Excerpt from The Discerning Life

I am real­ly good at dis­cern­ing God when I’m watch­ing a gor­geous sun­set and offer­ing praise to my Mak­er. Or when I’m in a wor­ship ser­vice and a teenag­er offers a pow­er­ful tes­ti­mo­ny of his life with God. Or when I sit with a cou­ple who entered my office bro­ken and tat­tered and leave with renewed zeal for gen­uine rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. In these instances, I get all choked up with delight. I see God at work, I’m ready to receive his pres­ence, and I open myself wide to his work of redemp­tion. His per­son­al affec­tion for all he cre­at­ed, includ­ing yours tru­ly, is a delight to behold.

This can also be seen in the way we make deci­sions — the aspect of spir­i­tu­al dis­cern­ment most peo­ple want to jump ahead to. If the build­ing you are in is burn­ing, the smartest deci­sion is also the most obvi­ous: exit swift­ly and safe­ly. Life is filled with obvi­ous forms of dis­cern­ment that emanate from a deci­sive and delib­er­ate heart.

In the world of spir­i­tu­al dis­cern­ment, I call this the obvi­ous.” This is when it’s beyond the shad­ow of a doubt that God is in our midst, when one option is unequiv­o­cal­ly the right one, or when act­ing com­pas­sion­ate­ly in Christ is to your and oth­ers’ full advan­tage. These sit­u­a­tions are sim­i­lar to the times when Jesus clear­ly instruct­ed his dis­ci­ples to teach, heal, and offer acts of compassion.

It’s won­der­ful when basic lev­els of notic­ing God and liv­ing a dis­cern­ing life are easy and clear. There are plen­ty of times every day when such dis­cern­ment is obvi­ous. Is it time for a meal? Eat. Is it time for a walk? Exer­cise. Is it time for a day’s work? Accom­plish it. Is it trash day? Take out the trash. Is it wis­er to get up and walk out­side to see a beau­ti­ful sun­rise or sit on the couch and watch the TV? Get up and walk!

Even in the realm of the spir­i­tu­al life, there are times of obvi­ous dis­cern­ment. Are you con­vict­ed of sin? Repent. Are you in need of guid­ance? Pray. Has a friend called for help? Serve. Have you been invit­ed to donate? Give. Are you curi­ous to learn? Read. Are you moved to tears? Cry. Is your heart moved to joy? Clap or dance or shout Hal­lelu­jah!”

But the dis­cern­ing life isn’t always filled with the obvi­ous or easy or read­i­ly acces­si­ble. God’s pres­ence isn’t always evident. 

The right deci­sion isn’t always appar­ent. Fol­low­ing Christ isn’t always easy or to a person’s clear advan­tage (at least in the short term). Even though I’m con­vinced of God’s empow­er­ing pres­ence in each and every moment of every sin­gle day, I’m not always keen to notice. Per­haps you can relate.

Most of the time, we need to prac­tice notic­ing God and respond­ing in kind. This doesn’t come nat­u­ral­ly, but it can be attained rather sim­ply, with inten­tion­al­i­ty. If you’re patient, gra­cious, and will­ing to learn, you can begin to con­sis­tent­ly prac­tice a pref­er­ence for God. The more you do so, the greater the wis­dom you’ll have when God’s pres­ence is not so obvi­ous to discern.

Scrip­ture also gives us pic­tures of what it looks like when dis­cern­ment isn’t so obvious.

A Prime Exam­ple of Spir­i­tu­al Discernment

Along the road home to Emmaus, two dis­ci­ples walk with their heads down and their hearts deject­ed (Luke 24:1335). They are head­ing home from Jerusalem, and the sev­en-mile jour­ney has been rather depress­ing. They had hoped Jesus was their long-await­ed Mes­si­ah, but instead they wit­nessed his arrest and cru­ci­fix­ion. The dark­ness of the clouds in the sky feel to them like a metaphor for the state of their own hearts and souls. How could things have gone so poor­ly after so much grand anticipation?

As they walk, they dis­cuss the events of the pre­vi­ous day. They don’t notice when some­one joins them. It is Jesus, but they are kept from rec­og­niz­ing him.

He inquires, What are you dis­cussing togeth­er as you walk along?” (v. 17).

Their faces remain down­cast. Cleopas, the only named dis­ci­ple of the pair, asks their fel­low trav­el­er, Are you the only one vis­it­ing Jerusalem who does not know the things that have hap­pened there in these days?” (v. 18). Here’s my mod­ern trans­la­tion: Are you, like, the only clue­less one?”

Appar­ent­ly. Because Jesus then asks them, What things?” (v. 19).

Still unaware of the unfold­ing sit­u­a­tion, the two inform their com­pan­ion about the things that had tran­spired about Jesus of Nazareth.”

He was a prophet, pow­er­ful in word and deed before God and all the peo­ple. The chief priests and our rulers hand­ed him over to be sen­tenced to death, and they cru­ci­fied him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addi­tion, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb ear­ly this morn­ing but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our com­pan­ions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus. (vv. 19 – 24)

At this point, Jesus begins to increase their under­stand­ing, aware­ness, and dis­cern­ment of his pres­ence. As we read this pas­sage, we’re amazed at how clue­less the two dis­ci­ples were (much like we would be too). Jesus lov­ing­ly rebukes the closed eyes of their hearts: How fool­ish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spo­ken! Did not the Mes­si­ah have to suf­fer these things and then enter his glo­ry?” (vv. 25 – 26).

And then, begin­ning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scrip­tures con­cern­ing him­self ” (v. 27).

That much intrigued them, but not enough to reveal who was speak­ing to them. As they approach their home vil­lage, Jesus keeps walk­ing as if he is head­ing to a fur­ther-than-Emmaus des­ti­na­tion. The two have the sense to invite him in: “‘Stay with us, for it is near­ly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them” (vv. 28 – 29).

The house­hold of the dis­ci­ples becomes their Holy of Holies. We have no idea how large or small that house­hold was. We don’t know how many rooms. We don’t know who else lived with them. We don’t know if it’s a pub­lic inn or a fam­i­ly dwelling. We aren’t sure if they are relat­ed to one anoth­er, as many sup­pose. But we know that they invite him in, to eat, rest, and enjoy company.

When they sit at the table togeth­er to par­take of a sim­ple meal, their gra­cious hos­pi­tal­i­ty to this stranger (Jesus) is reversed into the soul hos­pi­tal­i­ty of their guest. At the table, Jesus is the one to take bread, give thanks, break it, and serve it to them (v. 30). And in that gen­tle moment, the res­ur­rect­ed Jesus is revealed to the dis­ci­ples as the host, break­ing the bread and offer­ing the gift, all with a spir­it of thankfulness.

Can you imag­ine what it was like to be present at that table on that night, only a day after the tomb was emp­tied mirac­u­lous­ly and the risen Jesus was set free from the bondage of his earth­ly exis­tence? The Scrip­tures tell us that their eyes were opened and they rec­og­nized him, and he dis­ap­peared from their sight” (v. 31).

Aston­ish­ing. Bewil­der­ing. Delight­ful. Life chang­ing. They saw Jesus. They rec­og­nize him. The eyes of their hearts are opened wide to receive, rec­og­nize, and rejoice.

Some­times Jesus is obvi­ous to dis­cern. Many times he is not. But when we do see him, like the two dis­ci­ples, we can’t help but exclaim, Were not our hearts burn­ing with­in us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scrip­tures to us?” (v. 32). Like the two dis­ci­ples, when we dis­cern the pres­ence of Jesus, we run back into our worlds with shouts of accla­ma­tion: It is true! The Lord has risen” (v. 34).

The Emmaus Road sto­ry is a prime exam­ple of spir­i­tu­al dis­cern­ment. In it, we see that a lifestyle of dis­cern­ment includes the following:

  • A road on which we trav­el through life.
  • Com­pan­ions who join us along the way.
  • A home in which to reside and process.
  • Eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel.
  • Will­ing­ness to lis­ten care­ful­ly and prayerfully.
  • Respons­es of cel­e­bra­tion, thank­ful­ness, offer­ing, and obedience.

Are you will­ing to walk this way?

Tak­en from The Dis­cern­ing Life by Stephen A. Mac­chia. Copy­right © 2022 by Stephen A. Mac­chia. Used by per­mis­sion of Zon­der­van. www​.zon​der​van​.com.

Pho­to by Johannes Schwaer­zler on Unsplash

Text First Published March 2022 · Last Featured on Renovare.org March 2022

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