A few years ago, my wife and I were packing up boxes and preparing to move to a new home. We were just about finished but we still had to pack up a few boxes of miscellaneous decorative pieces in our living room. We ended up getting into a bit of an argument because I tried to pack a small candle in the box when there were several other larger items that should have been packed first.
If you didn’t know, there’s an order to packing the box! You put in the larger items first, and then the smaller stuff can go around it. The bigger pieces need to go in first because they will take up more space – if we put smaller pieces in first then the bigger pieces may not end up in the box at all.
When it comes to discernment, we often treat our lives with God like I did with packing that box. We focus on getting the smaller things in first, when the larger more important pieces that Jesus has made extremely clear to us like discipleship formation, faithful mission, and vulnerable community get neglected or ignored.
Secondary questions become primary and our formation in Christ gets warped.
“Should I get married or stay single?”
“What kind of work should I do?”
“Where would be the best place for me to live?”
These are all important questions to discern through. These are significant things to seek God on and listen to his voice. But they are not the biggest pieces in the box.
We can easily get caught up in focusing our energy on hearing God about gray areas, rather than obeying him on the big things that Jesus is really clear on.
Another way to say it could be this:
When something is gray, we need discernment.
When something is clear, we need courage and faithfulness.
When I am confused and unsure what God is saying or leading me or my church into, I have to come back and stay rooted in what I know we have been called to. Growing in discernment necessitates living a courageous and faithful life as a disciple of Jesus.
Courage and faithfulness in the clear areas
Loving God & Neighbor
“This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets
hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:38-40
This is the most central calling of Jesus, but we lose sight of it so often. Are we being courageous and faithful to this primary command and teaching of Christ? Jesus thinks this is the most important aspect of our lives – are we growing in this, taking it seriously, asking ourselves consistently how we’re seeking to grow in our love of God and our love of others?
When I am prioritizing this as a central aspect of my life, I find that life seems to flow much better. What could it look like for you to take a step towards making loving God and loving people a central part of your life in this season?
This can take a lot of different forms, but it will require a sacrifice of time and a focus of energy. How are you focusing your energy to love God? How are you practically sacrificing to love people?
Seek First the Kingdom
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33
Jesus teaches his disciples not to focus on the periphery concerns of life, but to focus on seeking and setting their hearts on his kingdom.
The kingdom of God looks like: peacemaking, loving our enemies and blessing those who hurt us, truth-telling and transparency, fasting and prayer, generosity; the church is a light to the world, free of anxiety, full of humility, and has no judgment; it’s a kingdom of fruitful living, serving each other, the needs of the poor are met, and everything is built on the life of Jesus.
These are signs of the kingdom – that God’s presence and power are at work.
When the kingdom of God is a big piece in our box, then we can live integrated lives – we can be the same people at home, work, with our friends, neighbors, and new people we meet.
Are we being obedient to pursue this vision for our lives? Are we consistently seeking first God’s kingdom rather than our own?
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of
all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I
have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say here – “go and start a worship service” or “go and designate pastors who will do ministry” or “go and be really nice people.”
“Go and make disciples” – this is for everyone. Disciples of Jesus are called to make more disciples of Jesus. The Church exists to make disciples. That’s it. God’s Plan A for changing the world is the Church. There is no Plan B. And the way we do that is by making disciples of Jesus.
Who are you praying for consistently? Who are you being intentional to build relationships with and love where they are? Who are you teaching the way of Jesus to?
I have found that when I push hard after God and live faithfully in the areas that we know he has led us to, then other decisions seem to be clearer and more peaceful.
What Do We Do With the Gray Areas?
But there still are areas where we need help discerning and clarifying God’s will, decision’s that are not black and white. How do we work through these gray areas?
Here are five questions to work through in order to gain clarity on a gray area that is being discerned. This is a simple tool that you can use for discernment, it’s not magic by any means – it’s just a tool to help us listen to God from a few different angles.
Tools for Discernment
- What does the Bible say?
It is important that the issue being discerned lines up with what Scripture teaches and the overall narrative of the Bible.
If we know and look to how God has spoken to others in the past, then we will have a clearer idea of how the Spirit will lead us in the present.
As you read and study Scripture, how does God speak to you and the decision you are discerning?
- What does Jesus say as you pray?
In John 10, Jesus depicts himself as a good shepherd that leads his sheep by his voice. God speaks and interacts with us as we talk with him and listen.
As you pray and wait with God about the area you are discerning, write down any words, ideas, images that come to your mind and heart. Ask God to bring clarity about what is coming up as you pray.
As you surrender this decision to Jesus in prayer, what do you sense?
- What do your heart and emotions say?
Many times we discredit our emotions and deeper senses as being “unspiritual” but many Christian writers have found that our emotions can help us discern God’s work in our lives if we pay attention to them well.
When you think about this decision, what comes up in your gut, in your emotions? Do you feel joy and energy, anxiety and stress, fear and pain? Look beneath the surface of your life and ponder your emotional response with God.
The Prayer of Examen is a wonderful tool to help identify and discern our emotions. It revolves around 2 primary questions:
What brings you joy, excitement, and/or life in this decision?
What brings you fear, anxiety, and/or apprehension in this decision?
Sit with this silence prayer before God regularly as you discern, and note your internal responses to both questions.
- What does your story with God say?
God has been faithfully leading, teaching, and providing for you for many years and it is important to reflect back on the story that God has been leading you in.
What has God spoken and called you to in the past? Are there specific things that the Spirit has made clear to you in your life that are important for you to be anchored in?
How does this decision line up with the overall calling, direction, and story of God on your life?
- What does Christian community say?
There is a tremendous amount of wisdom, clarity, and encouragement when we seek counsel, wisdom, and clarification from our spiritual friends.
Spiritual friends will be able to see more clearly in some ways than you can and will offer perspective about who you are and what God may be leading you in.
Who could be a discernment companion for you in this decision? Who asks you difficult questions, prays with you, and walks with you consistently? Those people should be sought out in areas of discernment.
The more of these that are pointing together in the same direction should give us more confidence in what God’s desire is in the situation. But do not rely solely on one of these areas because it is easy to get a verse to justify what you want or to feel peaceful about something if you do not talk with others about it or to find counsel for something that we want to hear. We need clarity and direction in multiple areas.
These 5 tools for discernment were developed using “Discerning God’s Will: Five Lights on the Runway” given to me from J.R. Briggs and Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton.
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