Living the Christian life requires a constant effort to discern God’s will and to put that direction into action. Discovering God’s will for our lives, our families, our faith communities, and the world is not always easy. Situations are often complicated and the right course of action is not always clear. How do we discern God’s direction? What tools are there to help us in our quest?
Within the Wesleyan tradition, we are blessed by a methodology handed down to us by John Wesley, but actually rooted in the entire course of Christian history and theology. While it is called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” the steps are quite easy to grasp. They include Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. When faithfully applied, these steps build upon a strong foundation and yield something beautiful in the end. Like layers of a cake, each rests upon the strength of the former, producing a solid structure in all. The process begins with Scripture.
Our first question in the discernment process is, “What does the Bible say?” Unfortunately, many people wrongfully buy into the idea that we cannot know what Scripture says, or that what we find is relative, merely our own interpretation of what it means, therefore, it is impossible to discover God’s will in the pages of our holy book. Others argue the teachings found there are outdated; out of touch with our modern world. Beyond these concerns, some suggest that we simply pick and choose which scriptures we like, and twist them to suit our needs. Each of these, and other, concerns are rooted in observed misuses of Scripture, but because such abuses are engaged in by some, does not negate the value, nor the effectiveness, of the Bible to guide our lives. We need only abide by good practices as we engage the word of God to discover the heart of God, and the direction of God.
Healthy Practices for Biblical Discernment
Discover what the Bible actually says. It is easy to decide what we want the Scripture to say and then find verses to support our preconceived ideas. The real work of discernment, however, requires us to set those preconceptions aside and actually let the text speak for itself. Biblical discernment is not about forcing our ideas into the pages of the Bible, it is about allowing the biblical word to find its way into us. We are to come to the Scripture teachable; open to what the Holy Spirit will reveal to us We must always be willing to admit we were wrong, or only partially correct, and let the Bible speak for itself.
Discover the full teaching of the Scripture. It is not enough to look at a verse here, or a verse there, nor can we separate the verses from their context. Simply looking up a word in the Bible may give us a good start, but that cannot be the end. There are other related words and themes to examine, and it is necessary to examine how the whole word speaks to the issue, specifically and generally.
A good example here is the recent emphasis on Jesus’ commands to love. Loving God, one another, and our neighbor are significant commands of our Savior and we must address them with the utmost sincerity. In many places, the modern Church fails to represent and extend the love of God. Embracing Jesus’ call to love in his name is of great importance, but what does loving like Jesus look like?
We might be tempted to believe that Jesus teaches us to love how we want to love, or how we want to be loved. We might interpret his words to look like a form of the sentimentality we see expressed in movies and represented in our culture, but to understand what love meant to Jesus, we must look at the whole of his life to see the way in which divine love is expressed through him. This will include the great sacrificial love expressed in his death and resurrection. It will also include his compassion for those who reached out to him, and his willingness to care for those often rejected by society. However, we will also need to include his willingness to turn over the tables of the money changers, his aggressive comments toward the Pharisees, and his call to a deeper life of holiness in the Sermon on the Mount. Defining love in Jesus’ terms involves examining the full teaching of his life and witness, and so it is with any aspect of our Christian journey.
Discover the difficult passages. It is easy to fixate on one part of Scripture, usually the part we like, and ignore challenging sections and passages. While the Bible is a collection of many writings, they are all equally important to our quest. We may be tempted to dismiss what we call the Old Testament because of its age, or because we believe it is no longer relevant in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, yet this was the very Scripture Jesus used, quoted, and lived by. We may want to focus solely on the Gospels, but the other New Testament writings expand our understanding of Jesus’ teaching. We may even want to focus only on our favorite Gospel, but the four work to give us a more holistic view of Jesus, his ministry, and his teaching. We must not discount any portion of Scripture, but rather, let it all inform our understanding.
When we apply these principles, we will uncover a greater revelation of God’s direction, and we will lay a solid foundation for the rest of our discernment. Tomorrow, our attention will turn to the importance and power of Tradition to refine our biblical discoveries, and to give us clearer spiritual eyes to assess our experiences and discern God’s will. Until then, let the Word of God speak.