(Learn to Discern, Principle #12)
Most of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves caught in the loop of wondering: is God speaking to me? Am I hearing correctly? Or am I hearing only what I want to hear? How do I know if I’m actually open to what God has to say?
Part I considered how our openness to God isn’t necessarily tied to any particular emotional feeling, but rather has to be understood in the context of our lives as a whole. How we live indicates how much weight our deeper desires should carry in the process of our discernment which unfolds in conversation with God.
The question “am I truly open to hearing God?” can only be answered in light of the more fundamental question: do I live like I’m open to God? Because how we live determines if we make space for God regularly. We’re usually open to hearing God if we’re leading a listening kind of life.
How do we know if we’re leading a listening kind of life?
Here’s what it entails:
Regular prayer and room for spiritual growth. Our life with God unfolds in the context of a conversational relationship. Sometimes we do a lot of talking; sometimes He does. Sometimes, like people who have been together for years, there’s just companionable silence. No matter what, it’s important to have time with God where we build the relationship rather than just ask for help with problem-solving. (That can be a great place to start! But it shouldn’t end there.) We can explore different types of prayer, spiritual reading, retreats, and formation in the faith, all of which help us to grow the relationship.
Silence as a normal part of each day. If we can’t step away from exterior and interior noise, we’ll never be truly good listeners to God (or anyone else, for that matter.)
Awareness of what might be interference. Lots of things get in the way of a listening kind of life. Some are objectively wrong, and some are just annoying static that stops us from being attuned to the deeper parts of ourselves, the intimate spaces of our souls where God can whisper. We have to be aware of what we’re consuming, not just physically, but spiritually. Regular examination of our lives and confession of our failures helps us grow in self-awareness and “fine-tune” our attentiveness to God’s voice.
Choosing a well-ordered, peaceful life. It’s difficult to be open to God’s voice when stress, anxiety, and extremes are the norm. Are we constantly sleep-deprived? Overworked? Failing to care for our bodies well? Sometimes we have to live in “survival mode” – like when a new baby arrives or there is sudden job loss. But these times shouldn’t be the norm and even in the middle of them, we can be clear about peacefulness as a priority.
Cultivation of a contemplative approach to the world. Spending time in nature, soaking in the wisdom of the ages, imbibing great works of art and music – these things form us. They show us what is good, true, and beautiful: and by immersing ourselves in them, we allow ourselves to be shaped accordingly. God is Goodness, Truth, Beauty. The more time we spend with what is like Him, the more we will see His movements in the world around us.
Serving others. One of the best ways to find God is to find him in our neighbour. Serving others creates a disposition in us that is outward-focused. It helps us get off the spinning hamster wheels of our own minds. (Depending on our tendency, we can sometimes go overboard, though: giving so much that we aren’t careful to preserve space for our own interior life with God or normal, healthy living. This tends to come from a place of people-pleasing rather than true service, so it’s important to learn healthy boundaries.)
Keeping a journal/ record. Sometimes it can be difficult to discern where God’s hand is at work in the moment; it can be even more difficult to discern our own responses. But over time, it becomes clear. Keeping some kind of record of our days – not just “what we did” but what we experienced, where we think we may have heard God, how we responded to that, what our desires were in the face of that response – all these things reveal, over time, what our conversation with God looks like.
Receiving regular guidance. We’ve all experienced the power of an outside observer to help us see things we are “too close” to. It’s easy to get stuck in our own heads. Having a wise person help us listen better to God and sort through what we think we’re hearing, helps us grow in our ability to discern well.