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.zondervan.com.

Photo by Johannes Schwaerzler on Unsplash

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