The rest of the world makes decisions, but the church discerns. If that were just a choice of words, it wouldn’t be important. But Ruth Haley Barton believes the difference goes much deeper. To discern is to find the will of God.
“Christian leaders have an idea that their decision-making should be somehow different from the rest of the world,” Barton said in a presentation to the Mennonite Church USA Constituency Leaders Council on March 26 at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan. “But sometimes we reduce that to just having a prayer and devotions at the beginning of the meeting.”
Discernment is more than a nod to God.
At a time when MC USA is experiencing conflict over same-sex relationships and church polity, Barton’s message was timely. Though she spoke to leaders dealing with major issues, her ideas apply to every Christian and to all of life.
Barton is a teacher and writer about Christian formation and church leadership at the Transforming Center in Wheaton, Ill., who will speak to delegates at the MC USA convention in Kansas City in July.
She defines discernment as “the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God in both the ordinary moments and the larger decisions of our lives.”
Discernment is the habit of noticing where God is at work and how God is speaking. Barton believes it is possible, in any situation, to “have a sense of whether God is at work or the Evil One is at work.” This needs to happen even in the interior world of our own thoughts and motives. 1 John 4:1 advises us to “test the spirits.” Are we willing to test our own spirit?
To do this, we need to listen to God in solitude and silence.
“Many of us are trying to give spiritual leadership without having much of a spiritual life,” Barton said. We must not let our busyness — even our Christian busyness — keep us from being aware of what is going on in our own soul. We need to be quiet and hear the voice of God as distinct from our own voice.
To whom does God give the spiritual gift of discernment? To those who are on a spiritual journey, Barton says. To those who let God transform them into a better version of themselves.
Sometimes the ones most gifted with keen spiritual perception are quiet and rarely speak up. Leaders should seek their counsel.
To become more discerning, Barton advises praying a prayer of indifference: “Not my will but thine.” This is not apathy but surrender. “The prayer of indifference helps us cross the threshold between human decision-making and the will of God,” Barton said. It is not easy to pray sincerely for indifference. “You will not be able to make yourself indifferent by trying really hard and gritting your teeth,” Barton said. “God has to be doing a work in you.”
And yet, any group of Christians might pray the most earnest prayers of indifference and still disagree about what God’s will is on a certain issue. Barton acknowledges that “part of the work of discernment is talking about how important unity is to us and what to do if we don’t reach agreement.”
We might perceive that part of God’s will is to stay in fellowship with each other. God knows we won’t agree about everything. When there is not unity of mind, there still can be unity in Christ and unity of spirit. If we can discern it.