Spiritual Disciplines: Guidance
by Marion Van Driel
“I feel God leading me to . . .” is a phrase we often hear in the Christian community. What does that mean? Unless we’ve understood the process of discernment, we may, in fact, be merely seeking God’s blessing for a specific direction of our own will. Discernment is best practiced alongside trusted friends, mentors or spiritual directors who are mature in the faith – not offering advice, but asking pertinent questions, noticing nuances within a given situation, and praying with and for us.
In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists the Discipline of Guidance as a corporate discipline. He does so because while there is ample teaching about individual discernment through the avenues of scripture, reason, circumstance and the Spirit’s promptings, there has been little information about how God leads through His people collectively.
Cloud, fire and Spirit
In the Old Testament, God demonstrated His grace and power to the world through His chosen people, the Israelites. They were directly led by their God – a cloud before them daily and a pillar of fire at night – until they were overcome by God’s awesome presence. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19). God honoured their request by anointing prophets and kings who acted as mediators.
In the New Testament, Jesus once again gathered his followers together, speaking with them directly and through His Spirit. He modeled a life of listening to His Father’s will, and taught that we – especially as gathered believers – can also hear His voice when he said, “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matt 18:19,20). God’s call to Paul and Barnabas took place when a group of believers were fasting, praying and worshipping together.
Foster cites the example of the early church’s “explosive issue” of circumcision for the Gentiles (Acts 15). He calls this story the “high watermark in the book of Acts”. Foster states there occurred intense debate over the toughest issue of their day; and then, “in a beautiful example of how individual guidance impinges upon corporate guidance, Peter told about his experience with the Italian centurion Cornelius . . . Finally, the gathered group came into what must be called a glorious, heaven-sent, unified commitment to reject cultural religion and to hold to the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Many voices, one outcome
How can we, in our churches and other Christian organizations show integrity in learning God’s will for us as we wrestle with decision-making? How can the unified body of Christ, in some of today’s most crucial issues, know His direction for us?
Kathy Smith’s church in Maple Ridge uses a method of discernment for decision-making. They have been trained in the process of discernment and provide new council members with guidelines. Smith recalls a time when, as chair of her church’s council, a decision was required regarding a controversial situation. The issue polarized people; there was no clear answer. The pastor called all major stakeholders together to discuss the circumstance, to hear each voice. Going around the table, this was a time to focus on listening in silence; no formulating responses. Options were then discussed and teams designated to explore those options. A second meeting was called to hear the findings, in the same way – going around the table to hear each person’s voice on the issue. “By the time the third meeting came around to make the decision, we basically went around the table, and we were all in agreement . . . where the first meeting was very, very different.” Prayer was an ongoing factor during the process. Between the first and third meetings, certain new elements entered the equation, a sign that God was present.
In the interest of unity
Smith says that discernment is not just discovering God’s specific will in a given situation, but “doing it in a way that brings about unity rather than division.” She reasons that the result might have been the same if a vote had been taken during the first meeting, but there may have been people leaving “very upset, completely disagreeing, but being forced to go along because that was the majority decision. But because we waited and took the time to discern where God was leading and to allow Him to bring some other things into place, . . . there was unity.” As can easily occur in a majority vote decision, there weren’t any members on the ‘losing side’ going back to negatively impact the body, causing division. When Smith read a letter to the church body regarding the final decision, she and other council members were nervously expecting pushback. “There was not a single negative response,” she concludes.
When it still doesn’t feel right
Foster tells of being part of a business meeting in which there was intense debate, but all present had an authentic desire to hear from the Spirit. As the meeting progressed, unity began to emerge, with the exception of a few people. One of those people stood and said, “I do not feel right about this course of action but I hope that the rest of you will love me enough to labour with me until I have the same sense of God’s leading as the rest of you or until God opens another way to us.”
Foster was touched by this appeal and the tenderness with which it was received. “All over the auditorium little groups began gathering to share, to listen, to pray.” He saw first-hand what it means to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
Limits of corporate guidance
Foster warns of a few possible dangers:
• Manipulation or control by leaders: “Tenderness toward each individual situation must inform all our deliberations.”
• Hard-hearted people hindering Spirit-inspired leaders: “While leaders need the counsel and discernment of the believing community, they also need the freedom to lead.”
• Our own fallibility: “There are times when, despite our best efforts, our own prejudices and fears keep us from a Spirit-led unity . . . If this happens, my counsel is that we be kind to each other . . . pray for each other and ask God’s blessing upon one another.”
Central to the journey of discernment is a conviction that the Holy Spirit is present and active, head of the proceedings. If we truly desire God’s leading, we will take the time required to reach a conclusion. We will include those whose voices should be heard, hold our own opinions and biases loosely, listen without formulating our own responses, and pray for the Spirit’s wisdom and each other.