It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.C. S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”
“Should I retire?” That is a question I asked myself repeatedly over the last several years and intensely earlier this year before deciding to retire. I was well paid and enjoyed many of my co-workers, but the work was decidedly unrewarding and frustrating. My wife and I had been conservative with our money and had set aside a sufficient nest egg to allow retirement financially. By any natural measure, I could retire, but the question remained, “Should I retire.”
While I was asking myself this question, I was also asking God the same question: Should I retire? I want to tell you that I was as intentional in listening for the Father’s will as I was in listening to financial advisors, but I wasn’t. I would love to let you know that I spent more time praying about my decision than checking (and double-checking) retirement account balances, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t cutting God entirely out of the picture; I really did want my decision to reflect God’s will. And I wanted to retire!
Writing today, five months after I turned in my notice and set aside a lucrative career, I wonder about my discernment process. Was I aligning my choice with God’s will, or was I trying to convince myself that God wanted what I had already settled in my mind? Was I seeking guidance or an accomplice?
Many excellent arguments pointed to retirement, but they resulted from human reasoning, not discernment. I was much more interested in enumerating justifications for the answer I wanted than hearing what the Father would say about it. Our minds and our ability to think and reason are gifts from God. It would be foolish for us not to use them. And it is a capital mistake to confound reasoning about what will be good for us (we think) with discernment. The Apostle Paul did not rely on cleverness and his powers of persuasion; he relied on the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 2:13)
If discernment is not thinking our way to a conclusion based on what we know about God (for example, that he wants good for me), what is it? Let’s use this definition: “being aware of God’s activity in our daily lives and aware of his desire for us and how he may desire us to act in matters large and small.” That sounds simple. Apparently, it is not: A quick search on amazon.com yields over two thousand Christian titles on “discernment.” That is a lot of thought and writing on something that sounds simple.
Discernment Should Not Be Hard
Hearing God and being aware of his actions and desires in our lives should be easy and natural. Yet, for most of us, the opposite is true. Discernment, which should be a matter of course for those indwelt by the Spirit, can nonetheless be hard for us to put into practice. When I reflect on my retirement “discernment,” I am aware of four necessary things for discernment and can see where I struggled with most of them. Those four things we need are:
- Believing that God loves us and desires the best for us
- Believing that discernment is possible; that is, we can hear and understand what God may be saying
- Being open to hearing an answer that is not what we want to hear
- Waiting for clarity
Believing That God Loves Us and Desires The Best For Us
This one should be dead easy for us. It is hard to imagine a Christ follower who believes God does not love us and desires the best for us. However, we trip ourselves up when we confound our idea of what is best for us with God’s. We can set ourselves up to “discern” the answer we have already decided is best.
Our capacity for self-deception is enormous. Physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” We are primed to see, hear, and believe things that align with what we already believe to be true or simply want to be true. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” We tend to notice, interpret, and remember things in ways that align with our values, beliefs, and desires.
When I did seek the Father’s heart, I operated under the confirmation bias trifecta. I desired the answer “yes.” I wasn’t happy working; God wants the best for me (I easily assume that to mean he wants me to be happy in my work); Therefore, I believed God would want me to retire. Finally, I valued kingdom work and ministry above piling up ever more wealth in my barns (Luke 12:16-21).
Notice the trap here. Everything I desired, believed, and valued is good and right, but that doesn’t mean they should set my course. The problem is that our internal bias can leave us spiritually deaf. I would have been wise to invite trusted others into the discernment process with me, people who are unlikely to share in my confirmation bias. Ecclesiastes 4 speaks to the folly of going it on our own, and Jesus promised to be with us when two or three are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20).
Believing That Discernment Is Possible
The model of God’s interactions with us, as seen in Eden, is one of regular presence and easy conversation. Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve could expect God to walk among them in the garden in the cool of the evening; they had to go out of the way and hide to avoid encountering Him! (Genesis. 3:8)
We duly note that was before the fall. Man was banished from the garden. God no longer walks among us as he did with our first parents. But in Jesus, God became Emanual, God with us. He once again walked among us, and just before his crucifixion, he reassured his followers that we would not be left on our own; through the Holy Spirit, he will continue to be with us:
But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. … When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’John 14:26, 16:13-15 (NLT)
He not only walks with us and talks with us, but he makes his home with us (John 14:23). Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, God will continue to teach, convict, and encourage us, guiding us into all truth.
Paul took the active presence of the Holy Spirit in and with us as natural and expected:
- The Spirit of God dwells within us. (Romans 8:11)
- God reveals truth and wisdom through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 4:10)
- Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19)
- The Holy Spirit will help guard the truth entrusted to us. (2 Timothy 1:14)
I find the scriptural witness to be clear. We do not have a God who keeps himself and his desires for us hidden. But the journey from head to heart is perilous. I knew God likely had a lot of interest in my decision to retire. Yet my fickle heart seemed not to believe that he cared much one way or another. My head said, “seek to know the Father’s will;” my heart said, “you are on your own here.”
I have had rich, transcendent, even mystical experiences of God. I know God can be present to us, but I still functioned as if he wouldn’t be present in this instance or as if I already knew his heart, having reasoned my way to that conclusion. Certainly, my desires and biases came into play. I would have been well served to have spent time meditating on the scriptures noted above to help move my head-knowledge about God’s guidance down into my heart.
Being Open To Hearing An Answer That Is Not What We Want To Hear
When we approach discernment as an exercise in confirmation, it is much harder for us to apprehend what the Lord may be saying to us. My mind was pretty well made up; I wanted to retire and knew I could retire. If God was saying, “not now, not yet,” would I have been willing to hear that? Letting go of our desires is quite hard. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, begins with the First Principle and Foundation, which concludes with:
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some responsibility. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God.David A. Fleming, S.J.: A Literal Translation & Contemporary Reading of the Spiritual Exercises
Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.
The ability to want only what will draw us closer to God or to want only what he wants for us needs to be our table stakes in discernment. I did not begin times of discernment by affirming my desire to choose what would deepen God’s life within me; I should have. Instead, I started with wanting God to want what I wanted.
Waiting For Clarity
Patience is a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is a fruit that I often lack, especially in discernment. When I want an answer, I want it now. I don’t want to wait. Yet waiting is a crucial component to our discernment that enables the other three. When seeking an answer, I should seek the wisdom of others; that will take time. I must prayerfully remind myself of God’s spirit dwelling within me, offering counsel and wisdom; that will take time. I need to reset my expectations, asking the Holy Spirit to help me want only what God wants for me; that will take time.
Often, we seek discernment in a time of trial or when we are making a significant decision. As hard as it may be, those are exactly the times we need to slow down, invite others into our discernment, carefully examine our biases, and pray for the grace to trust God above all, especially above our own wisdom.
Reflecting on my “discernment,” I can see how I hamstrung the process. What would the answer have been had I approached discernment in a healthier way? I cannot know. I do know that most, if not all, of the myriad kingdom activities I had planned and used as justification for my decision have not come to pass. I also know that latent anxiety has come to the fore since my retirement, so I suspect I did not move according to the Father’s heart and timing.
But all is not lost. We serve a redemptive God who will work in and through our missteps and mistakes. He does not leave on our own. I am seeing new ministry opportunities that I would never have expected and much different than I imagined. I hope I am still learning my discernment lessons, and I am trusting that whatever God has in store for me will ultimately draw me closer to him. Will I have the retirement that I could have enjoyed had I truly discerned the Father’s heart? Probably not. But God will use even our mistakes when we turn back to him.
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Featured image: by Ana Municio on Unsplash
A note to readers: For quite a while I have restricted my posts to chapters of “In Pops’ Workshop.” There are still more chapters to come, but I am also posting general blog posts (such as this one) as well.