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Jesus' model of hearing God's guidance

Wednesday January 4 2017

Jesus' model of hearing God's guidance

As we begin a new year, I’m thinking about what I desire for this year. I’d love to hear God’s guidance more clearly and more often. A story from Jesus’ early ministry is shaping how I think about this desire.

The Gospel of Mark records a busy first week of ministry for Jesus (Mark 1:14-34). Jesus announces the “good news of God” and calls disciples. He heals a man with an unclean spirit and many other people, including Simon’s mother-in-law. He casts out demons. He teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

The next morning, “while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

Simon and the other brand new disciples hunt for him. When they find him they tell him that everyone is looking for him, presumably to ask for more healing. Instead of jumping up and going back with the disciples to the village where they were the day before, Jesus replies, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38).

Jesus’ time of prayer in the dark morning gave him a renewed sense of his purpose. He was able to say “no” to other people’s agendas because he knew what he “came out to do.” I long to have that kind of clarity about my purpose, so I wish the Gospel writer had recorded more details. I have so many questions about this incident.

I wonder what Jesus was thinking and feeling when he talked about going on to the neighboring towns to proclaim the message. Was he frustrated that so many people came to him to be healed the day before rather than wanting to hear more about the good news of God? Did he want to go on to the other towns so he could get back to his ministry of preaching? Or did he view his healing ministry as a part of proclaiming the good news? Did he simply want to scatter the seed widely, both by preaching and healing, so it was important to move on to new villages? I admit that the answers to these questions wouldn’t have a huge impact on my own life and ministry, but I’m curious.

I have other questions that are more relevant to my desire to hear God’s guidance clearly. I wonder about what happened in the very early morning in that deserted place. Did Jesus hear the voice of his Father giving new instructions? Maybe he heard, “You did a lot of healing yesterday in only one town. You need to go to other towns and focus on proclamation as well as healing.”

Perhaps being alone, away from the clamoring crowds, helped Jesus recover his original sense of call. He says, “This is why I came out,” and perhaps some time alone enabled him to evaluate the previous week in the light of his resolve. Maybe solitude and prayer renewed his clarity about his goals.

I wonder if maybe the time alone with his Father in prayer was simply pure joy. Maybe he knew his calling clearly and felt that the days before had been significant and purposeful. Maybe he just wanted a few peaceful moments to enjoy intimacy with his Father.

I also wonder if being in a deserted place, enjoying the beautiful world he helped create, gave him a sense of restored purpose. It was full dark when he got there, but perhaps the birds’ raucous dawn chorus began while he was praying. Perhaps a sliver of light on the eastern horizon announced the arrival of the sun and revealed the trees and green hills of Galilee. Perhaps the beauty of what he could see and hear reminded him that he came to earth to restore the whole created order to its original design.

I don’t want to say that time alone in prayer at dawn is the only way to gain or regain a clear sense of the goals and purpose God has for us. But I do think Jesus provides a model that combines several components: intimacy and joy in God’s presence; listening to God’s guidance; and enjoying the beauty of the earth that came from the mind and Word of God, and which now needs to be restored back to its intended purpose. I want to listen to the pattern of Jesus’ life and learn how to draw near to God more often and more fully.

(You may enjoy a blog post from last January about two postures for entering the new year. Next week: Four kinds of home. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Hearing God speak communally

Thursday October 2 2014

Imagine you’re in a committee or church board meeting, and you’re discussing a possible new direction for mission. You long to experience God’s guidance in the decision. What can you do as a group to hear God speak to you?

In my most recentt blog post, I addressed the question of how Christians hear God speak. In this post I want to narrow down to consider how we hear God speak to us communally. A few years ago I interviewed 63 ministers and congregational leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom about listening, and one of my interview questions related to communal listening to God’s guidance. I’ll summarize two of the issues the interviews raised in my mind.

1. I heard a lot of stories about listening to God communally through the Bible. Many congregations have small group Bible studies where participants wrestle with God’s voice to them in scripture. I heard about congregations where people gather during the week to talk about the sermon scripture for the next Sunday. Some congregations have feedback times during or after the Sunday service for reflection on how God spoke through the sermon. Some congregations are experimenting with reflective ways of engaging with the Bible, such as lectio divina.

The stories powerfully illustrated numerous communal settings focused on the Bible in congregations. The outcome of all this reflection and discussion of the Bible seemed to be guidance for individuals. What seemed missing was communal engagement with the Bible for the sake of hearing God’s guidance for a community. I’ve participated in many Bible studies and lectio divina sessions at church board meetings and elder retreats, and we’ve had great conversations about God’s voice to us individually through a Bible passage. What would it look like to begin there, but to continue on to consider how God might be speaking to us communally through the passage about directions for our congregation’s mission? No one in my interviews talked about doing that.

2. In my interviews, I heard a lot of confusion between consensus and discernment. Consensus decision making is becoming more prominent in many business and church settings, because decisions made by consensus generally have strong buy-in by the parties involved, and often more needs are met by consensus decisions than by other kinds of decisions. Consensus decisions play a role in discernment, but they are not the same. Consensus tries to address as many of the needs and concerns of the people present as is possible, while discernment attempts to figure out how God is guiding. Surely God wants needs to be met, but meeting needs and hearing God’s voice are often not the same thing.

Discernment relies on prayer in many forms, communal wrestling with the Bible, and engagement together in spiritual practices such as fasting, retreat and silence. The people involved in trying to discern God’s direction need to know consensus skills, because they need to listen to what each person is hearing from God and build consensus around it. But discernment begins and ends with trying to hear God’s voice and direction, not trying to meet the maximum number of needs. (I wrote more about the role of spiritual practices in consensus and discernment in an earlier post.)

These two patterns I observed in the interviews worry me. Both patterns indicate the way that individualism, so rampant in the wider culture, has affected Christians. And I myself am not immune to those forces. Engaging in consensus, a good thing to do, nudges me toward considering how I can negotiate to meet the needs I’m concerned about. Looking to the Bible for guidance for my life and doing it communally with others, another good thing to do, can keep me in an individualistic place where I’m listening to God for my sake rather than the sake of my community of faith. O Lord God, give us love for each other and a commitment to your body, so we can listen to you for the sake of our communities as well as for our own sakes.

(If you'd like to get an email every time I post something on this blog, go over to the right column under "subscribe" and sign up. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)