Being in tune with God’s will

 27 June 2021 |

A phrase that often comes up when churches are trying to make important decisions is ‘discerning the will of God.’ In our tradition we make key decisions in the Church Meeting where members gather to reflect. And here sometimes we say we are ‘discovering the mind of Christ.’ I am sure there are other ways of expressing the concept: but the idea is we make decisions in the understanding they are in tune with our faith and beliefs and in what God wishes for God’s people.

Many judge this thought process behind decision making is ‘out of date’. But we discard it at our peril; we are not a political party, nor do we order our church according to our whims and preferences. At the heart of our tradition is an understanding of what God is doing in the world through Christ’s Church and how best we can serve that work of God. I well remember the months of discussion and heartache attached to the decision of the coming together of the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists. We talked, prayed and sought to discover what we believed to be what God wanted for God’s new Church.

Over the years however, church meetings have become something we do at speed, normally, for most churches, after a morning service, completed before the roast beef gets cold! Sometimes the phrase ‘will of God’ is used to shut down discussion as if God only wills what is obvious and can be found through a democratic process. During my time as Director of Communications, observing General Assembly I saw many a decision rushed through so everyone could have lunch or move on to the next topic. And the Church made some terrible decisions by this process.

Of course we won’t always make the best decision but that should not stop us from trying.

If we start with the verb to discern: ‘to see through to the essence of the matter’. In the Oxford dictionary it is ‘ the ability to judge well’. And Christians believe in the process of Christian spiritual discernment God guides the individual to help them arrive at the best decision. Christians in our tradition do it as a group, involving the community of faith to order its life and ministry, drawing the individual and the community out into the world where God wants us to be.

In their practical book, “Discerning God’s Will Together – a spiritual practice for the Church”, Morris and Olsen offer some suggestions about the process to enable God’s voice to be heard. They begin with framing the focus – identifying what is being discussed and arranging the themes into a unified whole. The Church grounds this in a guiding principle informed by the values, beliefs and purpose of the discerning community when boundaries are set. A key element in discernment is what the authors call shedding: “laying aside ego, preconceived notions, false assumptions, biases and predetermined conclusions so the matter in hand can be considered openly”. (I wonder how many of us arrive at Church Meeting with our minds already made up?) We root our process in the tradition connecting religious and biblical stories, themes and images, with the matter under consideration. Morris and Olsen add: “The tradition may confront, confirm, nudge, or even transform the direction of the discernment process.”

Listening is another key factor: we aim to hear the promptings of the Spirit of God, the voices of all the discerning community and of those who may be affected by the discernment. Probably the most difficult element in the process is what the authors call exploring, freeing our playful imaginations to look at options and paths that lie within the guiding principles. Once options are made available – both wise and, perhaps what some think, foolish – the process attempts to improve each option by consultation and prayer until they become the best imaginable within the yearning of God.

In order to sort and test each option, they are weighed in response to the leading of God’s Spirit. The closing of the exploration brings matters to a conclusion, moving to the selection of an option given weight by the Spirit of God and the process in which the community is engaged. Finally the matter is rested for a period of time to determine “whether it brings primarily feelings of consolation (a sense of peace and movement toward God) or desolation (distress and movement away from God).”

As outlined here, the whole process looks and feels lengthy and perhaps a little complex; but with practice, I believe we will start to make better decisions and build a foundation for whatever God has in mind for our future.