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

 

 

 

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  • Erin Ahnfeldt

    Thank you for your challenge to develop that “God-listening heart”. It seem like it is so easy and natural to lean on our own understanding rather than wait and trust God to make the path straight. I will pray for you guys as you wait on Him to bring clarity.