Vision means being able to see. We have natural vision – eyesight – that enables us to see the physical, material world around us. God also grants his people spiritual vision which enables us to see spiritual realities as God moves in the world. The writer of Hebrews tell us that spiritual vision is an essential aspect of faith. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” [Hebrews 11:1(NIV)] For some examples of that faith-sight in action, look at 2 Kings 6:8-23; Mark 9:2-8.
Sometimes this spiritual vision comes from God in the form of dramatic spiritual experiences in which God gives to one of his people a very vivid picture of some truth concerning who God is and what he is doing, has done, or will be doing. We sometimes call such experiences “visions.” Our God has always done that with his people from time to time, and he still does.
But we’d be wrong if we thought that the only way God gives spiritual vision is through dramatic visions. Spiritual vision – faith sight – comes to us also in a more day-in and day-out type of spiritual sight that we might “discernment.” That may not be a word you’re real familiar with. It’s not a word that has to do only with matters of faith. It is, though, a word that always has to do with matters of perception. Discerning usually means looking at the mass of details and picking out or recognizing things that are hard to see.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about from the world of sense perception.
- “The skirt that I pulled off the rack seemed like a bland gray until I suddenly discerned a fine red thread running through the fabric and forming a lovely, intricate pattern in the cloth.”
- “On the lovely summer morning, the trees were full of twittering, chirping, squawking birds. But even among all the other bird sounds coming out of the trees, I was still able after a moment to discern the soft murmured ‘awnk, awnk, awnk” of a nuthatch muttering to herself as she probed for bugs in the nooks and crannies on the trunk of a tree.”
- “Amid the swirl of cooking smells coming from the kitchen, I could discern the subtle aroma of cinnamon tea steeping in a pot on the kitchen table.”
These are some illustrations of how we use our sense perceptions to discern subtle details mixed in with other, maybe stronger, perceptions. And that process is what discernment is all about.
But discerning is not only a process of our physical senses. Discerning is also something we do with our spiritual vision, with our faith sight. By faith we begin to become able to discern, to recognize the fine, delicate thread of God working amid the details of our complicated life and world. This is a spiritual skill that God gives us and that God wants us to have. It requires prayerful practice. But I find that for some reasons we Presbyterians can be pretty uncomfortable with this.
I think, we can sometimes tend to feel as if it is arrogant or presumptuous to say, “I believe I’m seeing God doing such and such and that he wants us to partner with him in doing it.” So, we rarely make any attempt to say what we see God doing or what we discern from God as to what we should be doing. Maybe we sort of think that doing that is like claiming to speak for God. And I would certainly agree that we should be very, very hesitant about says with the prophets of Scripture, “Thus says the Lord. . . .”
But we are always faced with the challenge of figuring out what it is that God wants us to do as individual disciples and as congregations of disciples. Surely, we all need to be trying to get into the place where we can say, “I believe God may be leading me/us to do such and so.” There’s no question that we can be wrong about what we discern from God. We should frame our statements with a degree of caution, “I believe God may be leading. . . .” We should talk about what we are sensing about God’s leading. That way we can use the wisdom of other faithful disciples to help check what we are discerning. We need to be talking to God about it, “Lord, here’s what I am sensing about where you are leading me/us. Is that the right direction? If not, please correct me/us and redirect me/us in the right way.” That’s not arrogant or presumptuous. That’s faithful, obedient discipleship.
I will tell you what is arrogant and presumptuous. Here’s what we more often say to each other when we are trying to reach some decision as individually or as a congregation. We say, “I think this is what we should do.” Or, “Here’s my idea for what decision we should make.” Did you notice where the emphasis in those statements is? (I helped by highlighting them.) The focus of our usual way of talking about decisions puts the emphasis on us! That’s arrogance. That’s presumption.
Here’s one more benefit of using the language of discerning God’s leading. When we say, “This is what I sense that God may be saying to me/us. . . .”, we explicitly remind ourselves that the decision is not about what I want or what we prefer. The faithful disciples of Jesus should always make their decisions based on what God wants and what God prefers. We should always talk about our decisions that way. If we don’t have any idea what God wants us to do, then we shouldn’t make any decision. Not until we can say to one another, “This is what I sense God is leading me/us to do.” That’s the essence of humble discipleship.
Listen to God. Share what you hear from him. Then, let’s prayerfully and obediently do what we discern to be his will for us.
© 2010 Gary A. Chorpenning