A Feature Review of
The Discerning Life: An Invitation to Notice God in Everything
Reviewed by Benjamin A. Simpson
Christianity makes a number of tremendous claims. Among them: we can experience a relationship of closeness and intimacy with God. But how do we do that? This question has perplexed many and compelled many more. It has kept some from experiencing the fullness of life with God we are invited to receive, and inspired many others to pursue their faith into the great terrain of discovery that is the width, height, breadth, and depth of life lived in the kingdom of God.
Intimacy with God is possible. It is experienced by learning to live a life of spiritual discernment. In The Discerning Life: An Invitation to Notice God in Everything, Stephen Macchia points the way. Borrowing a phrase from the Methodist author and former bishop Reuben P. Job, Macchia shows us how to “practice a preference for God.” Macchia takes us beyond seeking the will of God merely for decision making or ethical guidance and invites us to consider what it would look like for us to notice God’s presence and activity in our everyday lives, to abide in Christ, to walk by the Spirit, and to enter fully into communion with God.
Macchia claims we are made for this kind of relationship, that sharing our life with God is where we belong, our heart’s true home. We were made to keep in step with God daily. The Discerning Life contains biblical, theological, and practical instruction on ways Christ-followers can experience the outworking of their salvation as they live as friends of Jesus.
In order to live this kind of life, we must learn what spiritual discernment is as well as what it is not. Macchia wisely points out that sometimes God’s will is evident, and sometimes it is more difficult to discern. But almost all people want to know God’s will. They just don’t know how to do it. The good news is that we can learn.
A life of spiritual discernment is not less than knowing what God wants in certain ethical situations or regarding particular life decisions, but it is undeniably much more. Macchia observes that a lifestyle of discernment should precede our specific discernment questions. If it does, we are better equipped to notice God’s leading and to respond immediately and in faith.
To live a lifestyle of spiritual discernment we must first consider the meaning of the term itself. First, Macchia asks us to consider the range of meanings carried by the word “discernment,” which includes noticing and attentiveness, sorting and differentiating one thing from another, obtaining clarity over time, distinguishing between right and wrong, and acknowledging our need for a “big picture” perspective in the challenges before us.
But we are not only seeking to understand the meaning of discernment, but spiritual discernment, which envelops all of the above and considers these in light of the Triune God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We learn to discern faithfully within the context of a relationship with God.
Regarding spiritual discernment, Christians have expressed different approaches to how we do this across time. Macchia also observes that people discern with different methods including reason, tradition, Scripture, community, the leading of the Holy Spirit, or by religious experience. This observation helps us to see that regarding discernment– the whole of the Christian tradition, taken together– is instructive for the whole church. The diversity of streams within the Christian faith help us discover what a lifestyle of discernment looks like.
This lifestyle has eight distinctive qualities, and a ninth. The discerning person is attentive, a listener, present, hospitable, empathetic, focused, patient in process, and integrates the practice of discernment into all parts of life. With each of these qualities Macchia pairs a parallel attribute of spiritual discernment. It is biblical, prayerful, relational, communal, contextual, intentional, practical, and radical. As for the ninth? The spiritual discerning person has a deep trust in God and rests fully in God.
Each of these lifestyle qualities and parallel attributes are personally illustrated. Macchia owns an old house, having committed a great deal of time, energy, and resources in keeping, maintaining, expanding, and restoring his home. His experiences with his house have taught him much about life with God, and his use of story sheds light on the nature of spiritual discernment.
Macchia also makes clear connections to the witness of Scripture throughout the book, helping us to see how principles and narratives can prove instructive for us in our own efforts to enter into a lifestyle of discernment. I think this is one of the primary gifts offered in this book. Macchia weaves together the witness of Scripture and how it testifies to God’s invitation to a life of discernment.
In the three appendices, we are given a clear discernment process for groups that features ten questions for leaders to ask their teams, a forty day prayer and reflection resource for individuals desiring to “practice a preference for God,” and a collection of fifty biblical references to the help the reader reflect on noticing God.
Many seek answers from God, and are glad when they have them. But we’re called beyond seeking answers to seeking God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has invited us to observe divine activity in all of life.
When we observe those who have discovered how to relate to God from a posture of openness, receptivity, and spiritual maturity, we notice a difference. We receive hints of a heightened awareness of God. These individuals radiate joy, dwell in an abiding peace, display a sure confidence in God, and demonstrate the humble disposition of a servant. They offer a winsome witness to the kingdom and person of Christ.
That’s the kind of life all followers of Christ are called toward: a life of intimacy and abiding fellowship with God. It is a relationship of love and listening, of communion and community, of witness and service. It is a glad companionship with the God who has created, redeemed, and called us to live today with a posture of spiritual discernment, preparing us for the life we will enjoy in the new heavens and new earth.
We’re made for God’s eternal habitation as God’s forever companions, servants, and friends. We’re invited to begin experiencing that kind of life today. And we can. Jesus beckons us forward. Answer his call, and learn from him how to live a lifestyle of discernment.
Benjamin A. Simpson
Benjamin A. Simpson serves as the Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. You can read his work online: www.benjaminasimpson.com.