How does this work? Yes, we believe God is alive, active and moving, and we want to move with him. But how do we know? God is no drill-sergeant, sending an angel to blow a trumpet into our ear to give us our marching orders. God’s movement is much more subtle than that, and if we are not attentive to what he is doing, we may miss it. Also, we ourselves have our own wants and desires, anxieties and fears. If we are not careful, there is a danger we will persuade ourselves that our own wants are God’s wants, and our own anxieties are God’s marching orders. If we do that, we become our own idols, acting for ourselves in God’s name. Instead of being Christians, we become pharisees, and instead of following Christ, we crucify him. God forbid! The stakes are high: we need to get this right. But how do we discern God’s movement in our lives? I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some advice. As I see it, there are four aspects to doing this successfully: prayer, receptivity, discernment, and community.
Prayer is the first of these. Prayer is to the Christian life what nourishment is to our physical lives. It is dedicated time explicitly spent with God: our commitment to God leads us to entrust parts of our day solely to him, focused on him alone. We want him to transform that time, and us, into something that is his, rather than solely our’s. For prayer to be effective, it must be God-focused and committed. Prayer time should be scheduled in advance, at a time of day that works best for us given our personality and responsibilities, and be kept faithfully. It also should be two-way. It is not about keeping a few devotions and feeling satisfied about getting through them. It is about putting oneself where God is, and letting him in. Yes, memorized prayers are good when they help, always keeping in mind that the goal is far more than just getting them done, it is to open one’s heart to God, without reserve, to listen to whatever he might have to say. To pray properly, be content with whatever happens. If God is silent, be content. If God is not silent, listen. Easy or difficult, fruitful or dry, make the time: commit to it.
The second is receptivity. By receptivity, I mean a sort of ongoing prayer that one lives out when doing other things. This kind of prayer is rather like breathing. To pray like this, invite God into your life: your work, your play, your conversations, your time alone, your projects, your joys and your frustrations. Invite him confidently, knowing that he is there. Then keep an ear open for what he might say, where he might lead. If you believe God is living and active, then where you are living, he is living too, and you and he can live together, in partnership. This means you need to be open to what your divine partner, God, is telling you at the moment. Especially recognize this when dealing with others. If you see something in others something which is not what it should be, don’t just jump on it: look to God to lead in what to do or say about it. Remember that we can’t see people from the inside, but God can. But even if our diagnosis is correct, our own choice of treatment may not be. Know that God is present, and wants that person’s good even more than you do. By letting him join you throughout the day, he will be there with you when you need his guidance.
The third is discernment, and it is the piece that makes the other pieces work. Discernment is spiritual sensing: smelling and tasting the difference between God and not-God. A key aspect of discernment is to know yourself and your own wants and fears. If you are recognizing yourself in something, do not kid yourself: those things are you, not God. Get a sense of what God smells and tastes like. There is no stink, no foulness, no off-taste. Soak yourself in the Gospels and the holy Liturgy to learn deeply what Jesus is like and what he is not. In so doing, you will train your spiritual senses to discriminate between goodness and foulness, between God and not-God.
The last is community. God did not make us to be alone. We are blessed with other Christians, we are blessed with the Church. Be guided by her teachings. Learn to recognize holiness in others and learn from them. Seek wise counsel. Remember that we are all on a journey, we are all works in progress, and Jesus is not done with any of us, so do exercise discernment here too. Do not oppose God’s law; it is there as a guide, a signpost, and a safety rail: anything that takes you over the embankment into the pit, however attractive-seeming, is not for your good. Look instead for those who love God and love people, who have grown in wisdom and peace, and be guided wisely. God uses others who have grown mature in his love to help us to grow more, and us, who have grown too, to help others likewise. Keep your heart and mind open for his guidance through the Church.
It is not easy to be guided by God, to have our lives moving in harmony with his life. But true life, real life, is not static, it is full of motion. For a Christian, that motion comes from God and is guided by him. Through prayer, receptivity, discernment and community, we can open ourselves up to his guidance and live the life he has intended for us from the beginning, a life of goodness and love, a life that moves as God moves.