I recently returned from a retreat on discernment led by Ruth Haley Barton as part of her Transforming Community. Ruth teaches, writes, and practices great stuff in regard to becoming discerning people and organizations. The church and world are desperately in need of her wisdom and the practices she encourages in this area. Leading up to this retreat, our group had already been together each quarter for 3 days over 18 months with shared commitments and practices that have brought us to being more the kind of people who could soak in and apply good advice from Ruth and others about receiving God's guidance in our lives. As she often points out, it's silly for us to expect discernment from undiscerning people. But thankfully, because of reliable rhythms of the spiritual life that we have practiced together over the last year and a half, many of us are at a place where we are ready for better ways of listening for and following God (and are desperate to do so).
Ruth encouraged us to come into this retreat with a decision, big or small, to take into the discernment process. That was easy for me to do, and Ruth's teaching on both the habit and practice of discernment were very helpful. I didn't leave the retreat with any clear decisions made, but I did leave with a clear assurance: We can never go wrong by making the choice that helps us to be more fully God's.
Certainly some decisions carry more weight than others. We understand the impact that the choice of a spouse or a career can have on our lives, and many other important decisions are of lesser importance. But there's a part of us that understands that we never really know the extent to which a decision is going to impact our lives. For example, I knew that choosing to leave home and attend Asbury College fourteen years ago was a big decision; I had no idea how much it would impact the rest of my life. The people I met, the passion for study that I found, and the opportunities that came my way in the course of living out that decision ended up having tremendous impact: my wife, the jobs I've had, the friends I turn to, and much of the kind of person I am have all been very heavily influenced by that decision. That's a very positive example, but we all know that the negative examples exist too.
If you're like me, someone to whom deciding correctly is of inestimable value, the unknown future impact of our current decisions can feel paralyzing. What if we choose wrongly? Or what if we miss choosing what's best?
I entered the retreat feeling those fears, and when I left I understood that yes, decisions involve risk. A decision may or may not end up with things going as well as possible, or being the most lucrative in a variety of ways. In those terms, we may make the wrong decision, but... we never know ahead of time how those things will play out. And while I don't know those things, I usually do have an idea of which choice(s) will most effectively help me be more fully God's. I usually have some idea of which option(s) will be more conducive to growing Jesus' kind of character in me, so that qualities like love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness are most likely to grow in me. If I choose in favor of that, I cannot choose wrongly.
One of my heroes, Stu, taught me this in different words a long time ago when he said, "Make sure you're in God's will today, and you won't miss being in it tomorrow." The best decision for you and I today, regardless of which day of our lives today is, is always to be more fully God's, because God always has- and always will- see that we are cared for.
(If you're in leadership and want to know more about Ruth's ideas on discernment, check out her outstanding book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, particularly Chapter 12.)