Part 1: What is Spiritual Discernment?

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Hello, and welcome to this short course in discernment in prayer. We’re going to divide this course into two sections. The first part will consist of five video teachings on spiritual discernment. How do we hear God’s voice? And how do we bring God into the realm of our decision-making? How do we pray about choices that are facing us? And what are we looking for? What are we listening for? How do we expect God to come alongside us in those decisions? And we’ll look, especially, at the idea of vocation or our calling in life. How do we discern what we’re meant to do or to be in life?

So that would be the first section, five videotapes covering those topics. We’ll ask, first of all, what is spiritual discernment? Then we’ll ask, what does it mean when we speak about the call of God or about our sense of vocation? In the third video, we’ll look at Jesus and his sense of vocation. And in the fourth tape, we will try to play around with the question of how do we discern our own vocation? And in the fifth and final video in this first part of the course, we’ll be asking the question, is there a proven method, is there a reliable method that we could take up in order to make an important choice in life and pray our way through that choice? So that’s the first part of the course on spiritual discernment.

In the second part of the course, we’ll focus more on discernment of spirits. So discernment of spirits is a process by which we seek to distinguish between different kinds of spiritual stirrings in our heart and identifying those that are of God and those that are not. And the stirrings that are of God, we want to respond to positively and accept them. And the stirrings that are not from God, we want to be able to identify and reject. So, in that second part, the 11 podcasts, Curtis and I will be talking about those principles and how they work out in our daily lives.

So today we’ll begin by just asking the question, what is spiritual discernment? What are we talking about here? And I’d like to begin with a story. I once had a deaf friend, he had been profoundly deaf from birth, and so he had no acquaintance at all with sound, but he had obviously observed hearing people converse with one another, and he knew that when they were moving their jaws and their lips, something was happening, and they were understanding one another. And furthermore, he could see that they didn’t even have to be looking at one another in order to be able to communicate. And the person could be out in the hallway or in another room entirely or outdoors and they could still communicate. So this was something that he had never experienced. And he came to me at one point and asked, “Do you hear God? Does God speak to you?” He wondered if hearing people had the ability to receive communications from God in the same way that they receive communications from one another. I assured him that it wasn’t quite that easy.

But I appreciated his question because I grew up too learning of stories from the Bible in which God spoke to various people, God spoke to Moses, or God spoke to Noah, or God spoke to Jonah. And the message was always very clear. They were certain about what God was asking about them, even if they were reluctant or puzzled or overwhelmed by the words of God. So I grew up reading these kinds of stories of God speaking so clearly, so plainly, so understandably to these biblical figures, and wondered if God would ever speak to me that way or if I would ever experience anything like that.

So how do we hear God’s voice? How do we recognize when God is speaking to us? When we can’t hear the words or judge the intonation of the words, we can’t hear from God in the way that we can hear from other people. And so, how do we recognize the voice of God? I think there isn’t a clear section of scripture that will give us clear instructions on how to recognize the voice of God. But I think there are clues embedded in scripture. And I’d like to begin this series by looking at 1 Samuel chapter three, the story of Samuel’s call from God. In the story, Samuel is a young boy living in the temple and serving Eli, the high priest. And as he’s sleeping one night, a voice calls to him, calling his name, Samuel, Samuel. And Samuel jumps up and he runs to Eli and says, “Here I am, what is it that you want?” Eli says, “I didn’t call you, go back and lie down.” And this happens three times where Samuel is called, he gets up, runs to Eli, and Eli says, “I didn’t call you, return back and lie down again.” The third time, though, Eli senses that something is going on, and he recognizes that God is calling Samuel on that. And now, here’s one instance in the scripture, and there are several of them in scripture, where it seems to be an audible voice. That Samuel was responding to a voice calling his name in the middle of the night.

So that may be outside the experience of most of us, but it seems that it’s possible. So what do we notice in this story? First of all, I think we notice Samuel’s openness, his readiness, his eagerness to hear this voice. He pops up immediately when he hears his name being called and runs to Eli. And even though he doesn’t recognize at first that it’s the voice of the Lord calling him, still he’s very responsive, very open and very willing and eager to hear. So the first requirement for those who would hear the voice of God is to be really listening for it, to be watching for it, to be attentive for it. It puts us in a posture of receptivity. How will God speak to us? How will God direct us? And can I be watching and listening and waiting for God’s voice to come into my experience? So I think Samuel is a good example for us in that. Now, of course, that assumes that we believe that God can actually communicate with us. If we doubt that, if we’re skeptical about that, we’re gonna have difficulty recognizing that voice when it comes to us. We’ll doubt whatever message comes to us and say, “Maybe I just imagined that.”

So they have to have some faith and trust in God’s promises that God will lead us, and that God will direct us, and that God will speak to us. And there are numerous places in the scriptures where we receive that assurance. So, what’s involved? Well, one of the first things that’s involved in listening this voice is to find stillness. It’s important for us to be interiorly quiet and still so that we can hear that inner voice that comes to us so softly, so almost imperceptibly. It helps us to be still. We see this throughout the scriptures and the Psalms, for example, the psalmist says in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” And then in Psalm 62:1, the psalmist writes, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, from him comes my salvation.” There’s that posture of listening. “My soul waits in silence.” It’s from God that my salvation is going to come, from God my help is going to come, from God the direction and guidance is going to come. And my job is to make my stuff still and receptive and open. Psalm 37:7. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”

We see this so powerfully in the example of Jesus himself, how he was constantly listening for the word of the father to him, receiving as it were his directions day by day through this intimate connection that he enjoyed with the one that he called father. We see Jesus throughout his ministry regularly withdrawing to deserted places, to mountains, and in a boat to the sea or into the wilderness, where he can be alone, where he can be still, where he can attune his heart to listen to God’s word to him. We see Jesus going into the wilderness, struggling with temptation there and learning to recognize the voice of the enemy and the enticing words of the enemy and being able to repel those words. We see him using times of silence and solitude to discern where next to go in ministry. He withdraws and prays through the night before he selects his apostles. And he prays alone, discerning, “Who did the crowds say that I am?” It’s almost as if he’s trying to understand his own identity and his purpose for being in the world.

We see Jesus also using silence and solitude as a means of rest. And he withdraws after intense ministry, periods of intense ministry, in order to recover himself and to recenter himself, and to reclaim his mission and purpose in life. Each of the gospels testifies to this, in Matthew 14:13. “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” In mark 6:45-46, we read, “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side to Bethsaida while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.” Luke 5:15-16. “But now, more than ever, the word about Jesus is spread abroad. Many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases, but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” John 6:15. “When Jesus realized that the crowd was about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to a mountain by himself.” So each of the gospels testifies to this practice of Jesus of withdrawing into silence and solitude. It’s almost as if he has to be in a quiet place in order to still his soul and to open his heart to receive God’s instructions. And he invites his followers to do the same. He says in Matthew 6, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray to your father, who is in secret. And your father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”

So the place of prayer is to be a solitary place, a quiet place where we’re alone. “Go into your room and shut the door,” says Jesus, “and there, commune with God.” And he also invites his followers to use silence and solitude as a means for restoring themselves after intense periods of ministry. For example, in Mark 6:31-32, Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves, and rest a while. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” And again, in Matthew 11:28-30. “Come to me,” says Jesus, “all of you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon me on you and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in the heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

So just as it was for Jesus, so it’s also important for us to find places and times where we can give our full attention to God, where we can sit and allow our hearts to be stilled, where we can turn our hears and our eyes toward God and open ourselves to how God might want to speak to us in that moment. Monastics throughout history have spoken about the importance of silence and solitude. Here are some words from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “Souls of prayer are souls of great silence. If we are careful of silence, it will be easy to pray and to pray fervently. There is so much talk, so much repetition, so much caring of tales in words and in writing, our life suffers so much because our hearts are not silent. Silence gives us a new outlook on everything. We need to be silent in order to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us.

Jesus is always waiting for us in silence. In that silence, he will listen to us. There, he will speak to our soul, and there, we will hear his voice.” Jesus presents himself as the good shepherd, the one who knows his sheep. And he says, my sheep know me, they hear my voice and they follow me. Unlike the hired hand, who has no investment in the sheep, who runs away at the first sign of danger. The sheep don’t respond to his voice, but they do respond to the voice of the one that they’ve come to know and trust. And Jesus is offering us that same possibility, that he wants to be our good shepherd and to lead us in the way. And he wants us to learn to recognize his voice. So the first thing about prayer is this openness to the voice, this attentiveness, this awareness. And stillness and silence and solitude are so important for discerning that voice. It’s like if we scooped up a jar full of pond water and shook it a little bit, it would be cloudy and murky. But if we set it on a table for a while and come back an hour later, we’ll see that the silt has settled to the bottom and we can see clearly through the water. So these times of silence and solitude, where we come apart and still ourselves, are very important for us to gain that kind of clarity that we need in order to perceive what God is asking of us.

Here’s a second thing in the story of Samuel. And that is that the voice of God is a persistent voice. So it’s a voice that comes to us, not just once, unless we miss it or fail to perceive it, but comes to us again and again and again until finally it takes hold of us and we understand its fullness and can lean into it. So often when we arrive at a place of clarity in our life where we can look back and say, this is really what God has called me to be and to do, I’ve found this sense of vocation in this work or in this place. And we look back over our life and we see how that call was coming to us repeatedly in our history. And we had opportunities to experience and to waken to little bits of that call until finally we get to live in the fullness of it. So God’s voice is a persistent voice. God doesn’t just come to us once, but he comes to us again and again, persistently. Samuel’s story, he comes three times, repeatedly coming. So that word is gently but persistently repeated over and over again, until we find they wake up to its full meaning and impact. A third thing that we can notice in Samuel’s story is that sometimes it’s helpful to have a more experienced guide listening aside of us.

The story of Samuel mentions that the word of the Lord was not frequently heard at that time. And so even Eli seems a little rusty and it takes him three times before he finally understands what’s happening and can instruct and tell Samuel how to recognize this voice and how to respond to it and what he should say. And he sends him back to lie down and says, “When you hear this voice, say, speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. And then be careful to listen to every word and take the message in.” And so Samuel goes back and lies down again. And again, the voice of God comes to him. He wakes hearing his name called, and he says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And he receives a message. I wonder how Samuel felt about the message that he received, because the message he received from God was basically a condemnation of Eli and his whole household. Eli had not been faithful and had raised two sons who were disrupting the temple and were not good influences. And God was speaking judgment through Samuel. And so sometimes we receive a word that seems difficult to us or that seems harsh. Remember that that word has always spoken in love. Even if it’s a word of admonition or of rebuke, even.

So we open ourselves to this message and we prepare ourselves to hear whatever God wants to communicate to us. There’s always, even in the most difficult word, a sense of rightness about it. And we see that in this story too, because Eli accepts the message. He says to Samuel, “Tell me everything that God said to you, don’t hold anything back.” And Samuel gives him this message of doom for his house. And Eli says, “Let it be according to God’s word.” He accepts this judgment. He knows that it’s right and that’s true. And the same thing will be true for us as we listen to God. We’ll have a sense of rightness about it, a sense of, yes, this is true, this resonates with what I know about God and what I know about myself. That’ll be the ring of truth to the words that God gives us. So we prepare ourselves for this message. When Samuel was called, he was still a boy, and God was calling him to be a prophet, and specifically, calling him to deliver this difficult message to Eli, the high priest.

God often calls us beyond ourselves, beyond what we think we’re capable of. And God calls us to greater things. God’s voice is usually the invitation to something that’s expansive for us, something that’s beyond what we are now or who we are now or what we think we’re capable of now. We see this again and again in scripture. God appears to Moses in the wilderness. Moses is a simple shepherd, and he says, “Moses, I want you to go into Egypt and speak to Pharaoh so that he will release my people from their slavery there.” And the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, and says, “I want you to be a prophet to the nations.” And the word comes to Mary, and says to this simple peasant girl, “You are about to give birth to the savior of the world.” So God’s call calls us beyond ourselves, beyond our own limited view of ourselves, maybe our limited view of the world, maybe our limited view of what God can do. God’s voice is always leading us to something greater, to something that will expand and stretch and challenge us. I don’t think Moses or Jeremiah or even Mary were particularly reassured by that call. It seemed daunting to them. Moses says, “I can’t speak, I’m a stutterer. I need Aaron to go along with me.” Jeremiah says, “I’m just a boy. How can I speak to the nations?” And Mary says, “How can this be?” She’s simply a young girl in a small village in Galilee. But God has God’s way of drawing us on and of challenging us.

So God’s word to us is often a daring word, an expansive word. Often it’s a surprising word. It surprises us and leads us beyond where we could imagine ourselves to be. Now, the other thing that’s clear in this story is that sometimes it takes a while to learn to recognize the voice of God. So we should be patient with ourselves and say, this is something that I will get better at with time. And we’ll come to know that voice and come to recognize it in various contexts and situations, but it takes time. I think of it as, for example, when a music teacher is teaching young children about the instruments in the orchestra, and she might take a flute and play the flute for them and say, “This is what the flute sounds like, and this is the melody that the flute plays in this piece.” And then, after they’ve learned to recognize that voice, she asks them to listen to it as she puts on the whole recording of the orchestra and all these instruments join in. And they wait and listen, and when they hear the sound of the flute, they recognize it. And I think it’s something similar for us. We go away in places of silence and solitude in order to receive the training that we need to recognize that voice. And then, when we step out into the world again, and we’re surrounded by all the voices of our culture, the voices of our friends, the voices of our peers, the voices of advertising, the voices of the culture, whereas we’re bombarded by all of these voices, we can still hear that one voice amidst all of the other noise. Really come to know that voice and to anticipate it and to love it, and to be eager to follow where it shows us to go.

So discernment, spiritual discernment, is this coming to recognize the voice of God and silence, stillness are important. Attentiveness, willingness to listen, eagerness to hear and to do what God says. Sometimes we need an experienced guide, like Samuel needed Eli, to come alongside us and to listen with us, to help train us to recognize the voice of God. So a spiritual director or a pastor or a spiritual friend can be very useful to us. And remember that God’s voice is always calling us on, and calling us to greater things, and calling us beyond our limited vision in our limited imagination. Jesus says, “Even greater things will you do than the ones that you see me doing.” God’s voice is always an expansive voice. And it takes time for us to learn, to heed, to recognize, to discern and to follow that voice. In our next video, the second video in this series, we’ll be talking specifically about what we mean when we use terms like vocation or a calling in life, to say, I feel called to do this or that, or I feel like I have a vocation to this in this line of work or in this type of service. So we’ll explore that in our next video, and I hope that you’ll join us then.


  1. Jaan Sass on October 29, 2021 at 22:03

    This is a topic that always make me nervous I have heard strangest come preachers claiming to hear God and make outlandish predictions etc. I am glad you emphasized be quiet and listening making to a personal message that leads to action.

  2. Patricia on October 21, 2021 at 05:35

    Oh. The silence of the monastery on retreat or a short visit provided such a sacred place of silence. How to find such a space now is not easy. We long for it’s comfort, challenges, companionship. Maybe a walk at Emery House will be the place to start?

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