|One of my prayer and discernment meeting places with God (Sterling State Park, Lake Erie) - a 7 mile bike ride from home.|
No one writes better on the subject of spiritual discernment than Ruth Haley Barton, except for perhaps Henri Nouwen.
How do we grow in discernment?
"Cultivating the habit of discernment means we are always seeking the movement of God's Spirit so we can abandon ourselves to it. Sometimes abandoning ourselves to the will of God is like floating down a river: we relax and allow the current of the river to carry us along. At other times it is more like trying to run the rapids or ride a large wave: we must keep our body and mind attuned to the dynamic of the water so we can ride it to its destination rather than being toppled by its force. Either way, we do not set the direction or the speed of the current; rather, we seek the best way to let the current carry us in the direction God has for us." (Barton, "Discernment As a Way of Life")
One important part of discernment is "discernment of spirits" (1 Corinthians 12:10). 1 John 4:1 instructs us to "test the spirits to see if they are from God." Barton writes:
"The discernment of spirits helps us to distinguish the real from the phony, the true from the false, in the external world but also in the interior world of our own thoughts and motives. As we become more attuned to these subtle spiritual dynamics, we are able to distinguish between what is good (that which moves us toward God and his calling upon our lives) and what is evil (that which draws us away from God)."
Barton draws on Ignatius' idea that the dynamics of spiritual discernment involve "consolation" and "desolation."
"Consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our authentic self. We may experience it as a sense that all is right with the world, that we are free to be given over to God and love, even in moments of pain and crisis. Desolation is the loss of a sense of God's presence; indeed, we feel out of touch with God, with others and with our authentic self. It might be an experience of being off-center, full of turmoil, confusion, and maybe even rebellion. Or we might sense our energy draining away, tension in our gut or tears welling in our eyes."
This is so helpful to me. I have found that these senses regularly accompany my experience of times of discernment.
"For instance, you might be going through something very difficult—perhaps the death of someone close, or quitting a job, or ending a relationship that is not good for you. There certainly is sadness or fear and concern about the future. But underneath these emotions, you might also identify a deep sense of wellbeing—"the peace that passes understanding" (Philippians 4:7), God's presence comforting or leading you. This is consolation."
For more read the entire article.
See also Barton's beautiful book Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.