Friday, July 4, 2014

Christian Discernment (Proverbs 3:5-6)

SCRIPTURE: Proverbs 3:5-6
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: July 4th, 2014

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:5-6)

What is God's will? This is one question that has everyone agreeing as important but equally mystifying to many. Should I get married? If yes, who is the right one? If no, why? Which college should I apply for? What if there are no job interviews for me? Is it God's will to have children? One? Two? Or Three? What does the Bible say about discernment?

A) Christian Discernment: Man's Will or God's?

This week, I want to start looking at Christian Discernment, what it is and some thoughts about moving forward with it in our daily lives. I still remember vividly Parker Palmer's vocational discernment exercise that he had with a group of Quaker brothers. It was in his early years teaching sociology at Pendle Hill. One day, Palmer received an invitation to be the President of a small educational institution. He was flattered and enthused by the opportunity. Yet, something in him prompted him to get further affirmation from people he trusts. This group of people mainly helps him to discern what is God's will through listening and questioning. In truth, Palmer had already decided that he would take up the job. He only wanted the "clearness committee" to rubber stamp it to erase any doubt. The questions that came were easy, at least to Palmer. He had everything all thought out and ready answers to give. All of a sudden, one question stumped him: "What would you like most about being a president?" Eventually, Palmer was forced to a corner. Whatever answers he had given were of no consequence except one. Softly and meekly he said:

"Well, I guess what I'd like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it."

The reply to that honesty cracked everyone up: "Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?"

B) Is Proverbs 3:5-6 a Magical Formula for God's Will?

Pride. Ego. Self-glory. These are three major areas that put man's will above God's will. In Proverbs 3:5-6, we see the wisdom of the writer in telling us that trusting in God is better than to trust in man's judgment. We are to trust God with all of our hearts. We are not to lean on our own understanding. We are to submit to God in all things. We are to trust that God will direct us. Dr Bruce Waltke warns us against misinterpreting the word "direct." His observation on Proverbs 3:5-6 is worth quoting here.
"Countless times I have heard people quote Proverbs 3:5-6 as a basis for divining God's will: 'Trust in the LORD with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths' (KJV). Many people read the word 'direct' and assume that this verse means God will give them special direction in the everyday decisions of life. But the Hebrew word literally means to 'go straight,' so a sound exegesis reveals that if you trust God you will not go outside the bounds of what the book of Proverbs teaches. When it says that 'he shall direct thy paths' it does not mean that God will offer you special revelation, but that He will make your track right because you are living your life in accordance with the words of Proverbs." (Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion?, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995, p67)
God's will is not about a magic formula in order for us to do what our heart want to do. It is about making sure that we stay within the will of God according to the clear words of Scripture. We need to remain within the boundaries of God's Word. While the will of God is scriptural, finding a magical answer to our earthly problems is more pagan than Christian. How do we know the difference?

Perspective is important. How do we approach the Word of God? Do we use it like a magic book or are we using it as the Word of God we would submit to? Do we read it only when we want answers for our own problems or are we reading it regardless of whether we have problems or not? Are we more interested in answers or are we more interested in knowing God? Sometimes, motives are hard to discern. Our modern world has taught us a lot about efficiency, effectiveness, and efficacy. These things provide good and powerful ways to get things done. However, wisdom is necessary with regard to purpose, timing, the people, and many other factors. In other words, it is not about doing the right thing that is important. It is about doing the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, in the right place, with the right manner, with the right attitude, using the right resources, and the right spiritual wisdom. That is tough. It calls for clarity, and Proverbs 3:5-6 shows us the need for clarity.

B) Christian Discernment is an Exercise in Clarity

Peter Shaw is one of the first four students to graduate from Regent College. He is Executive Coach and a former Director General in the UK Government. He is also a visiting professor at the Newcastle University Business School. He has also taught Summer School at Regent College over the years. In talking about Christian Discernment, Shaw points out two things:

  • What are our sources of authority?
  • What are the Christian values that guide our decision making?

He adds that these two need to be surrounded by the Christian practices of prayer, experience, meditation and clarity.
"What is most distinctive about Christian discernment is the richness of Christian experience, prayer, meditation, and the clarity of understanding that can come through thinking through the teaching and approach of Jesus. There may be moments of complete clarity when there is a strong sense of being aligned with God's will. On other occasions, it is much less clear cut, but there grows a quiet sense of being at peace with a particular decision when we sense that we are part of God's purposes in moving an issue to resolution." (Peter Shaw, Deciding Well, Regent Publising, 2009, p39)
I fear that too many believers are good at getting things done. What they do not do so well is to incorporate wisdom into their decisions. Spiritual wisdom is not something we do but something we catch. We need to catch the wind of the Spirit. In order to catch the Spirit, we must clear our decks from human selfishness, pride, and ego. That is why we are urged to "lean not on your own understanding."

C) Catch the Wind

I believe at the heart of it all is the need for clarity. This is why I believe Palmer has really given us a helpful guide. A gifted teacher, Palmer advocates the use of a "Clearness Committee" to help us discern the Spirit's leading. Such a committee is not about solving problems. It is about cultivating clarity in the head of the decision making.  It is about creating space for the decision maker to be himself or herself. It is about honesty and willingness to do what God is saying. You can read more about the "Clearness Committee" approach here.  "In all your ways submit to him" is a reminder once again that clarity begins with submitting to God.  It is not about our pros and cons, but about what is most honourable to God. Not every pro is honourable to God. Not every con is dishourable. The moment we use pros and cons as the way of discernment, we become masters of our own decision making. If pros-and-cons is the way to do spiritual discernment, then we don't need God. We don't need any "Clearness Committee." Many people can list down the advantages and the disadvantages. Do we then table up the list and use a points formula? That in itself is an exercise in subjectivity no matter how objective we claim our exercise to be.

Spiritual discernment is about clarity and about understanding our own inner beings. What motivates us? What makes us more in tune with God's prompting? What brings honour to God more? If we are clear headed about what God wants, we will be clear about what we need to do. The battle is very much in the heart of man, which is why a "Clearness Committee" is a powerful light to make sure that we clear our decks well.

Trust. Dependence on God. Doing the will of God begins in obeying the clear instructions of Scripture as we wait for the Holy Spirit to teach us on the not so clear parts. More importantly, when we truly know God's heart and when we are truly desiring to do God's will, we may even hear something soft and assuring: "Child, it doesn't matter which option you take, as long as you are with Me." 

"Knowing God's heart means consistently, radically and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation, and despair begins to invade the human cell this is not something that comes from God. This sounds very simple and maybe trite, but very few people know that they are loved without any conditions or limits." (Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, NY: Crossroads, 1989)


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