“Sometimes I pray, and I think I hear nothing. Yet in the silence that follows, I hear the question: ‘who am I praying for? Am I praying for the will of God, or for my own self-interest? Am I hoping for something to be done for me, or am I listening for instruction as to how to serve the will of Christ?’; and it’s in this question that I begin to discern not just an answer to my prayer, but an idea of what God wishes me to do.”—Unknown
Thomas Green, WEEDS AMONG THE WHEAT, while interpreting Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, writes that there are three presuppositions of discernment. We can make decisions, many of which will turn out well, but they may not in fact, be the best that God really desires for us.
1. A desire to do God’s will. Well, that’s easy. We want to do God’s will. But in fact it is hard to give up our rights to ourselves. We want to be in charge and we want to make our own decisions. Often, we can follow our own informed decision, but in discernment, this desire means that we give God the “blank check” for him to fill in. Thomas says the desire to do God’s will, called a ‘committed faith’ is the first essential prerequisite for genuine discernment.
2. Openness to God. We believe we are open to God, when often we are open to our own idea of God. We are committed to this idea and to our idea of what God’s will is. Kierkegaard said, “All of us—even the best of us—will find that our ideas of God frequently block us from truly experiencing him as he reveals himself.” The Pharisees had this problem. They could not see Jesus because of their own preconceptions of God. Fr. Green tells us that this “openness “is a Pentecost gift for which we must pray and the Spirit must give.
3. A Knowledge of God. Even though we desire to do God’s will and give him the blank check; even when we are able to get ourselves out of the way, we may not know what God wants because we don’t spend enough quality time with him to know what he likes. Green tells a story of going shopping with his mother to buy neckties for his father. At the store, she selected several that she believed he would like. After inspecting them more closely, she chose one or two that would please him most. She knew what he would like because she had shared life with him for 40 years. This is the experiential knowledge of God that we need.
Simply, we have to spend enough time with God that we recognize the sound of his voice from all the other voices in our heads—our own voice and those of the world. We can discover what Jesus likes if we watch what he did in the Gospel accounts while on earth. The more practice we have in following, the more clearly we will hear. We want to allow what Jesus wants to do in us not what we want to do for him. We might not be completely certain we have heard correctly since we are we, and God is other, but if we don’t get it spot on, Jesus has a way of weaving it into his story. The path we are on just might move until we are where he wants us to be. At least, that’s what my experience has been.
“If you but trust in God to guide you and place your confidence in him,
you’ll find him always there beside you to give you hope and strength within;
for those who trust God’s changeless love build on the rock that will not move.”
~ Georg Neumark, 1621-1681 – Modern paraphrase.