Gordon Smith is President of the Overseas Council in Canada. He was formerly academic dean and associate professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver. His newest book is The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit, published by InterVarsity Press.
You say there are two questions that every Christian should be able to answer: what is Jesus saying at this point in your life? And how do you know it is Jesus? What does it mean to be able to "discern" the voice of Jesus?
The context in which we are attentive to the voice of Jesus is what's happening to us personally. And when I say that I mean emotionally. That is, the emotional contours of our lives become the soil in which we discern, sift, or determine what is truly from God and what is not. Discernment is all about attending to what's happening to us emotionally in a way that's informed by the mind, by the breadth and witness of the Scriptures, and by the counsel of other Christians. But it's really testing our own hearts to see if this comes from God.
The more I read the Scriptures the more I realized how central the emotional life of Jesus was to him for the joy that was set before him, but especially when I read the Psalms. And then when I came to Paul's writings, "the deep longing for a peace that transcends all understanding." "Your joy would be complete." And I kept coming up against these texts in Scripture and realizing that the emotional life is far more central to the spiritual life than I'd realized.
As you note in your book, Ignatius Loyola takes emotions very seriously. He talks about desolation and consolation. Why do you think Ignatius is so important when we want to understand discernment and the ability to hear the voice of Jesus in our daily life?
It's important to stress the radical Christocentricity of Ignatius, that he's really focused on the Lord Jesus Christ at the heart and soul of the Christian experience. And while he's very Trinitarian, there's a strong focus on Christ. And the whole of the spiritual life is to be with Christ and to have Christ with me. From the experience of being with Christ, we live in freedom. He wants to ask what the indicators are that we are living with this kind of freedom of being linked with Christ and not having "the inordinate attachments to the longing for wealth or the longing for power or the longing for fame and recognition."
The evidence of that freedom is that we have what he calls "consolation." It's a rich word that brings together the language of joy and peace. Peace is the indication both that I'm united with Christ and that I'm walking with the Spirit. And that if I'm not experiencing that peace, then I can be fairly confident that however legitimate my desolation may be, my anger, my discouragement, whatever it might be, however legitimate it is, I can't trust it as the soil in which I can hear the voice of Jesus. Having said that, just because I have consolation doesn't mean I've got it right necessarily because, , "the evil one masquerades as an angel of light." And consequently, I have to test whether the peace I'm experiencing is genuinely from God.
You test it, Ignatius says, "by examining the beginning, the middle, and the end." Ignatius is part of a tradition where the examination of motive is very central to Christian experience. I think all Christians need to learn to cultivate the capacity to examine themselves and examine their motives in particular.
John Wesley talked about the inner witness. He started his spiritual discipleship groups to be devoted to Jesus Christ, and they were very concerned about finding the inner witness of the Spirit in their life and then testing it in certain ways.
Wesley uses the language of joy in a way that is very compelling. No other author like Wesley has helped me to see that unless the fundamental disposition of my heart is joy, I'm not walking in the Spirit. That is really an indication of my union with Christ and my identity in the Spirit. This joy is always complemented by a reforming character. Joy without character is just mere sentimentality. To try to strive for character development without joy is empty legalism. It's that union of joy with character reform that I find so compelling.
Wesley is the voice, perhaps, that most strongly would affirm that the inner witness will always be concurrent with or congruent with the written witness. The inner witness of the Spirit to our hearts will never contradict the written witness.
What is the role of the church in confirming the inner witness according to John Wesley.
Wesley would affirm that the witness that abides in our hearts is the same witness that has brought the church into existence. There's a deep continuity between our individual experience of God and our corporate experience of God. I cannot know God intimately if I'm not in fellowship with the people of God.
We want to affirm that we cannot live in intimacy with God, if we're not in community with God's people. But the flip side is that the community of faith can also be a threat to my capacity to hear God because of kind of a tribal mentality. So we need to be discerning when we're in community that the community supports and encourages rather than undermines our capacity to hear God.
It was very important to Wesley that reason be taken in the context of Scripture and church and inner witness. Liberal theology has been driven by the appeal to reason that in many ways supersedes the authority of Scripture. In Wesley's thought, reason, church, and Scripture were all ways of validating what you were sensing was the voice of Jesus in your own life.
That does not mean that what God calls me to do may strike me as unreasonable. I mean, the Cross, in one sense, was a taunt to reason. And the gospel is foolishness to the Greeks. We affirm all of that. But Wesley and Jonathan Edwards were people of great intellects. The mind that was given to us by God is a gift from God and we need to judge and discern what's happening to us emotionally, that's a use of the mind. But generally speaking, God will not call us to do what is blatantly unreasonable or foolish.
Jonathan Edwards' book Religious Affections affirms the priority of affect and emotion in Christian experience. But what he gives us is a basis for discerning the authenticity of what we're experiencing in terms of affect and emotion. He says it's only authentic if it's motivated by the true, the good, and the noble. That is, where does it come from? And then, of course, it's evident in transformation of character.
You may feel great grief for your sin, but if it does not lead to moral reform it's just an empty grief and the evil one will be happy for you to feel terrible for your sin if it ultimately doesn't lead to any change.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Voice of Jesus is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information on Gordon Smith is available from the Intervarsity Press web site.
The Overseas Council in Canada has a web site.
Recent Dick Staub Interviews include:
John Eldredge Is Wild at Heart | The author of Wild at Heart and The Sacred Romance discusses rediscovering the Gospel through a ransomed heart. (Nov. 11, 2003)
Pursuing God and Community | A self-described nerd says pursuing God and community is possible through commitment (Nov. 4, 2003)
Francis Bok Is Proof that Slavery Still Exists | After spending 10 years in slavery, the young Sudanese man is telling his story to the world. (Oct. 28, 2003)
Philip Yancey, the Rumor-Monger | The author's latest is written not for Christians, but for those on the "borderlands of belief" (Sept. 30, 2003)
Ken Gire's Lord of the Dance | Patch Adams and T. S. Eliot teach us to twirl with Jesus, says the author (Sept. 23, 2003)
Jerry Jenkins's Solo Apocalypse | His new novel, Soon, imagines a world where religion, blamed for war, is banned (Sept. 16, 2003)
Why Frederica Mathewes-Green Loves Icons | Yes, we ask the saints to pray for us, she says. They are still living members of the church after all. (Sept. 9, 2003)
Sheila Walsh Says Stop | The author, singer, and popular speaker talks about learning to put praise above performance (Sept. 2, 2003)
Trusting in a Culturally Relevant Gospel | Os Guinness says that evangelicals have never strived for relevance in society as much as they do now. Ironically, he says, they have never been more irrelevant (Aug. 26, 2003)
The Long War About Science | Larry Witham, the author of Where Darwin Meets the Bible and By Design, talks about faith, science, and how the battle has evolved. (Aug. 19, 2003)
Kevin Leman Talks About Sex, Baby | The author of The Birth Order Book looks at the private lives of Christian couples in Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. (Aug. 12, 2003)
Why God is like Jazz | Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, talks about why Christians need writers who honestly deal with their faults and why penguin sex is an apt metaphor for believing in Christ. (Aug. 5, 2003)
A Gerontologist Gets Older | David Petty, author of Aging Gracefully, has long taught about the process of aging. Now, he is personally learning that one of the most important aspects is the spiritual side. (July 29, 2003)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingA Tale of Two New York City PastorsOne formed me. The other entertained me.
- From the MagazineOur Worship Is Turning Praise into Secular ProfitWith corporate consolidation in worship music, more entities are invested in the songs sung on Sunday mornings. How will their financial incentives shape the church?español
- Editor's PickDon’t Pretend the Ugandan Homosexuality Law Is ChristianNot everything that’s a sin is a crime—let alone one punishable by death.