The Magic Of Discernment


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What of our Quaker method of discerning the will of God by sitting in silent worship?

We treat discernment as a sort of magical process. We sit in a Meeting for Worship with a practical dilemma before us. We believe, and to some extent it is our experience, that we will individually and collectively arrive at the morally right action (or non-action). We perform the ritual and the magic works to give the answer, rather like the ancients consulting the oracle at Delphi. I don’t believe this is how discernment works in reality anymore than I believe in the prophetic interpretation of the drug-induced mumblings of a teen-age girl at ancient Delphi.

Discernment is a mystical process but in my experience it works – when used properly.

Discernment is an active and experimental exercise, as Fox well understood. My experience is that sometimes circumstances and situations nudge, prompt and steer one. Doors open and close. Sometimes it is profoundly disheartening to pursue a line of action for years only to find that one reaches a dead end. This is the spiritual equivalent of a slap on the wrist. ‘That way is not for you.’ The Old Testament is full of stories like Jonah and Samuel that illustrate this.

Just as one has to say something to a person at a party in order to start a conversation, I find I have to do something to start a conversation with God and then be open to the response – which might be something quite unexpected, distasteful, or even painful. My experience of God is personal and conversational, or in computer terminology, interactive.

Quaker Discernment, in my judgement, works only when there has been sufficient study, investigation and consultation. Discernment is not a substitute for thinking, feeling or investigating. But we too often use it that way. Both personal and group discernment is essential at each stage and at every level in the decision-making process.

Having made a decision or made an appointment with or without a discernment exercise we tend to walk away from the decision and its consequences. We do not feel that we own the decision. If I own a decision I have a responsibility to see that it gets carried out effectively. I feel that the person appointed needs help, support, feedback and recognition. If necessary I should ensure they get timely training, useful advice and guidance and when things go wrong I should take steps to help and protect them and see that they learn the necessary lessons. In contrast, too often, I hear that we have to have faith in the people we appoint and to trust they will do a good job. This of course is true but faith and trust are spurs to caring action not to relieved inaction.

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