Today’s lesson asks learners to consider how Samuel’s discernment of God’s call on him informs how we, in present day, discern God’s call. This is an important topic! How we hear, understand and interpret the voice of God will determine how we make choices big and small, treat our neighbors and bear witness to God. So, getting discernment right is critical. In 2014, the church went through a brief discernment exercise in order to hear God’s voice and know God’s longings for our church’s worship services. I wrote a discernment guide each class used. In advance of this Sunday’s lesson, I think it is important to take a look at an excerpt of that guide.
What is Discernment?
In its simplest form, spiritual discernment is the choosing between two perceived good options, through the leadership of God’s Holy Spirit. Discernment shifts the question, however, from what we personally want, wish, or think to God’s yearning or longing for our lives within the particular question. Discernment, then, is a discipline. It does not come naturally to we who live in a sin-sick world. While we are a redeemed people, the culture in which we live is constantly telling us through numerous modes to put our personal wishes and desires first. Put another way, we have been taught that we indeed are the captain of our ship; that we are right!
The Biblical witness tells us otherwise. In fact, it reminds us that we often are wrong. Stories throughout the Bible reveal that God has a plan for creation but it also shows the disastrous results of what happens when God’s people follow their own desires and will instead of God’s. Following God’s desire for us requires what Paul called “dying to yourself.” Giving up control and being led to places and situations that we may not choose alone. This is why following the path of Jesus seems so unattractive to a culture that believes it knows best.
But Jesus’ witness and Paul’s testimony actually proves a paradox about life; that giving up control – this dying – is actually finding life, for the first time! (Philippians 2; Galatians 2) So we must admit that what we are embarking on is neither natural for us nor easy. It takes practice. And it is not a goal we can ever fully achieve. Rather, it’s an exercise that works particular spiritual muscles. If we stop, the muscles atrophy and become weak.
In seeking spiritual discernment, the first question is “who is in charge?” and the second is “how do I know what God wants me to do?” Closely following both questions is the question “how do I recognize God’s voice above my own voice, simply echoing back my own desires?”
Since spiritual discernment requires relinquishing control, it is important that we do not sabotage the process by bringing our agendas or desires to the table. (Again, this is not an easy process!) If we believe God is in control and we are to find abundant life by being obedient, then we have to become “indifferent” to the outcome we seek. This is far from an uncaring attitude but rather another way of stating that we truly want to make God’s desire our desire. Therefore, a key term to keep with you throughout the discernment process is an attitude and posture of “holy indifference.”
Discernment is an art, not a science. It is about finding God’s yearning for the direction of each of our lives individually, and the direction of our congregation, corporately. It is not a once-and-for-all answer to our questions but a continual seeking for God’s longing as we accept the invitation to live into the abundance God so freely gives us.¹
So spiritual discernment can be compared to a process or a journey. It is not linear – it doesn’t follow a step one, step two, step three format. While this guide will give you the tools and practices to listen for God’s longing for your life, it ultimately is about cultivating a relationship, which requires give-and-take.
Relationships that are intimate and successful are those that cultivate trust and practice listening. These are critical in the spiritual discernment process. God desires a relationship with each of us. We have to trust that God, through the Holy Spirit, desires to be known. Through the practices laid out in this guide, we have to learn to be in tune with God’s voice. This means we must practice the discipline of listening. Once again, in our culture, listening to one another, much less God, is a challenge that requires much practice. It’s the emptying of our own noise and the noise around us so we can be available to the movement of something that is both otherworldly and at the same time very close.
Knowing God’s longing for us throughout our life becomes clearer as we continue to practice holy indifference, trust in God, and in listening to God’s spirit through prayer, study, silence, spiritual friendships, worship, and service to others. Eventually, as we continue these practices, spiritual discernment becomes a way of life.
The story of Samuel’s call is both straightforward and difficult. The narrative is simple to follow – God calls Samuel three times but Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice. It is not until Eli recognizes God’s work in Samuel’s confusion that Eli helps direct Samuel’s ears.
Application for today’s lesson is important:
- How do you recognize and trust the voice of God?
- How do you recognize and scrutinize your own voice?
- Who is in charge? Is it God or you?
- Eli’s sons put themselves in charge of the temple rituals, instead of trusting God. God refuses to work in people who put their interests ahead of God’s. Like Eli’s sons, they will miss out on the blessing of God working through them to heal the world.
- Who is an Eli in your life – someone who recognizes the voice of God and points you in the direction where you can hear it, no matter the consequences of the message?
Answers don’t come quick or easy when an individual or group sets out to discern the voice of God. But it is the only way to test our own bias and the pull of the fallen world against the longings of God. Often, it is in the process or journey of discernment that growth happens. I pray that your group hears this hard but important truth.
Monday is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. MLK founded his movement of nonviolent resistance on the witness of Christ and his faith that God stands with weak, the marginalized, the poor and the hungry. In order to stand in non-violent protest, in order to love their enemies, in order to not strike back, the beloved community that Dr. King helped form had to practice. They practiced getting shouted at, punched, attacked. And they practiced not striking back. They also practiced looking their attacker in the eye, what they believed would be a disarming reaction to their attack. They did this because, like Jesus, they believed even their enemies were children of God and that they had the capacity for good. The discipline to behave in this way, to radially love your enemies is not a simple choice. In order to say yes to such a call, it takes a discerning heart. May we cultivate discerning hearts as we at HRBC create God’s beloved community here.
I’ve share this before, but kids president does a great job honoring MLK: Watch and share his video here: