Part 10 of series:
How Does God Guide Us?
In my last post, I began to explain how God guides us through Christian community. This sort of discernment happens especially in the context of intimate relationships: small groups, prayer partnerships, or spiritual direction relationships.
For example, several years ago, my wife and I were going through a difficult time in our marriage. Linda was pretty unhappy with our relationship. I, on the contrary, was fairly satisfied with how things were going, except for her unhappiness. If she would just cheer up, I thought, we’d be doing fine. Linda, however, wanted outside help. She asked if we might go to a Christian marriage counselor together. I rejected her request, arguing my case with an impressive array of facts and theories: not really needed; not enough time; can’t afford it; can’t find a good counselor, etc. (Of course I wasn’t willing to admit that my real hesitations were pride and fear.)
I won the argument, not by convincing Linda of the folly of seeking counseling, but by virtue of the fact that if I wouldn’t go with her, we weren’t going at all. But then I made the “mistake” of sharing my victory over Linda with my small group of Christian men. After I finished my proud tale, they asked simply, “Why don’t you just go to counseling with her?” Again I paraded my arguments, which they shot down with ease. I knew I was dead when my best defense, “I’m not sure we can afford it,” was shattered with their offer, “Oh, we’ll pay for you to go if that’s the problem.” The jig was up. My goose was cooked. My friends were able to discern, with far greater accuracy than I, what the Holy Spirit had been saying to me all along. If my marriage was important, which it was both to me and to the Lord, then I should have been willing to swallow my pride and get help when my wife was unhappy.
Looking back on that experience, I now know where it led. Linda and I did see a wonderful Christian counselor. Not only did he help us develop a much healthier and happier marriage, but also he was used by the Holy Spirit to bring healing to deep wounds within my soul, wounds that hindered far more than my capacity for intimacy in marriage. I continue to overflow with thanks to God for those three brothers in Christ in my small group who helped me discern God’s will when I was so blind and hard-hearted.
Often the discernment of community does not involve the discomfort of the experience I just related. It can be an occasion for excitement as dear Christian friends seek God’s guidance together. Several years ago my friend Nick, a businessman with a wife and two children, began to sense God’s call to full-time, ordained ministry. He shared this feeling with his small group, who began praying with him for divine direction. One of the greatest hurdles Nick faced was his lack of a seminary education. How would he be able to support his family while attending seminary, not to mention paying for tuition and books? As he and his group prayed, they felt strongly that God was calling Nick to be a pastor, and therefore to attend seminary. So strong was their conviction together that they pledged to help Nick pay for school and support his family. With their discernment and tangible support, Nick was able to complete his seminary education, and he is now an ordained pastor.
Now I know plenty of stories that show the dangers inherent in discernment through community. People can be motivated by their own personal agendas rather than the Lord when giving advice. They can even use their influence to keep people from knowing or doing God’s will. I’m certainly not suggesting that the guidance offered through community is inerrant. But, from my observation as a pastor, I’d say that more often than not people go astray because they receive too little guidance from their brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than too much. If there’s any need in the life of most Christians, it’s a need for deeper relationships with their spiritual siblings, relationships in which people can seek through prayer, discussion, Bible study, and careful reasoning to discern God’s will.
Yes, I did just mention careful reasoning. I believe that this contributes much to spiritual discernment. I’ll say more about this next time.