what a discerning person sounds like and acts like. To be a discerning church or people, we must first be discerning individuals. In terms of leadership development, some instruction along with effective modeling is needed. Smith offers good suggestions and he’s one of many that do. For those of us who serve in roles where we have the opportunity to speak into people’s lives, we need to take full advantage of what is available so that we truly are discerning people. I realize that this can cover just about everyone but I’m thinking of those who serve as pastors, who serve on official boards, pastor’s cabinets and personnel committees as well as those who help guide those tracking for credentialed ministry through the process. This includes those on the Ministerial, Education, Guidance and Placement committees as well as those who serve on local discernment teams for the churches involved with the leadership development plan.

If we long to be in the centre of God’s will, we need to be a people of discernment. I know what some of the growth areas in my spiritual growth are for this year. How about you?

Rev. Kim Henderson is the Director of Personnel for The Free Methodist Church in Canada