DISCERNMENT AS A WAY OF BEING
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
How do you decide which path to take when you come to a fork in the road? I decided to check this out on the web. When I did, I came across a chain of restaurants in America called "Fork in the Road". I was also presented with their menus so that I could choose what I wanted to eat long before I got to the restaurant. That, I thought, was an excellent idea. If you are like me, you will know how much time we spend trying to make up our minds about what to order. We listen to what others are ordering, we look around at other tables to see what other people have chosen, and when we finally decide, we are still not sure, and then change our minds at the last minute and end up choosing what we always choose. Most people in the world never have to deal with this problem because they can't afford to eat at restaurants. They have to subsist on the same food day after day if they have any in the first place. So we should consider ourselves lucky when we have a choice, not just about food but about much else besides. In fact we often have too many choices on offer and some people I know spend much time weighing up the pros and cons of each before making their decision.
But how much time do we give to discerning the will of God for our lives? What choices we should make when we are faced with decisions about what to do? How do we discern what is right, good, acceptable. and even perfect, as Paul counsels? Do we act on impulse without too much reflection, as I sometimes do, and perhaps some of you as well, then live to regret what we did? Or do we do the opposite, procrastinate, unable to make up our minds, unable to make a decision whether it is in ordering from a menu, buying a dress, or making life determining choices? If we procrastinate too much we miss opportunities we should have grasped, and sometimes end up making bad choices in any case. It is not a sin to act impulsively or procrastinate; some of us are just like that. It is who we are. But when it comes to life determining choices, or choices that affect others, we need are impulsive or procrastinate by nature, and we need to be more discerning. Discernment is wisdom in action, whether we make up our minds slowly or swiftly.
I have benefitted greatly from people of wisdom who have helped me in making life-determining choices. We all need such friends whose discernment we can trust, friends who are going to help us make choices that are right and good, not just pleasing, expedient or convenient. Friends who can walk with us through good and bad times, friends who are with us when we come to that dreaded fork in the road where the alternatives are not always clear, and the right way not obvious. But in the end, we ourselves have to make the decisions necessary for living our lives. And we have to do so in a world that is increasingly complex, a world that is in danger of imploding because there is much knowledge but not a great deal of wisdom or even common sense! That is why we need to exercise discernment, and practice doing so ir order that it becomes a habit, a way of being Christian in the world.
St. Paul tells us that discernment is a gift of the Spirit. It is, we might say, sanctified common sense. For us as Christians, such Spirit-led discernment is fundamental to living because we are not just asking what is the right thing to do, or the right path to choose, but what is God's will for us, for you and me. But if we are to exercise discernment, Paul tells us, we "have to be transformed by the renewing of our minds." In other words, we have undergo a daily conversion, a turning around, in order to see things differently, from God's perspective. And this can only happen if we daily reflect on the gospel so that our minds can be renewed by the Spirit, open to the Spirit's guidance, and do what was discern is God's will for us.
I remember the time when I was thinking about going into the ministry. I was still very young so I discussed it with various people whose insight I trusted. But my father, who was not a very spiritual person at all, took me aside and said "I hope you know what you are doing. Ministers are badly paid so you won't make any money!" In other words, if I knew what was good for me I would not choose to become a minister or a priest. He wanted me to do a reality check and not be carried away by impulsive enthusiasm! How necessary that was. I was being forced to ask whether this was really what God wanted me to do. And that was not a question that common sense could answer. It required discernment, not just my own, but also that of others who had to test my sense of vocation.
The same is true for Volmoed. If we really want to make money we could sell Volmoed to some big property developer who could turn the farm it into an upmarket housing estate. That would be good business sense. But those who started the Volmoed Community thirty years ago, who had no money to speak of, were not buying Volmoed as a business venture. They had a vision of something God wanted them to do. To create a place that God could use for healing and reconciliation. This was not a common sense decision; this was the result of Christian discernment. It was discovering where the Spirit was leading them. In the same way, those of us who have met here at Volmoed this week to think and pray about the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Project have not just been planning what to do, but seeking discern what God wants us to do. Communal discernment lies at the heart of being a Christian community. This is what we continually read about in the Acts of the Apostles, as we did today in the story about Paul and Timothy who, being prevented by the Spirit to turn east, crossed over into Macedonia and so planted the church in Greece. And what a momentous decision that turned out to be!
Wherever you are in your journey of faith, and whatever decisions you may still have to make, whether large or small, use your common sense, think clearly for that is why we have brains! But as a Christian let your common sense be sanctified by the Spirit, and allow your mind to be renewed so that you may learn to discern God's will for you in the decisions you make. This requires prayer and contemplation as it does reflection on the gospel. But it is only in this the way as individuals and communities of faith that we discern what is good, acceptable and perfect for us, because it is the will of God for us.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 8 February 2016