Discern and Affirm What is Pleasing to the Lord

written by Peter D. Spychalla, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation

 Multiplying When Light is Dim.  I just counted.  It’s 177 plus three more.  But that’s just upstairs in my home office—I’m always uncovering more hiding in the basement.  When I go downstairs, quickly turn on the light, and scan those delightful bookshelves, I see more of them scattered among the books on prayer, books on spiritual formation, books on spiritual direction, and books on vocation.  Books on “How to Find God’s Will” seemingly multiply in the dark.

When the light on our path is dim—when shadow pervades—questions seemingly multiply in the dark.  Lord, am I doing the right thing?  Should I be going a different direction?  Please, Lord, illumine my path—I am confused.  Shepherd—are you guiding me?  Could You please speak up?—I’m having trouble hearing You.

Accepting Incompleteness.  We may wish for a mechanical procedure that would always tell us to turn left or turn right in life.  I loved mathematics in college.  I delighted in the elegance, definiteness, and certainty of conclusions reached!  Then Kurt Gödel with his incompleteness theorems burst my bubble—even modest mathematical systems can neither prove every mathematical truth in the system nor prove their own consistency.  If mathematics is incomplete, it is no surprise that ordinary life leaves us with decisions, choices, and pathways that involve mystery and uncertainty.

Some of the 177, plus three more, books on “How to Find God’s Will” emphasize rational, cognitive, Scripture-based factors for acting in wisdom, while others highlight subjective movements of God within our own hearts—perhaps an Ignatian discernment of consolations and desolations in the soul.  Yet, wise decision making does not reduce to a mechanical procedure that yields sure guidance—rather, we have to discern and affirm a course of action.

Character to Discern and Affirm.  In four texts describing wise decision making, the Apostle Paul uses a verb which means to “discern and affirm” (or “test and approve” or “carefully determine“).  He urges believers at Thessalonica to “carefully determine everything, hold fast to the good” (1 Thess 5:21-22).  He prays that Philippian believers may “discern and affirm the things that are best” (Phil 1:10).  He commands Ephesian believers to walk in the light so that they will “discern and affirm what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:10).  Paul exhorts believers at Rome to yield fully their lives to the Lord and let their minds be transformed so that they will “discern and affirm the will of God, which is good, pleasing, and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

The foundation of wise decision making is not procedure or method.  It is character.  In all four of these ancient epistles, Paul takes pains to shape his readers to be more like Christ in heart, mind, words, and actions.  It is within the context of character formation that he exhorts them to determine what is best.  From a heart and mind saturated with God—from Christ-like character—a believer can discern and affirm a wise course of action.

Lord, Think through Me.  Amy Carmichael, missionary to India for 55 years without a furlough, entreated the Lord, “Holy Spirit think through me till your ideas are my ideas.”  Let us be shaped—through trials, through the valley of the shadow, through perplexity, through difficulty—to increasingly have the mind of Christ, the heart of Christ, the character of Christ.

When light on my path is dim, as questions multiply in the dark—as I reach for the 177, plus three more, books to help—might I accept that the Loving Shepherd is transforming me to share His character so that I might discern and approve what is pleasing to the Lord.

Shepherd, indeed you are guiding me!