Faith and The Difficult Process of Discernment

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac.Image via Wikipedia

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

(Hebrews 11:6 NRSV)

Over the last month Emily and I have been working through a major life change question. I was looking at taking a job, which would have meant full-time work, moving out of LA, and slowing down the PhD by a number of years. Emily and I have been thinking that in the next year we’ll be moving, so when this job opportunity came up it seemed like it might be a good fit. But finally, after a very long process of praying and weighing the options, it felt premature to leave Fuller now. Emily’s got a great work situation with teaching 20 hours, a job that helps pay the bills, while allowing us to both have time with L and me to get about 25-30 hours a week of study in. At that pace I should be able to finish my exams by the end of next summer. It wasn’t an easy decision though, and one that weighed heavy on me for quite some time. I thought it’d be good to think out loud about the process of discernment we went through.

For me there were a few things that came into play for me while I was trying to determine the proper move. I was looking:

  • For a sense of spiritual clarity given by the Holy Spirit
  • To make sure that my spouse and I were on the same page
  • To see that it made sense in the larger scope of my life, gifts, and who I am
  • To take into account the wisdom of mentors, friends, and family
  • To make sure the timing was right
  • To see how it fits with my sense of vocation, or whether or not there was a call from God to the job

Quite honestly, a sense of clarity from the Spirit, my wife and the wisdom of my mentors, friends and family were what took precedence for me this time around, but prioritizing a list doesn’t really make it any easier. It’s just kind of how it happened.

To add to this, I’m reading Kierkegaard‘s “Fear and Trembling” currently, which whacked (a mostly-pleasant whack) over the head about the importance of having faith, and believing in the absurd. Is not Abraham the protype for dealing with discernment on the level of the ridiculous? As Kierkegaard  writes,

But Abraham had faith and did not doubt. He believed the absurd. If Abraham had doubted – then he would have done something else, something great and glorious; for how could Abraham have done other than what is great and glorious? He would have marched out to the mountain in Moriah, chopped the firewood, set light to the fire, drawn the knife – he would have cried out to God: ‘Do not scorn this sacrifice, it is not the best I possess, that I well know; for what is an old man compared with the child of promise, but it is the best I can give. Let Isaac never come to know, that he may comfort himself in his young years.’ He would have thrust the knife into his own breast. He would have been admired in the world and his name never forgotten; but it is one thing to be admired, another to be the guiding star that saves the anguished. But Abraham had faith (p.45).

Reading this and other passages like it led me to consider the importance of taking leaps of faith, believing in the absurd, and entering the unknown. One question that stands out in this is, what is it that’s getting sacrificed? What is it that God is asking of us? Often times it’s easier to sacrifice ourselves, our well being, etc than to give up an opportunity. I have a hard time saying no to things because I’m afraid I’m going to miss something amazing. I am afraid to say no because I don’t want to let people down. So I tend to defer to self-sacrifice.

Reading “Fear and Trembling” reminded me of when we finally decided to move to LA and go to Fuller. It was through more than a simple twist of fate, it was through constant wrestling over the course of a year, dreading a final commitment. But we finally decided that, like Kierkegaard suggests above, we could remain at home and be “admired” or we could choose the other more far more ridiculous route of entering the unknown.

But this time around a bigger question loomed, which road is the more risky? Which is the unknown? With staying I would be turning down a job that offered a lot of really great opportunities and experience, and what if another job never comes along? But with going there were also risks, what if I never finish my degree? Or what if we move there and things don’t work out? Both choices seemed to be equally faith-relying. I’ve never really had a decision be so difficult, usually things are much clearer to me. It finally came down to a renewed committment to finishing this degree, holding out and hoping for something else to come along when the timing is right. So we enter another year of student life, this time as parents, hoping and believing that we’re being faithful regardless of the unknowns before us.

My question to all of you is this: what was one of the biggest choices you came up against in your life? What was the discernment process you went through in order to be faithful?

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

3 thoughts on “Faith and The Difficult Process of Discernment”

  1. Wow, great post Wes…

    The biggest decision (so far) for me was probably leaving a mission field a year early of a two year commitment. I had been moderately successful of fundraising support and loved the work (design) I was doing, yet there was little common community, leaving me depressed and lonely. I found others used fundrasing as a tell tale discernment indicator, yet it was not so for me. Being in contact with a community back home, being honest with myself and God, and not being afraid to admit it was easier to idolize the two year term (I CAN MAKE IT!) over a harder but better choice to leave a draining situation. I did not know what my supporters would think, my church, pastors, the organization … it was the unknown. But ultimately it was an image in my head of a rubber chicken the sealed it … it may sound funny … but I knew if I stayed, I would be that rubber chicken with no energy or life to give back upon my return…

    It was a hard but good decision, and in the past three years has been fundamental to helping me establish a relationship with God based out of a true space rather than something forced or pressured.

  2. @Kristen — I really enjoy “Fear and Trembling” it’s not an easy read, but it’s great.

    @Kristin – thanks for the story. I can see how that would have been a very hard choice! And I love the image. I actually kept asking God for an image, a dream, a vision, whatever — I wish I would have gotten something like a rubber Chicken – God’s funny.

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