It is a popular question to ask pastors or religious leaders in general: “How do I know God’s will for my life?” or “How can I know what God wants me to do?” Just as folks go to the doctor to figure out what is wrong with them when they are sick, it’s pastors that suddenly get so popular when life’s confusing crossroads hit.
For me, when I get asked questions like this, I usually feel inadequate (not because I didn’t go to seminary or take lots of pastoral care classes while there) but because it is as if the questioner is asking me to play the role of God in their life, telling them what they are to do as they face difficult decisions.
At heart, I see the role of a pastor to be that like a spiritual director but even a deeper relationship than that a counselor has with their clients: an intentional relationship between a people and one called out to lead of figuring out what it means to find the presence of God in community. And so for this reason, the pastor still serves in the role of learner as much as he or she does as teacher. Thus, for any pastor to give a specific answer to “This is what God wants from you” with complete authority can often be off base and misstated. One of my favorite prayers from Thomas Merton speaks of the fact that as much as we think we are doing God’s will, we may not be.
So, if even pastor types can not speak definitively for God with absolute certainty, then how can we know? How can we discern God’s steps for us when we reach junctures of big decisions?
As I’ve asked these same questions myself, I’ve come to see a way of discernment that doesn’t always have to include words shouted from the heavens with my name in them or having moments of great epiphany in prayer. It’s actually much more messy than this.
Simple practice of putting one step in front of another and seeing what comes. Knowing that as I go down a path, the Spirit can be trusted to show me where I am to be and where red flags are shouting “stay away, go the other direction.”
Sometimes discernment comes in a word of a friend that I can’t seem to get out of my mind.
Sometimes discernment comes as intuition that I believe from my heart that can’t be shaken, no matter what occurs.
Sometimes discernment comes as pieces of a life direction falling together in ways that I know I could never dream up or orchestrate on my own even if I tried.
Though I am often not much help to those who come to me seeking “the answer” to their troubles, hopefully what I can do as a pastor, as a friend, as a wife is to listen, to say what I hear and hope for the Spirit to make clear what needs to rise up and what needs to fall away. Because after all, this is what faith community is at its best. For as much as I can be this for fellow travelers on the journey, I need the same folks to do this for me too.