Journey, Wilderness and Comfort: The Movements of the Spiritual Life

The Spiritual life is best understood by the word, “journey.” One verse, shared by Mark encompasses this journey for us.

At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him.”—Mark 1:12

How is it that in one single verse, Mark explains the journey of the spiritual life? It’s fascinating to simply sit with this solitary verse recorded in Mark’s Gospel and to sense the movement, undertaking and activity that Jesus experienced. Friends, in this one, single verse, there is a great movement that needs to be understood. I say “movement” because the spiritual life is a journey from one movement or place in life to the next. We never stay static. We are invited to always to learning; always be growing and always being transformed.

First, let’s recall the context of Mark’s powerful singular verse. This verse comes immediately after the wonderful story of Jesus’ baptism and being told that Jesus was the “beloved of God.” That moment in the life of Jesus, and in the life of all of us who follow Jesus, is crucial and essential. We all need to hear those same words for ourselves. Each of us needs to know that we, too, are the Beloved of God. I have come to understand that,in this historical event in the life of Jesus—the entire trajectory of his life shifted. Nothing was the same for Jesus when he heard these words—and nothing for us can stay the same when we hear these same words for ourselves. Prior to this, Jesus made furniture. After this event, Jesus made people. He freed people caught up in their own web of religion and offered them freedom. He compelled people to leave their boats, their careers, their people groups and their tribes to enter a new phase—a new place and to have a new understanding of God in their lives. This was his mission. Through his teaching and his life, he offered a different way; a different truth and a different life. This is still true today.

The Journey of Discovering Who We Really Are

That’s what happens when any of us hear our true identity from God about who we really are. God told Jesus who he was. Today, that same Voice tells us our true identity—that we, too, are the beloved of God. Until we know this for ourselves, we will live into the lies of life that try to convince of us three lies:

  • I am what I do.
  • I am what I have.
  • I am what other people think of me.

These three lies form a web of sorts, that catches  and snares every person on the spiritual journey of life. By attaching our hearts to just one of those lies means that we will discover the sticky residue that each of those lies manifest in the human heart. Those lies accumulate untruth within us. These lies do great harm to our hearts. We will lean into our doing. We will acquire too much stuff and positions to prove we are really somebody. We will be co-dependent about our reasons of living is for what you will think of  me.

God knows that there must be a powerful force to help us get free from such lies. These lies have wedged their way into me. They are in my story and I believe they are in your story as well. This web seems to be able to catch us off guard and in times when we thought we were “done” or “through” with that lesson or insight. For some of us, we keep on returning to re-learn the deeper truths of these same, timeless truths.

Rather than beat ourselves up that we feel remedial or stupid or forever broken, we can also learn to be gentle with ourselves.  Being gentle in how we learn lessons in the spiritual life is key. There’s been too much harshness imported in our teaching; too many loud voices screaming at us; too much information and too little love.

What’s interesting here, is to note that the three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness are actually, the three temptations that Satan confronted him with. These temptations were about his identity, power and to do spectacular things in life that would hinge to his mission. But there’s more to this story.

Does God push, force and drive us?

Mark’s verse here tells us that the same Spirit that rested on the physical body of Jesus was now not resting but actually: “pushing,” “forcing” and “drove” Jesus out into the wilderness.  Read the verse again before you move on. We move too quickly sometimes in reading the Scriptures that we miss important insights that could actually help, free or heal us.   As you read the verse again note that these are the literal translations in the ESV, Message and Amplified versions of this verse. Jesus was pushed. He was forced. He was driven.

Jesus was pushed. Jesus was forced and Jesus was driven by God’s Spirit. We may feel initially uneasy about the descriptor words about the power of the Spirit that Mark is offering us. We may prefer a softer, more gentle—way of the Spirit. But Mark uses real, tangible and powerful words to show us how God operates.  When I look at my own story; listen to hundreds of stories of modern day followers and read the ancient accounts of men and women, who through the centuries gave a written witness to their own spiritual journey here’s what I’ve discovered.

There are times in our lives when we simply feel compelled, duty-bound, coerced, pressed or even forced to do something. This “feeling” that I want to attempt to describe is a sort of inner mandate that we simply “have to move,” “have to head in a whole other direction, have to step out in faith that somehow we just “know” what we have to do. I “ought” to do something and I know it and I cannot NOT do this thing that I feel so ought-driven to do.

We have to simply go. We sense we have to leave. We must make a break.

My Own Journey of Being Pushed

I have experienced several of these kinds of defining moments in my life. Allow me to share five of these times of feeling what Jesus must have felt:

  • When I first met Gwen at a party, I just “knew” that I would marry her. I did marry her. I felt compelled. I felt driven to pursue her with wild abandon. I am so glad I followed that inner sense of “oughtness.”
  • When I came to the realization that I was not a card-carry denominational man. That I had never been comfortable with my roots anchored in a particular way or system that defined me; shaped me and molded my thinking that was truly not me. I left the denomination. There was such a clear, distinct sense of “oughtness” rising up —that I discovered I could NOT –not do what this sense of being driven to do was telling me. I remember feeling that really, I had no choice in this. I would live a lie unless I left. There are many implications to think through in regard to this in today’s world.
  • When I was preaching a sermon in the church that I led, I had a deep sense of feeling “pushed.” It was in the fourth Sunday worship service in a very large church and I had a sort of private, quick epiphany or panic attack perhaps which rose up with me and informed me saying “This is not you. This is not where you belong at all. I want you to get out.” I got out. I felt as if I was living in a smoke filled room and I could not breathe. I could not find my breath. I felt trapped. I felt like I was imploding or would implode if I did not “get out.” When I left, I began to breathe again and I came alive again—but in a different way than before. I felt really alive—like a sort of new birth.
  • When my first grandchild was born and the subsequent birth of all of my grands, I sensed this same urging rising up with me. “Seize this role, Steve. Rise up and be the spiritual influence this child needs. This is your role. These people are your true legacy.” I was flooded about my real role in life and my real legacy that would define me as a man. IT was powerful and life-altering. Much of my “repositioning” today is a result of the tectonic plates of my inner world shifting. I suspect many of you can identity in some way, shape or form.
  • I am having this same inner “pushing” right now as Gwen and I attempt to “reposition” our life and calling. We agree that we simply “must” do this for reasons we alone know and a deeper sense that this is right for us. We are not being pushed away or out.  It is an inner sense that we are recognizing as an invitation–not a commandment. We could ignore or suppress this. But at this stage of our lives, we feel a sense of “oughtness.” We ought to do this and walk into a new chapter waiting on us.. a chapter off the 8-lane freeway of a busy ministry and to live the life we speak about, write about and want to live.

As you read my own accounts here, though brief and succinct, I wonder what may rise up with in you about having a similar sense of being “pushed” out to a whole new terrain—a brand new landscape that had your name on it and you did what we all have to do when this comes, we get up and enter this new place—that we don’t even know the real name of yet.

The Wilderness We All Must Enter in Life

This brings me to Mark’s words again of this place where Jesus was pushed to go. It’s called—wilderness. I once heard Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard and Richard Foster state in unison and with one voice that “wilderness” is the predominate metaphor of the spiritual life. I remember a visceral reaction when what these three spiritual magnates were really telling me. I didn’t like this lesson and what’s more I resented them saying such a thing. But in time, I have come to agree. I believe what they shared is really true. I, along with each one of you, would need to embrace the idea and concept of wilderness to understand the spiritual journey. We would need to go into wilderness and let wilderness do what wilderness does to the soul.

In wilderness, we are stripped down. We have to face our illusions that we may have long held to be true and right. We have to let the long days and lonely nights of wilderness begin to de-construct belief systems, rigid box like thinking and false narratives that we have clung to—thinking them to be really true—only to have our boxes fall apart. Things fall apart in the wilderness. Perhaps this is their God intended purpose.. We let go of things, hard-held beliefs and even convictions handed down to us by parents, political parties and denominations. We are stripped. We have to come to terms with a whole other reality that we discover and are, in fact, discovered by in wilderness times.

Ask someone what they learned after their spouse died and a wilderness happened? Ask a corporate woman what they experienced after being fired from a highly esteemed job—a wilderness. Ask anyone who has failed at something they really wanted to accomplish in life. Ask anyone who has divorced a spouse having clung for so long that divorce would never be an option. Ask anyone who has lost a child. Ask anyone who as trekked into a wilderness uninvited, unwelcomed and unwanted. Ask anyone who has transitioned to another country and had to endure that long, lonely season of having no friend, no family; no church, no community and who has left all the food, people and place that comfort gives. We don’t have to look far around or far within to find that wilderness is actually everywhere. As Paul says, we are always carrying the death of Jesus within us–even while we are living. Strange isn’t it?  Not really.  Let me explain a bit more.

Jesus was driven into a wilderness. And from this verse if we say we want to be followers of Jesus, we must embrace our own sense of being driven into wilderness times where we give up security, all that we know to be true and enter a deep, dark time of testing. It is the way of God for such times. Jesus could avoid it and never can we. We can’t go around a wilderness. WE can’t go over a wilderness. We can’t go under a wilderness. We all, just like Jesus, have to go through a wilderness.

The movement of the spiritual life is moving and living; then moving into a wilderness–then emerging into a sort of “promised land”.  This is the classical understanding of the spiritual life and it is really hinted at, if not explained here by Mark.

Facing the Wild Animals Within

Mark reminds us that the first things to show up in Jesus’ wilderness times were the wild animals. I recently read a study showing that in 1st century Israel there really were no really “wild” animals. There were no loose and wild lions seeking to devour people. There were no bears. So what kind of “wild”animals was Mark referring to that confronted Jesus? A wild dog? Maybe. A herd of wild boars? Maybe. I’m not sure actually.

But what I know is this. The wild animals that always seem to assault me are the inner ones. Voices of shame. Lamenting voices speaking about my failures. Wild voices that are self-condemning and always self-critiquing. They are always trying to literally pull me apart from the inside. It is these voices that always seem to show up for the hundreds of people I listen to when they are alone, hungry, afraid and tired from the journey of life. These wild voices seem to fall into one of three categories jeering us about what we have done; what we really want in life; and what will really satisfy us in life. Right here, in one of these three wild voices, we will be confronted with what we truly believe and about what is really true.

It’s in these dark wilderness times that we make inner resolves about how we will stand in the face of such wild voices. This is what Jesus did. He resolved in each jeering taunt the truth that he knew and the truth that would compel him forward and out of the wilderness.

In the contemplative life, we are offered a beautiful lesson. Those who want to live a life marked by inner peace and a sense of shalom are not immediately granted the fruits. It takes time—and I read this week a year of learning to transition is not too long to think about when we are leaving one place on our journey and entering a new one.  I can tell you that in my own journey and understanding, I have had to embrace the fact that my journey is taking a whole lot longer than I thought and even wanted. I must simply walk through some wildernesses to understand some of the fruit of the life I am hoping to cultivate. It takes time.

Finally, Mark reminds us that after—and only after, he had gone into the wilderness and faced the wild beasts and even Satan himself—that Jesus would find comfort.  Comfort comes–that  is the good news for us. But it is in the wilderness that we find the comfort we actually want.

Friends, these are important words that can encourage us right now in whatever desert we are living in or through. There is comfort. Mark tells us that the “angels attended him.” Other translations tell us that Jesus was cared for. Jesus was “ministered to”…that the angels “continually ministered to Jesus.”  Think about this.  Comfort came and does come to us as well.

As we move through our own wilderness times, there comes a sense that we are not alone; that we are not forsaken; that we are not in this by ourselves. We get to experience—and yes, the word I’m saying here is “experience” the loving comfort of the love of God. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he says he literally “prayed” that we would experience a sense deep within us of God’s love. This kind of comfort, Paul explains “surpasses our understanding” (Ephesians 3:19). This is the kind of individual and personal ministry that God is about. This kind of beautiful, specific and unique comfort is what really defines the heart of God. It is the kind of love that we, my dear brothers and sisters are invited to taste as the beloved children of God. This is the kind of love and experience that actually defines the kind of God we love and serve today.

At Potter’s Inn, Gwen and I have walked with many people who come to us in their defined time of wilderness. They are tired, worn out and beaten up by many things in life—including religion. But what we are witnesses to, is this: As they walk through their wilderness times—wilderness of their own vocational journey; wilderness times of feeling like mis-fits in church; wilderness times of being so worn down that they feel ‘dead on arrival’—that comfort comes. Peace is fostered. Inner contentment is realized. It’s uncanny and it’s true.

I hope that this may encourage you in what ever circumstance you find yourselves in and that when you feel that are you are being ushered out and into a wilderness that you may remember Mark’s powerful, singular verse and may this one verse bring great hope to us all in a time of political, relational, ecclesiastical, vocational, or physical wilderness that we will have to walk through.

If you’re in a wilderness defined by disease or diagnosis: take heed.

If you are in a vocational wilderness and are living in the land of in-between, take heed.

If you are a liminal space—a space of wilderness defined by geography, emotion or relationship, or even a spiritual wilderness– take heed.

There is movement. Trust the movement. Trust that comfort is on His way!

Letting Go–the Sacred Art of Surrender

There is more to life than gaining; than the amassing of things; of collecting the sentimental stuff of our lives. There is clutter around us and clutter within our souls. The four quadrants of our hearts seems so filled that some days we cannot breathe or at least breathe easy.

We collect our degrees and proudly hang them on our walls not thinking the paper with our names inscribed will one day burn. We amass our pedigrees of knowledge yet to realize that our brain cells are dying and cannot be sustained in the long haul of life. Some of us have collected trophies, people, wealth and experiences. It is in these deeply held things that have filled our hearts that we must practice the sacred art of surrender.  To let go and to learn to let go is a necessary passage. As we age in life, we find that every day it seems we must pass through that narrow gate. It really is narrow you know and thinking like this may show you how narrow it really is. Try as you might to deny this and it will not serve you well.

Our clothes and our children; our homes and our desks; our influence and impact will one day need to be examined. While some things are easy to lay down of in life, others we find, deeply rooted in our souls. We are enmeshed in our roles; tangled in our souls and we can’t find an ending because there have been far too many beginnings for some of us. What lies within is what is the hardest to surrender. It is within, in the secret places of our fourth quadrant where so much stuff lies. Jesus said so and I believe him on this.

Just like the octopus whose arms clutch, grab, hoard and cling, the soul –every soul will learn—whether invited or jarred—to learn the sacred art of surrender. We simply cannot hold onto all our treasures. The news so tragic this week has a lesson for us all.  Those who went only to worship did not know this week that they would sing no more on this earth. Those that went to dance to music did not know they would never take another step on this earth. Crisis and tragedy stand daily in our faces to help us awaken, though we so often seem to sleep through so much of this needed lesson.

When I held my first born son—then my second, third and fourth—I did not know then what I know now. I will have to let them go—let them find their own way in this path of cul-de-sacs, dead ends, vistas and the grandeur of the adventure. I will lay down my voice in their lives and their voice will be their own. I am seeing it now as I see the sun rise and set every morning. Aren’t you?

Some of us have had to let go far too early—too soon in our own estimation of how life should work. An untimely ending—a divorce—a tragic and quick illness or a long, slow good by to our loved one with dementia.  We learn in such times that nothing—absolutely nothing on this planet we call home, is forever.   Such good-byes prepare us and teach us about all that is important that we never want to let go of in this dear, fragile life of ours.

Work, for many of us, is that place where we find our identity. Yet, when the lay off comes, the business closes its doors or we age “out”, we awaken that our identity is really not in our labor at all—though we hear the daily chanting that “we ARE what we do.” Hopefully, we awaken to the lie that this worldly proverb has teased us into believing. Yet our work, is for some of us,that great battle ground where the inner civil wars rumble through the night in our souls. The cannon balls hurl such lies at us in the dark hours. We may succeed in a nightly skirmish in thinking we see the way forward now, only to be enveloped in a great cloud of unknowing and feel so terribly lost.  To let go is a process, isn’t it? It takes time–perhaps even a life time or more until we know what we could not learn earlier in our lives.

One day, each of us will lay down our breath. We will surrender the breath that keeps us alive. Our breath will stop and this life will be over—this life of amassing; this life of feeling so important—so needed—so valuable. Every time we let go of a small thing in life—give away a box of old clothes, sort through the shelves of our closets or reassess who our real friends are—we are practicing for this final surrender and laying down of our sacred breath within.   And with this practice, we find that fear is assuaged and angst is cured. As we practice our letting go, we practice our new beginning–a new beginning that is lighter, more free and one that is truly life indeed.

There is a time for keeping and there is a time of giving it away. There is a time for the harvest, but there is in a healthy rhythm a time of embracing the fall of our lives. I have found this true in my marriage; in my fathering and in my work. Try as I may to sustain a springtime of something—it simply cannot work. And it was not suppose to work. It is a fabricated and American lie to believe otherwise. Other people who are more tied to the land and nature have learned what we still need to know. There is a rhythm to everything and everything that is truly alive lives in a rhythm.

Our body holds the stress of all our years. Every wrinkle is a folding of our skin that simply needs to droop now. If you are smiling as you read this, then you already know this deep lesson. If you are angry because I have said this, then a lesson is just ahead to be learned for you. All will learn this lesson one way or the other. Some now and some later but no one will escape the lesson of letting go. What was once vibrant, strong and full of vigor will give way to a new season—a new opportunity to awaken to what is happening in me, to me and through me now. This, I think is wisdom.

Wisdom is an essential element of surrender. It is ignorance and foolishness to believe otherwise. We are told in the ancient text to “Teach us to number our days…” because it is in numbering our days that we realize how precious life really is and not the things we have brought along with us. It is just smart to know that we are but dust and to the dust we will all return. It is not depressing to face such a fact. It is our invitation to relish in every breath we have—while we have breath. To view life this way helps us live in the present and not just hoping for a better day ahead.

In this deep interior space of letting go, something else happens.  Freedom.  Interior and soulful freedom. There is an emancipation which we feel rising up within us that we may one day soon, be truly “free at last” and this freedom is now, so oddly different than we ever first imagined.  It is the liberty within to not have to be so responsible; so on time; so efficient; so exhausted; to always have to do it right and to be attentive to everyone else.

Now is our time to be gracious with ourselves–a graciousness there was not room for in our hearts for self-compassion perhaps. Before we may have been too pre-occupied–to strategic–too obsessed.  To let go is to embrace a sense of reserve within—not that we might be withholding– but a sense that we are now aware of what wisdom,has all along been wanting to teach us. Could it be that our new found reserve is really the best?



A Prayer of Letting Go

by Stephen W. Smith


O Lord, I have ten fingers and two hands to clinch, clutch and catch.

Teach me, that as I learn to relax my grip that you are there to now hold me firm.

How can it be, O Lord that in letting go I will be grasped by you?

If I can let go, will you really hold me in my free fall?


There are many things for me to lay down. Too many, in fact to list in such a prayer.

Must I confess my list every single day?

My heart has many rooms where clutter has filled its hallowed spaces.

Teach me, O Lord to release.

Teach me to relax my white knuckled fists of all of this holding on.


Jesus, when you said upon your last breath that you were letting go of your final breath on that rugged cross, help me to pray what you did:

“Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Sweet surrender. Sweet indeed.

Give me the assurance as I let go of so much that your hands really are present for me.


I have this unspoken fear, you see God, that if I let go, I will be so coldly alone.

I think you know that feeling. For, look at all you have let go of to love me.

The sacred art of letting go is my daily act of surrender.

My wants, my needs, my desires even—all must be laid down.


All to Jesus, I surrender then. All to him I gladly give.



Some Resources to Help Us Discern

I”m so greatly encouraged that so many of you have emailed or left comments about me sharing my own personal journey of discernment.

I thought I would share here some collected resources: prayers, poems, etc that I’m using that you may want to consider also.  Would you mind sharing in the comment section of the blog any other resources you’ve found helpful—those that offer light and insight; those prayers that you find yourself saying again and again and I’ll add to this list.  Let’s build this together.  Songs, books, etc.  Let’s help each other here, OK?  Again, leave your suggestions here so we can watch the list build.

Things I’ve written on the blog, can be easily accessed by scrolling up and down the blog entries.

Finally, Would you consider to “Share” this post on your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, etc post as so many are searching for answers.



Here are a few of mine:

For a New Beginning
by John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.


Harrowing by Parker Palmer


The plow has savaged this sweet field

Misshapen clods of earth kicked up

Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view

Last year’s growth demolished by the blade.

I have plowed my life this way

Turned over a whole history

Looking for the roots of what went wrong

Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scared.

Enough.  The job is done.

Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be

Seedbed for the growing that’s to come

I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons—

The farmer plows to plant a greening season.


For Retirement

By John O’Donohue


This is where your life has arrived,

After all the years of effort and toil;

Look back with graciousness and thanks

On all your great and quiet achievements.

You stand on the shore of new invitation

To open your life to

what is left undone;

Let your heart enjoy a different rhythm

When drawn to the wonder of other horizons.

Have the courage for a new approach to time;

Allow it to slow until you find freedom

To draw alongside the mystery you hold

And befriend your own beauty of soul.

Now is the time to enjoy your heart’s desire,

To live the dreams you’ve waited for,

To awaken the depths beyond your work

And enter into your infinite source.



Disturb Us, O Lord by Sir Francis Drake


Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.



A Prayer by Thomas Merton

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


The Journey of Discernment: Moving from Partly Cloudy to Clarity

How can we ever know God’s will? This has been a question people have muddled through for centuries. Our angst comes when we are faced with a particular conundrum—a dilemma of competing choices that impacts us personally. We need to make a decision but it feels more dark than light; more cloudy than clear. We live in the mud rather than experiencing a break-through. We want to know–but just can’t figure it out with certainty.

Should I marry this person? Should I take this job or that job?   Should we move to another city or stay put here? Should I retire or keep working? These questions force us to stop and think through a particular cross-road in life before we move on to acting. It’s those of us who have the tendency to bulldoze our way through doorways of possibility that get into trouble. People have regrets and have to live with regrets.

Just last week when I was speaking to a group of business leaders, a man in his 70’s came up to me and said, “I’ve been reading your blogs. I have one thing to say, “Don’t retire. It’s the greatest mistake of my life. I should have never stopped working.” I was stunned to hear him say this but realized that his comments were really an invitation for me to pray more about my decision ahead. It was a signal to think very carefully about my own decision to “reposition” (read the blog I wrote about ‘repositioning or retiring) myself. When we make quick decisions, we come to realize that we would have done better and been better had we thought the decision through more deeply.

Discernment comes from the Greek word, “diakrisis,” which translated means “to separate” or “to sift through.” We need to learn how to “do” discernment because so many of us want the answers and we want to know on our timetable. It’s like we have in our psyche, the erroneous idea that major decisions can be made in 15 minutes or less–then announced–then followed.  Discernment is a lost practice in today’s quick world of quick answers and living by Twitter.  It’s as if, we want to know God’s will but want it sent in 140 characters. We are more shaped by our culture than truth and when it comes to making good decisions, we need to exercise great caution. We want to be able to “sort through” experiences, lists of pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses and then come to a conclusion based on our reason, logic or gut.  Spiritual discernment does not offer us easy answers but invites us into a process of laying down what we thought and how we thought good decisions are made to a journey–a journey of discernment.

I am being cautious because, I have spent a life-time building what is my work. A wrong decision could be disastrous and impact people I love and care for a great deal.  I am a “founder” meaning that I have pioneered this work along side of Gwen and there is this disease called, “founder-itis” that I know I have. This disease says, “It’s hard to let go of what you started.” I’m in a process of working through laying down and repositioning. Some of you are as well.

It is my observation that men, in particular find it hard to lay down their work.  Perhaps this is a part of our curse.  Our work gives validation, significance and love, to be honest.  And as a man ages, perhaps some women as well, it is just plain hard to lay down our work. So we choose mantras like, “I’ll die with my boots on.

But the journey of discernment is not just a left-brain exercise. When may seem linear and logical may not be very spiritual. This journey is moving from a Western mindset of “figuring out” a way to go forward to developing a posture of listening. It is moving away from needing to know—to needing to be in the presence of God. This is the all-important shift we need to make in learning to discern and I needed to shift my own need to know—to learning to be with God to listen—to listen to His voice and to listen to my own true self telling me what door is right.

As I entered my 60’s , I began to notice more clouds than clarity. I remember having great clarity in my 50’s. But almost on my entree to my next decade of life, the clouds came and the sun seemed to go away and hide. Things, that I once felt sure of seemed to be shifting to a certain unknowing. I suppose I thought that in time that I things would clear themselves up. But after a couple of years of walking in the forest more than in the light, I knew I needed something—or someone to help me. Confusion, lack of peace and anxiety bubbled up within me—more than at any other time in my life or work. For the first time in my life, waves of depression would wash over me leaving me lifeless and limp.  Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back happened on our Staff Team, when a key staff person resigned leaving it back on my shoulders. I was losing confidence. I was losing my grip that I knew I needed to have as a leader, founder and guide to many others. I knew I needed help. I needed a companion to walk with me through the clouds and into more clarity.

An Intentional Journey of Discernment

For ten months now, I have been on an intentional journey of discernment. I chose to engage an ancient retreat method where I would slow down my need to know the future and enter into a long, slow, season of prayer where I would learn how to listen. I would learn how to listen to God. I would learn how to listen to my own heart and my own desires. I would learn how to distinguish the movements of God within my own four-quadrant heart and notice God moving me forward and through darkness to more clarity.

So, I chose a trained, seasoned veteran of such things. I began to work with someone out of my box—out of my comfort zone—out of my normal way of thinking through things.  I had grown tired of groups, denominations and labels of people who think they know everything and have their act together.  Such arrogance and pride disturbed me greatly.  I became suspicious actually and wanted help in a different way–a way no one in my circles was talking about. I needed something more that a 10 week Bible study on ‘Knowing the Will of God.” I had done those kind of attempts and led those studies. This felt more raw for me. It feel more desperate. I was thirsty to really know and I needed to enter my thirst and not allow my thirst to be quenched by anyone or anything else.

My Guide and My Journey

I chose to walk with a man who was trained in Ignatian Spirituality and someone who knew how to walk with someone who was a bit lost in the woods and couldn’t find his way out. I learned the old, ancient, tried and proven ways of listening to God’s voice within me. I began to distinguish and sift through the confusing feelings of self-preoccupation, worry and anxiety to the more trusted ways of experiencing a deep sense of peace, shalom and well-being. I began praying—every day for an hour—something that I had never really done before because I considered myself to be too busy and too involved—perhaps even too important. In this hour, I would listen to God in all of my life and as I practiced this, I became more comfortable with the process—even to the point of noticing a marked shift in me: I wanted to have this time. I needed to have this time. I wanted a God-listening heart.

Then I went and sat in this person’s office every Wednesday at 4:00pm to talk and process together about what was happening in me and around me. With no doubt, this is the deepest journey I’ve ever walked to date and I have been so helped through my own rawness and clouds to a great sense of well-being. I am so glad to say, that I have moved from being partly-cloudy and into more light. It’s been like a parting in the woods where I found my path to walk in more light than I though possible. The result has been all gain and no loss. I’m still in this process at this very moment however and have not been “released” or “graduated.” I don’t think I will ever be graduated now that I am learning how to listen more deeply than ever before. I don’t want to be released from what I know now to be so true and so deeply meaningful. It’s a big shift for me to quit thinking of “moving on” or moving to the next thing to simply relaxing and staying in this posture of heart muscle that I have been exercising for these past ten months.

A God-Listening Heart is Actually Possible!

When King David of Israel had died, his son Solomon had a dream where God came and said to Solomon that he, God, would given him anything he wanted. Read the text for itself and see how Solomon responded:

“And now here I am: God, my God, you have made me, your servant, ruler of the kingdom in place of David my father. I’m too young for this, a mere child! I don’t know the ropes, hardly know the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of this job. And here I am, set down in the middle of the people you’ve chosen, a great people—far too many to ever count.

“Here’s what I want: Give me a God-listening heart so I can lead your people well, discerning the difference between good and evil. For who on their own is capable of leading your glorious people?”–I Kings 3:7-9, the Message.

Solomon wanted a “God-listening heart.” As I have spent this year in discernment, I am realizing, perhaps more than ever before that I, too, want a God-listening heart. I need that kind of heart. I needed to move away from all I knew and amassed to be a beginner again in the deeper ways of God’s Kingdom.

I want to live believing that God still speaks—still has important messages to convey to me and I want to not be so busy, so involved, so committed that I can’t listen. Henri Nouwen reminds us that when life begins to feel absurd, we are losing our ability to listen to God. The root word in Latin for “absurdity” is deafness.  Life doesn’t make sense anymore when we are deaf to the Voice of God. When we’re deaf to God, life feels absurd. We grown in cynicism, suspicion and are prone to burnout. I see this all the time in my work with leaders in the church and the marketplace.

The once soft hearts for God have been hardened and calloused by disappointment, disillusionment and private despair. I say private because where does a leader go these days to confess their own despair at what is happening in the world today?  We all need such places to keep soft and impressionable hearts. This is what a major part of soul care is—to keep a soft, pliable, malleable heart and soul in the midst of such stress, angst and world-wide despair.

When Benedict of Nursia began his humble attempt to form Christian communities after the fall of Rome, in the 5th century, he wrote to all his would-be monks, that the first rule to live by is this: “Listen with the ears of your heart.” In our world today, we are clamored with so much inner noise of shame, blame, quilt and self-talk that we can’t hear the truth.  We can’t hear the Voice. It’s all buzzing sounds. It’s also noisy on the outside: meetings, traffic, emails, Twitter and text. We barely have time to make sense of anything anymore.  Whoever speaks today of the ears of your heart?  That’s the kind of language that captured me and still does. It is the language Solomon wanted. It is the reality I have witnessed in thirsty souls who simply want more than easy answers to pressing dilemmas.

When we feel the need to move from the cloudy days of life and experience more clarity and inner freedom, this journey begins with learning to listen—trusting that the God who made us in His own image and who loves us, wants to speak with us.

It’s a very big year for me. And this will be an important year in the ministry of Potter’s Inn that Gwen and I founded 17 years ago. As I begin to “reposition” this will mean that Potter’s Inn will be impacted and influenced. So I want to be careful. I want to be wise. I want to know that I do have a “God-listening heart.”

It’s important when we make decisions to allow affirmation to come. Every affirmation is really an important re-enforcement that we are on the right track—that the pathway we now see with light and clarity is, indeed right. So, I have asked the Board of Potter’s Inn to join me in a “Day of Discernment.” We have asked a Benedictine Monk to spend a day with us as a Board to do group discernment. I’m excited because our Board enthusiastically agreed to have this day retreat and all look forward to this time coming up soon. We will spend a day together in the collective posture of having a “God-listening hearts” to discern—to sift—to separate the many options to seeing greater clarity the way God has for us to walk—and to walk together. It is always a comfort to walk with a few other people when making decisions gaining insight, wisdom and perspective and above all trusting the wonderful process of building authentic community with a few other people.

Pray for us in the days and weeks ahead, would you?  Please continue to pray for Gwen and me in the journey ahead–the journey of discernment.

Here are some trusted books I’d recommend on discernment:

The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything by James Martin. Martin gives several chapters that are outstanding to discernment.

Seeking God Together by Alice Fryling




How do I know God’s Will?

An old balance scale is an important image in learning how to know God’s will.

For the past nine months, I’ve been doing a very intensive and personal retreat called, the Ignatian Exercises. I can tell you now that this has been the most raw; most real and most rewarding investment of my life. I’d like to share a small piece of this with you and ponder the question that I’ve been wrestling with for the past nine months–How do I know God’s Will?

To put this blog in context, you’ll remember for the past month, I’ve been openly sharing about trying to figure out my own life–my own future–and knowing what I should do.  At the core of these blogs is this entry which is really at the focus of what I”ve been doing and it’s time to tell you about it.  Scroll up on the blog site now to read the past three entries to catch up in case you missed them.

Now, before you think you already know how to know God’s will from all our books and sermons, let this just be a witness of a deeper way–a personal way that I was invited to  participate in that has changed my life–again.

The Ignatian Exercises is an intense personal retreat that I’ve chosen to do in my every day life. Some go away for a month but since that was not possible for me, I opted to do this retreat in a way where I could continue in my ordinary life yet give substantial time to the actual prescribed exercises.  This “retreat” was developed by an old Spanish war solider. When Ignatius was badly wounded, he learned about the inner movements of the spiritual life while recuperating. As he read books in his day about the lives of the saints, he noticed how much better he began to feel. When he read novellas about sex and romance, he noticed he spiraled inside. He put 2 and 2 together and things began to add up for him to learn about his interior life and the work of God’s Spirit which is alive and active in every believer today. He took this simple yet brilliant observation and developed a series of personal exercises that he began to use and modified throughout his life. The entire movement of the Jesuits was birthed out of Ignatius’s discernment.  I am, but the latest of thousands, who have turned to his method to discover God’s will and use the Ignatian Exercises to discern our next steps in life and faith.

What My Journey Looked Like

The past months have been about discovering my deepest desire; a growing awareness of God’s work deep in my life; responding to the love of God and discerning my future. I have met every week with a trusted, seasoned and wise spiritual director who has coached; mentored and prayed me to come forward in my own spiritual journey. I have daily exercises based on the actual spiritual exercises that Ignatius of Loyola wrote in the 16th century. I’m astounded at how far I’ve come and how much more awake I am learning to see God in all things.

Much of the focus has been about this one compelling question: How can I know God’s will? This compelling question of discernment comes at a timely place for me as we all, at differing times of our lives try to determine what God wants for us. It’s played out in our every day questions like these: Should I marry this person? Should I take this job offer? Should I move to start over? Am I on the right track?

How can we ever know God’s will today?

Questions like these drive us to our knees don’t they? We don’t want to linger in the feeling of all of life being left up to ourselves? We want the assurance that God cares and God knows. So with my mind so bent on wanting to discern my own next steps, this nine month journey has indeed been pregnant with anticipation, wondering, pondering and learning the deep movements of discernment.

I began with a fresh realization that I matter.  I’ve been so busy helping so many others realize that they matter that this solid, foundation and core of my own journey had to be looked at again.  I matter to God.  We all matter to God.  This realization gives me fresh eyes to look out at my future and believe that my future matters and that God cares about my future.

Discernment is the term for learning to make a good, wise and solid decision. Learning these old practices have been so helpful and so life-giving helping me to relax and live with a deep assurance that I am on track—that I am, indeed not alone in this process and that God is, in time and through time, bringing greater degrees of clarity than I ever felt possible.

I was lost in a dark forest.  Have you felt lost? Have you lost your footing in all your busy life? I did and you may have also. Keep reading.

Like some of you, there came a time for me that I felt lost in a dense forest—I was thinking I’ve lost my way. How do I get out of the dark woods? These kind of feelings compelled me to lock in and “do” this long, arduous retreat. Now, I can clearly say that I am out of the woods. I see the Light and I know my path. There’s such great comfort in this. It’s been a wrestling match my friends. Like Jacob of old, I was not going to let go until I was free.

Learning about Holy Indifference

First, I worked on becoming, “Holy Indifferent.” This wonderful phrase means having the sheer freedom interiorly to be able to decide—by learning to hold and learning to trust all the options in front of us. Don’t we all want inner freedom—free from duty, obligations and sheer obedience? I did and learning this old way of letting go has really helped me in tremendous ways in marriage, faith and my work.

Holy Indifference is about being open to the work of God interiorly to guide me. This does not mean being unconcerned or feeling unimportant in the process of making a decision. Quite the opposite actually! It means learning to let go and hold our options in suspense without preference and letting go of controlling the process.

Holy Indifference is like the old fashion balance that we use to use in markets when weighing flour or sugar. It’s the “pointer of balance” at the top of the old metal scale. You learn to watch this “pointer” and seek for this to be neutral—not weighted on one side or the other.   It’s not an easy process and for me, this has taken some weeks, if not months to allow my mind to let go and to rest in the trust I need to make a decision. You learn to trust your own interior movements of God’s spirit pointing you one way or the other.

Inward peace and consolation are the goals that have been what I have sought for in my own decision making process. Who of us ever wants to make a decision that is made in a time of agony or despair? Ignatius taught me to NEVER make a major decision in a dark, hard or season of desolation. Let that season pass. Once you’re in a better place, then do the work. That’s what I had to do. I had to take some time off of my own Ignatian journey to just rest and let rest do what rest does. I wrote about this break in a blog about the benefits of taking a vacation. You can read that one here!

This has involved learning how to detach from things, ideals, illusions and people that I have held on to in my life. It’s been about detaching from my own junk, past and ways to be able to let go in my soul to be able to reach out for the next place God wants me to go. I felt stripped down—having to face some patterns and core junk that I’ve held on to for decades. It’s affected my marriage, my team and my relationships.  I feel freer and lighter for doing this work. My spiritual director kept saying in the hard weeks, “Keep coming forward. You’re on the right track. This is normal. God is going to bring you into the ‘land of the living.” The day I stepped into the ‘land of the living” is etched so concretely in my soul. I’ll never forget it and this—is precisely what Ignatius taught me—to trust the process—to stay awake and learn how the Spirit works inside my own soul and to walk towards the light.

Another Paradigm and Principle for Understanding Life

Ignatius wrote, “In everyday life, then, it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, in regard to everything which is left to our free will and is not forbidden. Consequently, on our own part we ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one….” I’ve sat with this principle all these months allowing this paradigm to frame my own. It’s profound and this alone can help us understand so much of the spiritual life. This has helped me to understand the journey of a dying friend who I wanted to have a longer life than she will be given; It’s helped me understand more of outer hurricanes and inner Cat 5 storms we all face. I’ve been so grateful.  It’s helped me know what to seek and what not to seek. It’s helped me re-focus and have a deeper sense of renewal inside that I’m hoping will inform my future steps in work and life.

I”ve been able to do many wonderful spiritual adventures in my life. I’ve lived in a monastery with Dallas Willard; I’ve sat with the wise and learned from the ancients. Yet to date, this is the richest and most blessed time of my spiritual journey. I thought it good to share a piece of it with you.


Here are a few resources I’d recommend if you ‘re interested in learning more:  When you buy on these links, you support the ministry of Potter’s Inn.

Here are two I recommend and are easy and benefitical to read regardless of our background or theological persuasion.

Inner Compass by Margerat Silf

The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything by James Martin