Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Discernment: Desire

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 08/26/2012

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand

Third in a series on discernment. The process of figuring out what God’s will is for us and our world in any particular moment or decision or situation.

Last week we talked about how when we talk about discerning God’s will we’re not talking about his master plan or divine blueprint, but rather his pleasure or desire. Knowing that God always desires good for us, what is his desire? Remember, you don’t have to be a spiritual black belt to do this. Together, all of us can do this. God calls us into an adventure with him; he will show us his desires, and he will help us to see them.

Our text for this series:

Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve (discern) what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1

Through our decisions, large and small, we become who we are. And our decisions, actions, the parts of our lives that we exercise influence and control over, flow from our desires. What is our pleasure? What do we desire?

To our pride or shame, our desires are directly measurable by our decisions and actions, far moreso than our words.

Perhaps you say, I hate my job. All I want is to do something else, anything else. And perhaps you really do desire to do something else. But you aren’t. Why not? Because other desires are stronger. Perhaps the desire to feed your family, or avoid something you are afraid of, like losing everything, or the shame of failing, or the desire to live where you live, or any number of other, stronger desires.

Perhaps you say, I want to get in shape.

Or I want to serve God.

Or I want to be more generous with my money.

Or perhaps you’ve never consciously thought about your desires and aren’t even sure what your desires are. Well, look at your life. Where do you live, how do you spend your time, who do you bless with your energy and resources? It may not be obvious, but with enough thoughtful probing, your most influential desires will show themselves…

[caution against trying to evaluate others’ desires; this an exercise we can only do for ourselves, although getting help from a spiritual director, for example can be useful…note also the role of strongly formed habits, addictions]

Discernment is an academic exercise if we don’t desire what God desires.

[play u2 desire…]

In the song, money is anthropomorphized as a seductive woman. His desire for her, he says, is like a fever, getting higher. It’s a sickness that might just take his life. It takes him out of his mind, makes him delirious, makes him pursue her, certainly against his better judgment, almost against his will, it’s as if he’s helpless against her. Desire.

Compare that to the psalmist’s song:

As the deer pants for streams of water,

so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirst for God, for the living God…

Psalm 42:1-2

Which brings us back to Romans 12:

Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve (discern) what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1

Discernment begins with the offering of ourselves to God as a sacrifice. And the part of our selves that we offer, first and foremost, is our desires.

Our desires originate in our bodies. Hunger, thirst, affection, the alleviation of discomfort, sleep. Which is why the scripture speaks of offering our bodies as living sacrifices.

Over time, we can come to view ourselves as unworthy, corrupted sacrifices because of our unholy desires – desires that have been set apart not to God, but to ourselves, conformed to the pattern of this world. Not so! says Paul as he pens this letter to the church in Rome, the capital of the empire set against the desires of God. When you offer your self to God as a living sacrifice, misdirected and misinformed and malformed desires and all, it is holy and pleasing to God. Nothing less than true worship.

And so step one in the discipline of discernment is to say, God, I offer myself to you; my desires are yours and you are my desire. And perhaps if you can’t say that yet, you can say, at least: I desire to desire what you desire; I invite you to make my desires like Jesus’ desires.

This first step in discernment, the offering of your self and your desires to God, is central to the salvation from sin and the brokenness of our world that stems from our enslavement to desires that have been conformed to the pattern of this world.

In a book called “Drive”, Daniel Pink writes about what motivates us. In it he describes what he calls three different motivational operating systems that have had, or are beginning to have influence on us and our world.

Motivation 1.0: Biological desires (from 50,000 years ago until the emergence of more complex culture and civilization)

Motivation 2.0: Seek reward, avoid punishment (necessitated by the need to restrain the biological desires, facilitates cooperation, contracts, law, commerce)

Motivation 2.1 (Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 1900s): Carrots and Sticks (extrinsic motivators; artificial rewards and punishments to control behavior)

Motivation 3.0 intrinsic motivations: the satisfactions of creativity, mastery, and generosity. Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. [Wikipedia vs Microsoft Encarta]

God is motivated by 3.0 desires. Survival isn’t his primary driver. Nor is seeking rewards or avoiding punishment, no carrots have a hold on him, and no sticks cause him fear. (see Jesus for proof). As the freest being in the world, he operates out of only intrinsic, internal motivations.

And God made us in his image, inviting us into his love. What is more autonomous than love? What is harder to master? What is a higher purpose?

The pattern of this world is a motivation 2.0 pattern. The renewing of our minds is a motivation 3.0 upgrade.

Consider God’s commands to the first human beings (“Go forth and multiply”) and Jesus commands to his followers (“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”) The motivation for carrying out these commissions effectively is all Motivation 3.0, isn’t it? God restores and leverages our intrinsic motivations of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to accomplish his creative purposes.

[note: unfortunately, sometimes some churches and religious people, shaped unconsciously by Motivation 2.1, try to frame the life of following Jesus in 2.1 terms – avoiding hell and seeking the rewards of heaven, adding carrots for approved behaviors and sticks for disapproved. Is it any wonder the true power of the gospel gets lost in that kind of system?]

Ministry is all driven by motivation 3.0 – when it’s working right, that is. the satisfactions of creativity, mastery, and generosity. Work done with autonomy, mastery, purpose. Frederick Buechner writes: “The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.” [examples…]

This is the life of Jesus. I and the Father are one. I only do what I see my Father doing.

This is what Jesus gives to the church: a relationship with the Holy Spirit and a mission, driven by his love, fueled by his good news, empowered by his resurrection.

Peterson quote: You cease to think when your body begins to dance to the rhythms of the Spirit, and the only choreography is that of the Creator. Before you know it, the dance has taken over. There is no greater feeling in life than the moment when the dance you are dancing takes over, when the dance and the dancer become one.

Sometimes we imagine that our goal is to say, “All I want to do is what God wants me to do. I’m just waiting for my next instructions.” This is, of course, a great place to be. But perhaps God wants something even more for us. Perhaps God is waiting for us to decide what we want to do, and he will join us there? Sometimes us choosing is not an opposition to God’s will. In fact, if our wills have been shaped by his, if his desires become our desires, then God’s will can be made known in our choices. This is what it means to be co-creators with him.

The phrase “God’s will” can be itself subtly misleading, though it is deeply embedded in the Christian discernment tradition. It implies that God’s will is a thing rather than a relationship. Something “out there” that a person must discover and then do. Because of the open-ended and dynamic nature of God’s relationship with us, I prefer to speak of God’s call rather than God’s will- for I believe that “call” is more reflective of the open, relational, and non-predetermined nature of God’s relationship with us than the classical term “will” often connotes.

The Way of Discernment

So let’s get practical.

A first practical suggestion, if you are currently facing a significant decision, is to simply do this:

Give God permission to renew your desires. Pray, “Jesus, as I try to figure out what step I should take, and what your desire is for me in this decision, I want to want what you want. So I give you permission to renew my desires to be like yours as I discern your will about this.”

Secondly, recommend you try an exercise designed to help you identify your heart’s deepest desire, so you can offer it to God.

1. Find a quiet, uninterrupted place to dedicate some time to God. Ask for the light of the Holy Spirit to notice your deepest desires, to name them accurately, and to respond appropriately to what you find.

2. Notice your body, tensions, fatigue, pains, energy, etc. Also your mind, thoughts, plans, wandering, judgments, chatter, etc.

3. Invite your body to relax attentively, and give your mind permission to take a break from everything else for a few minutes. You can do this silently or out loud, if it helps.

4. Ask yourself, in God’s presence, “What do I want, right this minute?”

5. When you recognize what it is that you want, give it a name and write it down. Relax attentively again, and ask “What do I want, right this minute?”

6. Notice, name it, jot it. Repeat until no more desires surface.

7. Look at all of them, and notice which seem to be the most central, most important, most attractive, the most full of energy. Select the most central one, and bring it directly into your attention.

8. Without judging it as good or bad, or yourself for having it, ask “And what is underneath this desire? What desire is even more basic than this one?”

9. Gently repeat this question for each subsequent desire that surfaces. Ask each one, “Is there an even more basic desire underneath this one?”

10. When you come to the deepest desire, honor it as central to who you are.

11. Finally, offer it back to God, just as it is, as an expression of who you are at this moment.

(adapted from “The Way of Discernment” by Elizabeth Liebert)

Finally, and this is especially for people for whom the whole idea of figuring out God’s desires is new: read the gospel of John, beginning to end, keeping this question in front of your mind: “If our decisions and actions reveal our desires, what do Jesus’ decisions and action reveal about God’s desires?”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Discernment: Underneath It All

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 08/19/2012

video is available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/milanvineyard/ondemand

Second week in series on discernment. When we’ve got decisions to make, how do we make them? How do we know what we were made for? How do we know what to do in a difficult situation? How can we tell if the voice in our head is our own, or God’s, or someone else’s? How do we know which path is the best one, which step is the most beautiful one? Do we wait, go, take that risk, hold back? Am I being afraid or just wise? Am I being courageous or just foolish? Is this God’s will for my life?

Clarification: sometimes in Christian circles, discernment gets applied to judging that which is “out there” – ideas, artistic expressions, and especially the actions of others. Discernment is a gift that is given to us for a higher purpose than that. Discernment is for shaping our lives, in here, decision by decision, in a way that gives life to us, and to our world. The only “out there” it is concerned with is the will of the God who is other than we are, but who desires to be “in here” in such a way that we are made one with him and his good, pleasing, and perfect will.

Today, exploring just two key ideas about discernment:


1, God always desires good for us. Always. Even, and maybe especially, when it doesn’t look like it.

And 2, Together, we can do this. We, You and I. Together. We can do this. We can discern God’s will and join him in the adventure of a lifetime.

Discernment is an ancient Christian practice.

Live as children of the light…and find out what pleases the Lord.

Galatians 5:8,10

Chalkboard assignment: together we follow the way of Jesus…

Our assignment is to embark on an adventure, not to fill out a ditto sheet.

Remember dittos from elementary school? Or Mimeographs? Churning out copy after copy? All you had to do was find the answers and fill in the blanks. And if you didn’t know the answers, or couldn’t figure them out, you could just copy someone else’s. Sometimes we are presented a picture of faith like that. But that’s not the kind of faith we’ve been called to by Jesus.

Jesus invites us into an adventure. One where the ending has been anticipated by the resurrection, but one in which there are untold chapters to discover along the way, one in which we get to write the details of the story hand in hand with God.

Adventures require discernment.

An adventure without discernment is like the story of Rip Van Winkle….someone who takes the path of least resistance in life, drinks some strange liquor, and falls asleep for 20 years, waking up unrecognizable and alone, unsure of what’s even happening in the world.

A true adventure with discernment at its heart, however, is like an epic love story.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11

Our primary text for this series is found in Romans:

Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve (discern) what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1


God always desires good for us.

Understanding this is foundational for discernment. God always desires good for us. God always desires good for us. We talked about this at the end of last week’s message, but let’s unpack it a little here.

Some of us may remember that the word translated will (God’s will, good pleasing perfect will) is the Greek word thelema. Sometimes we think about God’s will like an immutable, master plan, a divine blueprint perhaps. There is a word that gets at that sense of the meaning of will, but it’s boule, not thelema. Thelema is the word for will that means pleasure or desire. In any particular moment or circumstance or situation, what is God’s desire? What would give him pleasure? That is his thelema will.

And the witness of Jesus, and the whole of the scripture, is that God desires good for us. That he loves us. That he is, in fact, love. And love always desires the best for the other.

In fact, if we were able to apprehend in any particular situation or circumstance or decision what the very best thing for ourselves would be – the thing that would give us the most life, be the most life-giving and joyful thing in the world – then we would know God’s thelema will for us. And because this universe is created by God out of his love for his good pleasure, it would also be the thing that would give the most life to the whole of creation, the planet included and all of its creatures, our brothers and sisters, even our enemies. As Romans 8 says, in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Trusting that truth about God’s heart for us, having faith that his will is always good for us, is at the heart of discernment.

[Hunger games illustration: Katniss dehydrated, her frustration at not receiving a silver parachute when she was thirsty, realizing Haymitch must have a good reason, hunting for water…]

God gave us free will as human beings. We are free to do as we please. We have our own desires. They aren’t always good, pleasing, and perfect, though, are they? No, because we aren’t ruled by love, not through and through, the way God is. Love that is patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, not proud, not dishonoring others, not self seeking, not easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs, not delighting in evil, rejoicing with the truth, always protecting, trusting, hoping, persevering, never failing.

Because God is love, his thelema will is good, pleasing, and perfect. Not too shabby, eh?

Good. Through and through good.

Pleasing. Bringing a wide smile to the soul, happiness in the heart, joy and health to the body, delight to the mind.

Perfect. Whole and complete, not missing a good thing, no loose ends, nothing forgotten, no collateral damage.

If the voice underneath the choice isn’t love, it isn’t God’s thelema will. No matter how wise it seems. No matter how it seems like it might not work out in our best interest. God is love, and God’s thelema will is always good for us. Love always leads to the best. The best for you. The best for me. The best for this broken world. The best. This truth doesn’t conform to the pattern of this world. This truth is where the renewing of our minds starts. This truth is where discernment starts.

Together, we can do this.

Discernment is a gift.

1 Corinthians 12 talks about how God gives his Holy Spirit with different manifestations to each of us for the common good, and one of those manifestations is the “diakrisies pneumaton” or the discernment of spirits. In other words, we recognize the voice of God because God places his spirit within us to empower us to recognize what is from him and what isn’t. God himself, within us, teaching us how to discern his thelema will, assisting us.

In the adventure of faith God invites us into, the Holy Ghost is a ghost writer for our lives. Helping us write the story we’d want to write if we were better writers, the voice behind our voice. It’s our story, with our name on the cover, but we aren’t writing it alone. It’s an adventure fueled by the grace of God, poured out through his holy spirit, meeting us in our weakness and blindness and holding our hand, helping us step by step.

Discernment is a habit we can develop.

Dallas Willard writes about how grace is not opposed to effort, only to earning. We can, through thoughtful, intentional, grace driven effort, develop a habits of discernment that allow our wills to cooperate with God’s good pleasing and perfect will much more gracefully over time. So it may seem like a ton of work right now, but it will take less will power over time; it always takes work to break a habit – (conforming to the pattern of this world) and form new ones (be transformed by the renewing of your mind).

Brain researchers have shown that when we develop a habit, at first, our brains are firing on all cylinders, especially the outer parts where we do complex thinking. But over time, a primitive part of the brain called the basil ganglia takes over and the rest of the brain becomes completely freed up. The term for this is “chunking.”

[consider backing your car out of your driveway…]

Most of our decision making habits are formed by the pattern of this world. Feels good? Do it. Protects you from pain? Do it. Gets you more money? Do it. Gets you the stuff others have? Do it. Makes others approve of you? Do it. Serves your ego, the image of yourself that you want to project? Do it. Everyone else is doing it and looking happy enough? Do it.

As followers of Jesus, we need a new habit, a renewing of our minds. Does this step cooperate gracefully with God’s good, pleasing and perfect will? Do it. Does this step trust in God’s goodness above all else? Do it. Is this step true to the deepest desires God has placed in my heart? Do it.

Discernment is a process

In addition to the process of developing habits of discernment, discernment itself is a process.

We even hear that in the language of Romans 12: be transformed, renewing. Discernment happens bit by bit, step by step. Prayer, prayerful thinking, conversation, evaluation, tentative decisions, more prayer, confirmation, courageous, prayerful action.

We will sometimes get discernment wrong, and that’s OK.

Discernment is part of faith, it’s never certain, and failure is part of how we learn and grow. God remains with us in all of our decisions, even when we get discernment wrong. He’s there to show us where we went wrong, help us move in the direction where deeper life lies. Sometimes we’ll get confirmation that our discernment was right, and sometimes we’ll be left just living in faith, trusting that God’s first desire is always that we do what we are doing in trusting relationship with him, even moreso than that we do this or that particular thing.

That we discern is always more pleasing to God than how effective our discernment is. Because it means we are desiring what he desires, even when we don’t know specifically what he desires, and his desire above all else is that we would desire him. Because he is the source of all life, and his good pleasing and perfect will is that we would have life, and have it to the full.

Discernment is a team sport.

Although it’s concrete, particular, and personal, we are never meant to be alone in it; then y’all will be able to test

The witness of the community to the thelema will of God in all our lives, the traditions of the community of faith shaped by our corporate discernment of God’s will, the scriptures written by the inspired voices of our predecessors in faith, the ways in which we help each other in prayer and conversation discern God’s will, all of these shine light on God’s thelema will for us as we seek to discern it for our lives. If we try to go on our own, without this, we can find ourselves drowning in a sea of confusion, like someone underwater who can’t figure out which way is up.

It doesn’t matter where you start.

Discernment is like breathing for a Christian. It starts at birth, and may feel just as unfamiliar at first, but you never outgrow it. You just learn how to do it better and better. And sometimes you may need some help, or breathing room, or to do it consciously again because fear has made you hold your breath without you noticing.

But wherever you are, there is no step to take without it. So start wherever you are. God’s holy spirit is available to you to help you take a deep breath and catch the scent of his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Practical Tips:

1. Ask for the gift of discernment. Nothing complicated about this. God, please give me the gift of your holy spirit so I can discern your will, your good, pleasing and perfect will. Maybe have someone pray with you for the impartation of this gift.

2. Continue a daily Awareness Examination. Ask God to look at your day with you. What does God show you about your day? What was important to God from your day? Talk to God about your day.

3. Add a cue and a reward to help it become a habit. Maybe when you set your alarm clock for the morning. Or when you brush your teeth. Some cue that will almost always be present towards the end of your day and will have space on the other side of it before you sleep. As for a reward, you can go for the intrinsic reward, which will be a sense of peace and God’s presence as you fall asleep, or add an artificial reward, like some ice cream (just don’t forget to brush your teeth again) or a TV show you enjoy, for example.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Discernment: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 08/12/2012

a video stream is available at http://www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand


Some of us are facing momentous, life shaping decisions. Do we move? Do we marry? Do we change jobs? Careers? Have kids? Adopt? Homeschool? Go to college? Retire? What do we do in our retirement? Stay in this or that relationship or not? Start this business or not? Some of us are facing other kinds of decisions. Do we join that ministry? Accept that invitation to lead? Go on that mission trip? Spend that money or save that money or give that money to the church? Do we try to reconcile with this person or not? Do we buy that car? Do we go to this church or that church? And day by day we have the simple decisions. Which calls to return. Which offers of help to offer. Or to accept. What to do with our free time. What’s the best way to do this thing or that thing. What to read, what to watch, what habits to develop or break. And on and on.

Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve (discern) what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1

Beginning a series on discernment.

Discernment (n): The quality to grasp and comprehend what is obscure

What’s wrong with my car?

Why does my kid have this rash?

Who’s in the right and who is in the wrong in that argument?

[play 5-6 song clip…. Play it again…]

Sometimes it takes discernment to even know what to discern…What do I want to do tonight? What does she really want me to say?

In this series, we’ll be talking about discernment primarily as this practice or process of testing and approving, of figuring out, of determining what God’s desire is.

In the midst of the countless forces, options, and decisions that characterize our lives, how do we know which step to take when? What is God’s call for each of us? Over the course of lives. This year. Day by day. Moment by moment. Decision by decision.

The pushes and pulls we face in modern life are unprecedented. Compare a young person growing up in the time of Jesus with a young person making their way forward in today’s world. The ancient girl’s daily activities are determined by her mother’s daily activities. So much is prescribed for her. She will be bat-mitzvahed at 13. Her husband will be chosen for her. Her life, from adolescence on, will be filled mainly with bearing and raising children. Unless she is wealthy, she won’t have to make many decisions about her clothing or her children’s clothing. Barring war or some other tragedy, she will live in one place her whole life. She will worship in one synagogue.

Compare that with the decisions that will likely present themselves to my 7 year old daughter. She wakes to a dresser full of clothing of various styles and colors to choose from. A cupboard of various cereals and bowls, spoons and cups. An iPad with hundreds of apps, a screen full of various entertainment options, a room full of plastic crates with different plastic toys, the possibility on any particular day of visiting friends from miles around if she can convince mom or dad to drive her there. She may one day choose from a pool of potentially millions of men to marry. Or not. She may go to school any place in the country, or not. She may study anything in the world she desires, choose from all kinds of places to live, surround herself with whatever friends she likes, give her energies to any of an almost limitless number of causes or projects or occupations. She will determine largely on her own the way in which she practices and expresses the faith that she also determines largely on her own. And on and on and on.

A market research film last year estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared to 5,000 today. 2,000 is crazy enough. But 5,000? That’s 5,000 invitations asking for a decision.

This summer we visited NYC, arriving at 6 a.m. in the city that never sleeps. As we walked and got hungry, it became clear that we had dozens and dozens of options for eating within easy walking distance. What direction to go? Which bagel place to try? What kind to get? Toasted or not? What kind of cream cheese? Eat inside or outside? Advertisements beckoned everywhere, for everything. We stopped and asked an older man who looked like a city veteran for a recommendation. He deliberated, made a suggestion, and pointed uncertainly in a direction, mentioned some street names, and then was gone. We plugged the name of the bagel place in our phone’s gps, only to discover that there were 6 or 7 of that same place within walking distance. We’d gotten help, and our options were narrowed, but still decisions stood in front of us. We set out for one of them, only to find it didn’t open for 30 more minutes. What now?

What now, indeed. What now in our lives? We find ourselves here, wherever here is, and decisions face us. Options open up before us, or narrow down, but still we must decide or decide not to decide and have it decided for us. What now? That is the question discernment tries to help us answer.

Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert writes in a book called Stumbling on Happiness about how human beings tend to make decisions about their futures. What they decide to do now in light of how they imagine they will experience the future they imagine their decisions will produce. However, although we are uniquely gifted in the animal kingdom at imagining the future, we do a terrible job a lot of the time.

Sometimes our brains add stuff to our future imaginings that aren’t actually there. Even worse, sometimes they leave things out. And add to that, we do a really bad job estimating how we will experience these poorly imagined futures. The reasons are many and complex, but let me give you just one simple for instance.

Have you ever made a commitment to do something a ways off in the future, only to feel like you might regret that decision as the day gets closer and closer? Maybe a commitment to help someone out with something, like taking care of their kids, or to help them move? 3 months ago when they asked you, you thought, wow, I’d love to do that. That would really make me feel good. But if they were to ask you today to help with that tomorrow, you might think, oh man, I’m going to be really busy and their kids are kind of rambunctious and I’m pretty tired. Or, wow, they really haven’t packed very well and it’s going to be hot, and I was really looking forward to golfing, not hauling couches through narrow doorways.


It has to do with the different ways our brains imagine the near future and the far future. If you see a zebra up close, you see the fur and the stripes and the definition of its muscles and so forth. If you see one far away on the horizon, it looks a little vague and smoothed out, not much detail present. But your brain doesn’t think, wow, I bet that’s a really vague, smoothed out looking animal over there. It knows that it’s a zebra and will look like other zebras when it gets close. Our brains don’t do that with the far away future. They tend to keep the far away future smoothed out and vague.

So we think about helping with the kids or the moving, we tend to imagine a vague future in terms of smooth whys, not the messy details of hows. If I do it, they will be helped, and I will feel good. And they need help, and I can help, and I’ve got plenty of time to figure out the details. But as we get close, all the messy details come into view. The getting up early instead of sleeping in on Saturday. The way our body and mind feels after a week of work. The snotty noses and unpacked kitchen. All the other more attractive, fun things that become possibilities on that day that we have to decline to do this thing we promised to do. And on and on. Somehow, our brain forgets that zebras are zebras are zebras, no matter how far away they are.

The reality is, our only hope of true happiness is trusting God for the good future he is preparing for us (Repent, and believe the good news! Jesus proclaims, over and over). And so, our only hope of truly good life requires that we learn to discern what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will. And that we let our discernment of God’s will – his good, pleasing and perfect will – shape our every decision, large and small. Thoughtfully considered decisions, and habitually made decisions, alike.

The stakes for learning discernment are high. Through our decisions, large and small, we become who we are. Very little that matters about who I am is true of me apart from my decisions. Sure, some of my physical features and internal make-up are a function of genetics. But who I love and who I am loved by, and where I live and what I do and much of the condition of my body and mind and emotions and my even my deepest desires are a direct function of my decisions.

Jesus says in John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Those discerned decisions I’ve made as part of my worship, in co-creative cooperation with God’s will, are the decisions that have filled me and the world I have influence on with life, life to the full. And those undiscerning decisions I’ve made conforming to the pattern of this world are the ones that have stolen life from me, and deadened me, and brought destruction to me and the world I have influence on.

For those who are committed followers of Jesus already among us, I hope this series will give us some practical tools and encouragement to press gracefully into the way Jesus has marked out for us. I hope it will encourage us to fix our eyes afresh on the next step of discipleship Jesus has for us that draws us nearer to himself, and nearer to becoming who we truly are, and nearer to his kingdom coming in its fullness within us and around us. I hope that in the end, you will embark more vigorously on a way of following Jesus that brings about a renewing of your mind so that you can gracefully discern what God’s will is, and join your life to it freely and joyfully.

For those who are newer to faith, or considering faith in Jesus, I hope to paint a clearer picture for you in this series of what following Jesus really means. Of the kind of adventure with God that being a disciple of Jesus is. Of the kind of surprising, loving God that is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, and the kind of surprising, new humanity that he reveals as well. I hope in the end, you will discern that the way to the best, the most pleasing, and the most perfect life possible is the life of co-creative, cooperative faith in Jesus.

I want to close with one simple thought, and then a couple of practical tips.

The simple thought is this. Although trusting God’s will for your life by offering your body as a living sacrifice in worship to him can seem like a risky thing compared to trusting your own instinct for the best way to have life (what if he wills me to do this hard thing, or that hard thing, or whatever!?), it is in truth the only safe and life-giving way forward in a world subject to brokenness , despair, and death. According to Romans 12, learning to discern and follow God’s will in every part of our lives is part of how we love God. And according to Romans 8:28, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. So when Romans 12 says that God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect, it doesn’t just mean it’s good, pleasing and perfect to him, but it may be pretty sub-par for you. It means it’s good, pleasing and perfect all around, you especially included. Even if you can’t imagine how, right now. So choose to pursue a course of learning to discern God’s will for your life, and commit to being the kind of worshipper whose worship isn’t just on Sunday mornings, but whose worship is expressed in every decision you make.

Practical Tips:

1. Take a happiness inventory. Write down 3 sources of true happiness in your life right now. And think about how they came to be in your life. Reflect on how they reveal a God who might have imagined better for your life than you imagined yourself. Did you imagine them and go get them? Or did God arrange things in such a way that when you cooperated with him, they became present to you?

2. Start a daily Awareness Examination. This is a simple discernment tool / discipline we will talk more about in coming weeks, but you can get started on it now. Ask God to look at your day with you. What does God show you about your day? What was important to God from your day? Talk to God about your day.