Have you ever wondered how you could know God's will or recognize God's voice? Does God give you a brain and expect you to figure things out for yourself? Or does God have a blueprint—a Plan A—for your life that you can miss? Is Plan B just as good? How do you discern God's movements in your life anyway?
I doubt there is one right answer to these questions because each of us has our own unique and unrepeatable relationship with the Divine. God spoke to Abraham and told him to pack up and leave his hometown. But he didn't give a destination. Abraham seemed to wander out into the unknown without an argument. On the other hand, when God called Moses and gave him a destination (Egypt), Moses protested and had it out with God. God directed each of these men in a different way. And the Holy One's presence went with both of them even though they both made mistakes that seemed to derail God's plan from time to time.
The good news here is that human failure doesn't stump God's story—because God's story is never just a story about Abraham or Moses or us. We all have parts to play. Parts that call for plenty of awareness, listening, and knowing how to say "yes" and "no" along the way. But we don't have to make our way in fear. God has all the loose ends in his hands.
When I wanted to know God's will, I used to make lists of pros and cons. I tried to figure out which option came with the most perks, upsides, money, opportunity, etc. Then one day I looked at Jesus' journey and realized that God's will is not always about moving up in this world. Sure, pro and con lists can be useful, but a pro list a mile long doesn't guarantee it is the right course of action.
In the end, God makes his will known in relationship. Some people feel nudges. Others get a word from Scripture. Others hear a sermon or read a book and have a sense of what they are supposed to do. Once I think I heard God's voice. But most of the time hearing from God has meant listening to my life, the Word, my friends, and the world I am in.
The Examen is a spiritual practice for discernment that originated with Ignatius Loyola some 500 years ago. Ignatius wanted to help people attend to the movements of God in their life. And the process he developed has been used by countless followers for centuries.
Psalm 37:4 reads, "Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart's desires." This doesn't mean the Holy One gives you what's on your wish list like Santa Claus. It means God has hidden certain desires within you from the beginning. They are part of your life-plan DNA. Maybe you love to nurture people or help people who have problems. Maybe you like to lead, or make beauty, or work for justice. God wants you to be in touch with your deep desires because they shape the part we play in God's story. The desires God puts in us bring us energy and life.
Have you noticed what gives you life? What yeses and no's are life-thwarting and which are life-giving? Discernment requires attention to what gives us life. Where does the fruit of the Spirit show up in your day? When do you experience love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, and self-control? Where do you experience the opposite of these things?
The Examen poses some questions that help us notice the movements of God.
1. What was your high today? What was your low?
2. What was life-giving? What was life-thwarting?
3. Where did you have joy? When did the joy lose traction?
4. Where did you find the fruit of the Spirit?
5. How are you being invited to talk to God about what you noticed?
These questions are ways I listen to what God is saying in my life. They are ways I look beneath the surface of my tasks and transactions. These questions get at our motivations and the way we relate. If we pay attention to the answers to these questions, we begin to see patterns that reveal who we are and what things bring us joy.
Attending to the Word of God is another way I listen. As I read I look for where God is inviting me to pray, doubt, question, act, wait, or see things in a new way. What is the discussion God wants to have with me.
Fredrich Buechner writes in Wishful Thinking, "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." To find that place means paying attention.
As a child I never dreamed of becoming a pastor. I didn't know women could be pastors. But all along my life I have loved God's Word. People bring me joy. Nurturing and shepherding are what I'd do even if I were unemployed. Looking back, I see how God placed people and experiences in my life that directed me to where I am now: a co-senior pastor along with my husband, Doug. And it is rather a blast! It is the place where there is love, joy, peace, etc.
Do you want to know God's will? Start noticing where your deep gladness is. Look beneath that gladness to the deepest part of it you can. Do you think your deep gladness is children—and that you will never have any? Well, look deeper still. Can the gladness you get from children be unleashed in a way you haven't yet imagined? Why did God give it to you, anyway? Did you want to be an entrepreneur and end up in management? What is your desire to start things about? Is there some call to start something you haven't yet dreamed of?
There is no Plan B for anyone. God will take what you offer and use it for your good and your growth and his glory. The Holy One is not stumped by where you are now. Start listening and noticing and paying attention to what gives you life. It can be a light to your path.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun currently co-pastors Redeemer Community in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with her husband, Doug. She is the author of Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us.