From Listening to the Music of the Spirit
Discernment means making choices within the context of a living relationship and continuing dialogue with God. We carry about with us our own personal images of God. They too, like the values by which we live, are the product of personal experience, education, the traditions of society, culture, and church, and so on. These images, however, are not necessarily conscious. We may not be aware with our conscious minds of who God is for us and what kind of God we relate to in practice. Nonetheless, such pictures of God, hidden though they may be for much of the time, have a powerful effect on our lives. They indicate, for example, what we really think of God. They also influence how we respond to God in prayer and in life, and how we deal with other people. Just as our spontaneous dealings with others reveal our often unconscious attitudes and feelings toward them, so our words and actions – and prayer in particular – also reveal our fundamental attitudes and feelings toward God.
Turning again to discernment, it is important to recognize that our images of God, whether we are aware of them or not, are part of the framework within which we make our choices and that they do in fact have a powerful influence on those choices. Discernment means allowing our ideas about who and what God is to have a hand in shaping our decisions and, through them, our lives as a whole. These images, being part of the equipment with which we choose one option or another, can have either a positive or a negative influence on that process. Some of them in fact make fruitful discernment quite difficult.
Let us suppose, for example, that the dominant picture of God in my life is that of an all-powerful king who is for the most part remote, unpredictable, and arbitrary in the way that he uses his power. If my life is greatly under the influence of this God, any fruitful discernment will be extremely difficult. One of the basic conditions for discernment is trust in a God who is faithful to his covenant and his promises. But this particular way of thinking about God, which incidentally is by no means uncommon, inspires fear rather than trust. I cannot with any confidence entrust myself to a God whom I perceive as being both extremely powerful and wholly unpredictable.
Discernment ultimately does mean placing ourselves as unreservedly as possible in God’s hands, asking God to shape our lives through our decisions and thus allowing God to bring to fulfillment the creative work that God has already begun in us. For fruitful discernment, therefore, we need a God to whom we can entrust ourselves with confidence. Among the many Christian concepts of God that exist, those which portray God as a God of unfailing love, compassion, and forgiveness are the ones most likely to offer this secure foundation.
Discernment involves making choices within a setting of prayer, of a continuing dialogue with God. It is fruitful when it is based on a right understanding of God and of ourselves in relation to God. Prayer and contemplation make us aware of who God is and who we truly are. In the presence of God we become aware of both the glory and the fragility of our condition as God’s creatures. Our greatness and glory stem from the fact that we are God’s children, sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ, created, chosen, and made holy by God. At the same time we are conscious of being fragile and needy, and we both long for and rejoice in a God who accepts with compassion our fragility and appreciates our neediness. The Christian images of a God of unfailing, unconditional love fulfill our need for a God whom, in worshiping, we can also trust.
God incarnate in Jesus Christ approaches us as one who accepts our creatureliness, our fragility; more than that, as a God who is unreservedly committed to us, who stands alongside us in the glory and the fragility of our humanity, and thus anticipates and satisfies our need for a God of compassion. Through contemplation, moreover, we become increasingly sensitive to the presence of sin, injustice, lack of love, both in ourselves and in the world around us. We recognize that we need to be in contact with a God who readily forgives, from whom liberation and salvation come as sheer undeserved gifts. Thus the image of God who is revealed to us in the scriptures and most especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus offers a trustworthy foundation and framework for fruitful discernment.
Discernment also presupposes that this God whose love is unfailing is also continuously present and active in the world. We sometimes make the mistake of assuming, however, that this presence of God is to be found only in people, events, places, times, or symbols that are explicitly and unambiguously sacred or religious in a conventional sense; that God is present only, for example, in saintly people, in sacraments and worship, in symbols with an unambiguously religious content, in churches and shrines, or in times of prayer and felt closeness to God. Sometimes, too, we limit this presence of God to things such as these which are specifically Christian. If discernment, however, means tuning in to the action of God in the world and allowing God to shape us, then we have to have a broader vision.
We have to be aware that always and everywhere, in adversity no less than in prosperity, God is creatively at work in the world to establish the reign of God, which embraces the whole world and all it contains. Discernment has to do with recognizing in the world as we experience it, on the one hand, the presence and action of God and, on the other hand, those forces and structures, in ourselves and in the world at large, which are opposed to God and which tend to destroy the reign of God.
Christian discernment also takes place within the setting of an awareness that we are the recipients of a gracious invitation from God. God’s desire is to establish the reign or kingdom of God for the well-being of the whole world. For this purpose God invites us into partnership with God and with one another. Each of us in our own way is invited to play a part in witnessing to the good news of the reign of God and taking part in the struggle to make God’s reign a living reality.
This invitation, therefore, is also part of the contest within which we practice discernment. We shape our lives by the large or small choices that we make in response to it. The Christian art of discernment allows us to look at the options that lie open to us within our own circumstances and to distinguish between those choices which express acceptance of God’s invitation and those which run counter to it. In all of this, moreover, God is not simply an ultimate goal, a destination we hope to reach at the end of a long lonely road. God is rather the home from which we start, the source of all life and strength, and our constant companion on the journey.
In Christian discernment, however, it is important to keep in view another fact about God which scripture and our experience repeatedly confirm: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.” Try as we may, we cannot control God. God has a way of always being ahead of us, and of turning our ordinary thoughts, ideas, plans, and values upside-down. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” This is the God of surprises and the story of God’s dealings with us is a tale of the unexpected. If we allow God to stay close to us, God invites us constantly to open our minds and hearts more, to revise our values and our ideas about how things should be, to risk feeling insecure. God consistently takes us beyond what we thought was safe and established to something new, different, and greater.
In our practice of discernment it is vital that we keep in mind this quality of God’s dealings with us. The impulse behind discernment is the desire to respond in love and trust to God’s love. But God’s wisdom sometimes looks like folly, and true discernment means being ready to be led beyond ordinary prudence and common sense into the unexpected, the unconventional God’s foolish wisdom.