Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
During several recent road trips, Angela and I have been listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, a series of podcasts produced by Christianity Today. The episodes tell the story of Mars Hill Church in Seattle – and of its founding pastor, Mark Driscoll.
Driscoll grew up in a Roman Catholic family in what he described as “a very rough neighborhood” in SeaTac, Washington. As a college freshman, he converted and became an evangelical Christian. After graduation, Mark and Grace relocated to Seattle, where they attended a Bible church and began to volunteer in the college ministry. That same year, according to Driscoll, “God spoke to me … He told me to marry Grace [a pastor’s daughter], preach the Bible, train men and plant churches.” In 1995, at age 25, Driscoll planted Mars Hill Church with two other friends. Mars Hill became a leader in the multi-campus, “metachurch” structure, and at its peak claimed 15,000 members in attendance throughout 15 campuses across five states. But then the church went through a very public and painful dissolution and officially disbanded on January 1, 2015.
What went wrong?
In many ways it is a tragic story, but it teaches many important lessons about theology, ecclesiology, arrogance, abuse, and accountability. The first lesson I noted in the story was a warning about the importance of spiritual discernment. Mark claimed that God told him to plant the church, etc., and at the end, just as the elders were preparing to challenge him and call him to accountability, he announced that God told him to resign to avoid what he considered a trap that was being set for him.
“God told me!” is a powerful assertion and is the ultimate “trump card” that can close down any conversation. How do we know for sure that it is God speaking? How do we recognize the difference between our own desires – sometimes very well intentioned – and what we perceive to be the call of the almighty God? This is a vitally important question for every one of us – especially those who claim to have a personal relationship with God.
Another story – but this time not involving a celebrity pastor – concerns a young woman who was a member of our church in Darien, Connecticut. “Meredith” was a relatively new Christian and convinced that God had called her to serve in the mission field – she even knew the particular African country to which she was to travel. She had read wonderful stories of faithful missionaries who had set out with few or no resources and who had experienced God’s miraculous provision. She was determined to do no less – so she said her goodbyes and headed for Kennedy Airport – with no ticket in hand. She assured the airline check-in staff that God would provide. They saw her sincerity but advised her to go back home, because without a ticket she could go no further. She stayed at the airport for a while and prayed intently, but no miracle took place. Later, more than a little confused, she went home. Meredith thought that she had heard a call from God, but she was mistaken.
The Scriptures record a number of instances of a specific call from God. Perhaps the most memorable is the call of Moses – an 80-year-old man living in exile, working as a shepherd, caring for the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. It’s not very impressive when you consider the promise of his early years – but God had not forgotten him. The angel of the Lord manifested God’s presence in a burning bush and God called to Moses: “Moses, I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt … I have come to rescue them. So now go. I am sending YOU to Pharoah to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:1-10). As you may recall, Moses needed a little more encouragement to accept God’s call and move out, but eventually, he went. And his world and ours were forever changed.
Few of us have such a specific, dramatic call from God, so, without a burning bush, how are we to recognize it when God does speak? This is where wisdom and discernment are critical. Discernment is recognized as a particular spiritual gift by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:10, and he emphasizes its importance in that familiar text from Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The issue of discernment has attracted many thoughtful commentators over the years, including Ignatius of Loyola, in his classic The Spiritual Exercises (first published in 1524 and available today in various translations). More recently, a friend of mine, Steve Garber, wrote of it in his book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good (InterVarsity Press, 2014).
Let me add a few observations from my own experience:
- Connection – accurate discernment comes more readily when we already have a strong, ongoing connection with God through regular prayer, study and worship.
- Consistency – God will never call us to tasks or to behavior inconsistent with His revealed Word and Character. Spending time in the study of Scripture is a prerequisite to good discernment.
- Counsel – seeking the counsel of others is an important part of any discernment process. I have found this to be particularly useful because, as a friend once observed, “Where our emotions are strongest, our discernment is generally weakest!”
- Circumstances – while not every open door is intended for our use, it is true that God works through the practical context of our lives. This applies not only to the external surroundings but also to our own gifts and experiences.
- Conviction – finally, our ability to discern God’s call on our lives rests on the conviction that God does have a call and a purpose for each one of us.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work as the interim bishop of the ADP has been encountering hundreds of men and women throughout the diocese who are determined to seek and follow the call of God on their lives and communities. It is a precious gift that gives me great hope for the future of this diocese. In many ways I believe it is the fulfillment of Sam Shoemaker’s hope that “God would be the same to Pittsburgh as steel is to Pittsburgh.” Maybe even more so!!
Your brother in Christ,