Proceed as way opens
Discernment requires trusting that God has a will for thee, that thee can learn what God's will for thee is through the agency of Jesus Christ, and that then thee can be obedient to the proddings of the Holy Spirit.The way to Discern God's will is to Quiet the self so thee can hear the Christ Within, the Seed, the Light, the Truth.
Even if no message is immediately forthcoming, this Quieting of the self leads to a helpful Patience. Once God's will has been discerned, Obedience to God's will leads to Peace. Being able to subsume thy will to God's will leads to Serenity. Then what is Needful and Necessary will be brightly illuminated before thee, and what is neither needful nor necessary will simply fade from thee. Then thy life will preach and thee will be freed to Testify to the Truth that is the Freedom of Submission to God.
Any Testimony to the Truth requires Love.
What Love requires in Truth will be thy Living Testimony.
From a Quaker Perspective
- First, an Experience That Can't Be Explained
- Then There is Something to Discern
- Tests for Discerning a True Leading
- Finally, We are Required to Testify to the Truth
Christian Discernment: "How do I do the will of God?"
This question assumes three things. One, that God has a will for each of us, two, that through the guidance of Jesus Christ we can discern this will, and three, that we are capable of being obedient to these leadings of the Holy Spirit. So Quakers have, over the three centuries of their existence, developed a language that describes their experiences of discernment and a template for how God acts in our lives, which aids in recognizing true leadings of the Spirit.
My experience is that Christ dwells in each of us, and that it is his Spirit that will guide us in discerning God's will and help us to find the strength to actually submit and do God's will on this earth. My experience is that God finds me (not the other way around) and gives my life new meaning. Each day Christ is born in me, each day he is crucificed in me, and each day he is reborn in me.
A Discussion of Quaker Discernment
- First, an Experience We Can't Explain
The need to discern something is set in action by God. It is of no use for me to try to "discern" if God wants me to go to Chicago. It is my experience that lists of pros and cons, prayerful petitions and other earthly strivings will not usually offer much in the way of Truth. God may or may not have an opinion on anything that I initiate. It only becomes imperative to try to discern God's will when we have an experience, some powerful experience, that we cannot explain, an experience through which we suspect (or fear) God may be trying to communicate with us. This communication can come in a strong feeling that won't go away, a dream, a voice, a sense of certainty. Experiences of communications from God that require discernment can be categorized using three traditional Quaker terms: opening, concern, leading.
Openings can be thought of as an instantaneous recognition of some important piece of God's plan. An example of an opening for me was prior to my convincement, when I suddenly became aware there was someplace I was supposed to be Sunday mornings. I also became obsessed with a particular style of bonnet, tracked it down on the Internet, purchased it, and placed it (safely) in the closet. I was not a Christian and did not admire Christians. I tried at first to satisfy this inexplicable feeling by attending services at a Unitarian Universalist congregation (decidedly not Christian). But as soon as everyone stood up the first time, I found myself leaving the room. Over and over again, at the first standing up of a very stand-up and sit-down service, I would find myself leaving the room. It was not the answer, not the place that I was supposed to be, and I could not pretend that it was.
Openings are more generally larger universal truths. George Fox had the famous opening of suddenly understanding that "there was one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition," as well as his opening about having a degree from Oxford or Cambridge not being adequate to create a gospel minister. John Woolman had an opening about the fact that slavery is a grave injustice in God's eyes, and that it should be in all humankind's eyes as well. Usually an opening is the revelation of a Truth by God as shown to us by the Light Within, Jesus Christ. This opening would then lead to a concern that must be acted upon. After receiving an opening, someone may or may not have an immediate idea of what he or she is to do.
For me, after the opening for me that there was someplace I was supposed to be (but not at the UU services), Sunday mornings became a torture. I felt I was being ground down, filled with an urgent, intense requirement I could not fulfill. Quakers describe "bearing a burden." At some point, speaking generally, the burden may grow to a specific leading, where a person feels led to act in a specific way. In my case, I tried all kinds of things to alleviate my suffering, finally submitting to the idea that it just might be a Christian church I was supposed to attend.
I would get in the car and drive to different churches, but I could never get out of the car, and instead would drive around and around, circling church buildings, longing for something, searching. The one time I did get out of the car, the church was on retreat and not holding services that Sunday. It wasn't right, none of them were right, and I couldn't pretend otherwise. I knew what wasn't right, and I knew the only "answer" to my "problem" was some unknown one right thing that was "out there" for me, but I grew more and more desperate to learn what it was. Finally, one Sunday morning, I gave up all human striving and, in anger and despair, and in fact much fury, told God that if he had something to say, to just say, or (my big threat) I was going to just sit there. Peace settled over me, and I picked up a book and opened to a page on Quakers, and suddenly knew my path: I was supposed to be a plain Quaker. The importance of the bonnet in the closet became clear. I now had a specific leading: to become a plain Quaker. In that moment, I was made a Christian and called to live as a plain Quaker, though I knew nothing about living as a Christian and did not even know if there were any plain Quakers in the world, having never heard of Conservative Friends. It didn't matter. I knew what I was to do, whether it made sense or not, whether I knew all the ins and outs or not.
So the pattern I have observed in my own experiences of God as a Traditional Quaker and a Friend of the Truth has been that I have an opening to some Truth, an awareness triggered by some transcendent or otherwise inexplicable experience, which leads to bearing a burden where I am being prepared to act on a concern, and then finally a specific leading, where I am led to a specific action. By the time I learn what the specific action is, I have been so ground down, so "made tender" by God's pressure to let go of my own fears and to trust his guidance, that I generally am relieved to learn my fate, if not entirely prepared to leap forward. Keep in mind that though someone may arrive at a specific leading, and may feel completely clear about it, there is no guarantee that person will act upon the leading properly or that this person may not be led astray. It is for this reason that we have to engage in the next step: a discernment process.
- Then There is Something to Discern
The period of discernment is called among Friends "seasoning" and "waiting for clearness to proceed." It is during this period that I test my leading, in my faith community and in the world. I may request the formation of a clearness committee or speak individually to weighty Friends for guidance. Certainly repeated prayer in silent religious retirement is a necessary component of this period. I now have a specific leading, a calling for specific action. I must make sure I have not fooled myself into confusing a "notion" or "head-knowledge" for a true leading, only accessible via heart-knowledge. Among Quakers, notions are human-generated thoughts and actions and are not of the Spirit, are not what Jesus is showing us to do but something our small minds have come up with.
This discernment step is the opportunity to be sure in our own hearts that our experience is from God. This step requires solitary prayer to achieve inner clarity. Patience is a key component of the discernment process. We need to be able to wait and hold the leading in our hearts for some duration. A desire to instantaneously jump in is normal but not necessarily a sign of a true leading. Waiting to see how things proceed and to be clear that the leading has strength and endurance help the discerner achieve real clarity and faith that their leading is True.
As humans we are weak, and we are entirely capable of trying to release ourselves from the pressure God puts upon us by avoiding the difficult thing God actually wants us to do by substituting something else. I call this "going to Australia." In my experience, we usually know what we are Supposed to do, as we will whole-heartedly pray: "I will do whatever thee wants me to do, God, as long as thee doesn't send me to Africa." Which is, of course, exactly what God is asking.
It is very easy for us to say to ourselves, well, Africa can't really be what God wants. I am not suited for Africa, my poor health, no foreign language ability, but I could go to Australia. It is far away. It is another continent that starts with an "a" and ends with an "a." I speak the language. No vaccines required. I can go there instead. So we swap for some option that is more palatable to us, one that seems a "fair" substitute, and then we call it a leading. Then we suffer the consequences. Letting others with more experience and wisdom in discerning leadings can help us in the discernment process can prevent these sorts of follies. If we are on our own, then we simply must allow more time for the clarity Christ will offer when it is well and truly time to act.
Sometimes we truly don't know what the Lord is preparing us for, but it is not unusual in my experience for people to actually know what it is God wants them to do. They just can't get there, not yet, for any of a number of reasons. They don't trust their own judgment in the matter; they don't trust God and that he might be right, that he might want something that is good for them. They are afraid of what family and friends might think. Sometimes the problem is not discerning what God wants, but finally accepting the call, and for some of us that means accepting that there will be no peace if the call is not answer, that there is no choice but to submit and accept the consequences that seem so dire or impossible to bear.
In my example experience, I had no doubt I was supposed to be a Quaker, but I had no idea what that meant. I had no idea what that might specifically look like for me. Was I supposed to start my own meeting? Attend the local meeting? Was I to be Conservative, Liberal, Evangelical? Be a Quaker presence on the web? There seemed to be a great many ways to be a Quaker, and that was all I had. I had to discern where it led next.
I tested my leading by spending more than three months praying, sitting in silence alone, reading about Quakers, acquiring plain dress, changing my job, contacting Quakers on the web and writing a letter to the local Quaker meeting. Eventually I found my place as a Conservative Quaker and the world opened up.
It is not always possible or wise to form a clearness committee. Most of us are in the habit of using our own wisdom, our very large brains, to solve "problems" such as these. Beware the habit among even the wisest of advisors to forget to let God do the leading.
Tests for Discerning a True Leading
The Tract Association of Friends offers a leaflet based on "pages 119-123 of Hugh Barbour's history, the Quakers in Puritan England." In it, he details Five Tests for Discerning a True Leading: moral purity, patience, consistency with others, consistency with the Bible, and inward unity. Paul Lacey in Leading and Being Led offers four tests: moral purity, patience, self-consistency of the spirit, and bringing people into unity. He omits the Bible as a test for no good reason that I can perceive. According to Marshall Massey, James Nayler's instructions "for fighting the Lamb's War: Waiting (listening for the Spirit), Obeying (acting promptly when the call becomes clear), and Suffering (daring to make a fool of oneself in the name of Love)."
Myself, I give great weight to the fruit of the Spirit elucidated by Paul in the Bible in testing a leading: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Any leading should produce these. This is not to say that a sense of peace in a decision means it is a true leading, nor is this to say that leadings always lead to happiness. That is not the case. Leadings can lead to rejection and dislike, the fate of all prophets. But leadings should not lead to destruction or hatred.
In my experience, one of the biggest obstacles modern people have to the discernment process is trust. Trust that God is leading them aright. Trust that they can properly understand the promptings of the Christ Within. Trust that everything will be "okay" if they relinquish the habit of imagining we are in control that has been foisted upon us by our society. We do not control our own or anyone else's destiny. God does not usually make us responsible for anyone's salvation but our own: not our husband, wife, children or parents. We must learn the right-minded humility that acknowledges the limitations of our time in the world and accept that our fate and the fates of those around us are in much more capable hands than our own.
Neither fear to test the leading nor fear to trust the leading is True. God is good. We are capable of whatever good he opens for us. Trust that.
- Finally, We Are Required to Testify to the Truth
Once thee has tested thy leading and are sure of thy course, thee must "testify to the Truth" that has been opened to thee. Thee acts upon thy leading. In my case, I became a Conservative Christian Quaker and was made to witness to the world through the discipline of plain dress.
I won't pretend this part is ever easy. For some reason God does not usually ask us to do things that are easy. Sometimes, in our weakness, we can't help wishing things were different. That God had called us to be rich and famous not poor and "ordinary." And, as I have mentioned, sometimes we fall into the trap of "going to Australia." It is necessary to be vigilant in the face of our own human frailties to not ever assume we have discerned all that there is to be discerned in some matter. We must also make sure to keep an open heart to the idea that the leading might be taken away or adjusted. This can be very hard to accept.
Myself, my plain dress witness was removed for a few months, during which time it became clear I had become attached to the witness and was not submitting in a proper spirit. I was even more distressed at the idea of appearing foolish in stopping the plain dress witness than my original reluctance to looking foolish in adopting it. I felt quite annoyed that God had put me to all this trouble for nothing, and that I would look twice the fool. Obviously more concerned with myself than with what Christ was showing me as my duty. But I submitted, and learned humility afresh. Once my heart was in the right place again, the witness was returned to me.