By Victor M. Parachin
Some time ago, author and educator Parker Palmer was offered the opportunity to become a college president. He visited the school where he met with faculty, students, administrators, and trustees. Before leaving, he was told he would most likely be offered the position.
However, Palmer, a Quaker, was not completely certain about accepting the role. In keeping with his Quaker tradition, Palmer called on a half-dozen friends to meet with him as a “clearness committee.” In that process, the group refrains from giving advice but spends a few hours asking honest, open questions in order to help the individual discern the right path.
The first few questions were routine and easy, he recalls, until one person asked, “What would you like most about being a president?”
Palmer answered with a volley of negatives: “I would not like having to give up my writing and teaching. . . . I would not like the politics of the presidency, never knowing who your real friends are. . . . I would not like having to glad hand people I do not respect simply because they have money. . . .”
Gently, but firmly, the questioner interrupted: “May I remind you that I asked you what you would most like?”
Compelled to give an honest answer, Palmer found himself appalled as the words came out of his mouth. “Well,” he said in a quiet voice, “I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.”
Palmer recalls that although his answer was laughable, not one of those present laughed. Rather, they went into a long, serious silence that made Palmer extremely uncomfortable. Finally, his questioner broke the silence: “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?”
With that, everyone broke out in laughter. The clearness committee ended, and later Palmer called the school to withdraw his name from consideration. “Had I taken that job, it would have been very bad for me and a disaster for the school,” he says.
Seeking God’s guidance is a vital spiritual discipline. Without it people can end up in unfocused pursuits, unhappy relationships, and unfulfilled lives. That may be why the psalmist prayed: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:10). Here are some time-proven, effective ways to discern God’s guidance.
God guides through prayer. Jesus lived a God-directed life. The basis of it was fervent prayer. The Gospels report Jesus prayed regularly.
Jesus prayed in the morning: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Jesus prayed in the evening: “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God” (Luke 6:12). Henry Edward Manning, a 19th-century clergyman, wisely observed:
It is prayer, meditation, and converse with God that refreshes, restores, and renews the temper of our minds, at all times, under all trials, after all conflicts with the world. By this contact with the world unseen we receive continual accesses of strength. Without this healing and refreshing of spirit, duties grow to be burdens, the vents of life chafe our temper . . . lower the tone of our minds, and we become fretful, irritable, and impatient.
God guides through uncertainty and difficulty. Tense times in our lives should not be constructed as unproductive and infertile. They may, in fact, be the precise moments when God is most able to guide us. Human extremities become God’s opportunities. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God promises: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth” (Isaiah 42:16).
God guides through silence. The Bible frequently reminds us to be silent before God: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). “Search your hearts and be silent” (Psalm 4:4). “Be still before the Lord” (Zechariah 2:13). In his book The Other Side of Silence, Morton Kelsey notes, “Silence unbinds a person from ordinary perceptions and attitudes and offers a fresh look at life and reality.” Whenever you are troubled or whenever the path is unclear, take some time for silent meditation. It is in silence that the “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12) of God will be discerned.
Consider the example of one woman who heads for her sacred space each morning after taking her children to school. “It’s the place where I go to center myself,” she says of the routine she began five years earlier. There, she spends time in silence and concludes by asking God to “send me someone to love today.” She adds: “I think everybody needs a place where they can be still. We are all very busy. It changes your perspective on the day to have this time of silence.”
God guides through the step of faith. God’s guidance and blessings often emerge when we take a risk and step out in faith. After living in New York for two years, a woman realized she was lonely for friends. When she moved from her native Kansas City to New York, her new job was satisfying, but her life was incomplete without the kind of good friends she’d had in Kansas City. She told herself, “This time next year, I’ll have a circle of friends like the one I left behind.”
A few days later she received a mass e-mail announcing that peace discussion groups were forming in homes around the country. She clicked on the New York City link and wrote to a stranger: “What part of the city do you live in?”
A woman named Linda replied. Amazingly, she lived across the street. The two made a date for coffee and are now good friends. That woman was well on her way to establishing a new circle of friends. It began when she took a risk and stepped out in faith.
God guides through teachers. All of us come into contact with teachers. They may be called ministers, elders, deacons, Christian educators, counselors, or therapists. Pay close attention to them, because they are often the source of spiritual unfolding and divine guidance.
The book of Acts reports that the apostles were spared death because a teacher intervened on their behalf. For their preaching about Jesus the apostles were arrested by authority of the high priest. During questioning, Peter refused to back away from his message. He said, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). The crowd was furious and wanted to put the apostles to death.
Gamaliel, a highly revered teacher of the law cautioned them saying, “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38, 39). His words persuaded the crowd, and the apostles were released.
When the way is not clear to you, talk with your minister or other spiritual leader. Doing so can provide a new perspective.
Finally, it is always helpful to remind ourselves of this reality: at any given time the specific will of God may be unknown, but the presence of God is certain. That reality can give us the motivation to patiently wait for greater clarity and insight.
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an author, and a freelance journalist living in Tulsa, Oklahoma.