A Brief Review of
The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision-Making
by Elizabeth Liebert.
by Laretta Benjamin.
Beginning with what I consider to be a good definition of discernment (the process of sifting out what is of God; discriminating between that which expresses God’s call to us and anything that runs counter to it), the author of this book takes us on a rather intricate journey leading us step-by-step toward an understanding of discernment. The writing is one of the most detailed I have seen and read on the practice of discernment (but in reality I’m not sure that’s saying much!) The thoughts she expresses in the first part of Chapter 1, “Discernment, What is It,” are great. She seems to hit the mark here. Her ideas are scriptural and to the best of my understanding, reflect the course of Christian history and tradition. She explains well that discernment is a way of life, not a one-time event. Discernment is a habit that leads us to live differently. She lays out before us pictures from both the Old and New Testaments. Throughout the following chapters of her book, Ms. Liebert very thoughtfully examines such things as our memories, our imagination, our intuition, our personal desires and the ways those areas of our lives can be both a help and a hindrance to discernment.
At the very outset, the author makes the indispensable point that discernment should be set within the context of a community of faith. “This community carries our faith when we are weak, preserves the long tradition of listening for God, provides a collective interpretation of the Scriptures, and calls us to actions that are good for us and the larger community of living things. Cut off from its communitarian roots, the power and veracity of Christian discernment can easily stray into viewing our own idiosyncratic interpretations—and even downright evil—as God’s call” (p. 10). She brings us back to that point again in several different ways throughout the remainder of the book. She also sets before us the idea that true discernment must be made in the light of God’s creative purposes and with the big picture of God’s work in the world. Thank you Elizabeth Liebert! History is full of crazy and harmful things have been done in the name of Christ because of someone’s very individual and personal “discernment”.
However, even with those things said and those points made, I still finished the book with the same very western, individualistic perspective from which many of us are struggling to break free. That very popular question of contemporary Christianity, “How can I be all God created me to be?”, seemed to keep creeping to the surface of this book.
Discerning together as the people of God, as the body of Christ, as the Church in this world, called to a distinctive purpose, to lay down our lives for the sake of the world, is not something we here in this western culture do well, mostly because – even in the “Christian world” – our minds and hearts are set on being the best I can be. How would discernment be different if we truly saw ourselves as those who have “denied ourselves, taken up our cross and followed Jesus” and now are part of a new creation, a new kingdom, a kingdom present here and now but yet still to come? How would making decisions be different if I truly believed I was part of the body of Christ on this earth so it wasn’t really about me anymore? Ms. Liebert gives us some good foundational thoughts and tools to work with in learning to discern but I struggled with the paths she forged with those tools. This book was not hard reading although in many ways it seemed a little more “technical” than I expected. Particular “exercises” were given that might be helpful for some in beginning to grasp the idea of discernment. Ms. Liebert has given much thought to her work on discernment. The book was well-written, but in the end its vision of discernment, in my opinion, was not radical enough.