Text: I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-15
Throughout my ministry, as I have listened to and talked with people about their life and faith, several questions have remained consistent in our conversations. If I were to create a Top Ten list of those questions, it would go something like this.
10. Is there a heaven and hell? (I’ve preached on that one.)
9. How does one make sense of all those Old Testament stories where innocent people are killed in God’s name?
8. Is the resurrection real?
7. Is God all-powerful and all-knowing?
6. Why do bad things happen to good people?
5. Why is there so much suffering in the world if God is a compassionate God?
4. Does God answer our prayers?
3. What if I don’t believe everything the Bible says?
2. Can God love someone like me?
1. How do I really know what God wants me to do with my life?
In some form or fashion this last question of spiritual discernment has been at the heart of the human experience from the beginning of time. Our faith, as expressed in the biblical narrative, consists of story after story of individuals and whole communities trying to discern what God is calling them to do with their lives and in the world. Eve and Adam faced the question as they stood beneath the tree of knowledge contemplating what they should do next. Moses faced the question of discernment in a burning bush. Sarah laughed out loud at God as she struggled to discern God’s purpose for her life. Miriam danced on her journey of discernment. And Solomon, as he prepared to take his father’s place as king, dreamed about this question of discernment. For each, the journey of spiritual discernment was filled with twists and turns, bumps and road blocks, and facing the darkness of not knowing before coming into the light of clarity and peace. You see, when we come to this question of trying to discern what God would have us do with our lives, we stand on the shoulders of some of the most faithful. We are not alone.
In our text this morning Solomon asked God for what I think we all long for the most: an understanding mind and the wisdom to discern what God wants us to do with our lives. Interestingly, what I have experienced and what I often hear others describe as one of the biggest struggles in the discernment process is getting past the perception that what we most want for ourselves and what God wants for us are not the same. Lately, I have wondered why, as humans, we tend to think that what we want for ourselves and what God wants for us is so different from one another. Which leaves me to also wonder if true discernment is really about us figuring out what we most want for ourselves-what truly brings meaning and purpose and peace to our lives; what in Suzanne Newton’s words makes our hearts leap up. Is it possible that as we discern those things-the things that make our hearts leap-we might also discover that those are the very things that God most desires for us? This thought would be comforting if it were easy for us to know what we want for ourselves but that, too, is a part of discerning what God wants and desires for us.
When Flannery O’Connor’s students would respond to a question she had asked them, she would often respond back, “Good. Now go deeper.” I want to go a bit deeper with this thought that if we discover what we most desire and want for ourselves we discover what God wants and desires for us and from us. I have always been suspicious of people, especially Christians, who use God and the language of “God’s will” to sanction or validate their actions and their ways of thinking. Many of us in this room have been deeply wounded by another’s discernment of God’s will or purpose. When I suggest that a significant part of living a faithful life is discerning what we want or desire for ourselves, I am not suggesting an easy process. To know what we truly desire and want for our lives most often requires us to step back and disentangle from what we perceive that we want or what we think God might be calling us to do. I once had a spiritual teacher who would encourage me to stand on the outside of my life and observe what was going on in my life. It took me years to understand what she was suggesting. How does one observe their own life? I still find it a difficult task. And yet, when I am able to do just that-to take a step back and observe what is happening in my life-things often become clearer and more focused. It can be very difficult to shift through what others expect or want from us or what the world expects and wants from us in order to get to the core of what is in our own soul and heart. It is a lot simpler to let others define us and tell us who we should be and what we should do with our lives. But that path does not lead us to the wisdom that lies within. So when I suggest that faithful discernment is about discovering what we want and desire for ourselves, I am suggesting that when you think you know what that is, step back from it (put yourself in a place to observe it) and then go deeper with it. Beneath what you imagine you want may lie something more significant. Discernment is about peeling back the layers until you reach the core.
With that said, here’s what I am learning from you and from my own experience about discernment. First and most important, discernment is more about sensing God’s gracious presence than it is about making right decisions. Second, the willingness to be vulnerable-to be open to other people and to God-is essential. Third, discernment requires us to take risks-risks in how we act and in how we think. Fourth, community is a vital part of the discernment process. While we must trust ourselves, we also gain wisdom when we listen to others who know us and love us. Fifth, prayer-in whatever form you choose-will be what sustains you throughout the process. And keep praying even when you think it isn’t helping. And finally, if we are serious about discerning what God wants us to do with our lives, we must be willing to respond when our hearts recognize God’s spirit moving.
Discernment is not easy, nor is there a perfect formula to apply when asking the question, “How do I know what God wants me to do with my life?” While Solomon’s attitude of humility before God is admirable, the point of the passage is not that we should simply emulate Solomon. If it were so, the passage would be theologically empty. We must remember that this story pictures the “ideal” Solomon. It is true that he loved God, and it is true that he came before God with the proper attitude of humility. But that is neither the beginning nor the end of the Solomon’s story. In fact, Solomon was slow to build the Temple because he was more interested in building his own palace. He violated deuteronomic law by marrying an Egyptian princess and continuing to offer sacrifices and incense at the high places instead of in the Temple. The truth is that Solomon was not perfect. Yet, God came to him, for such is the nature of God. Remember the number 2 question-the one about being worthy of God’s love? Over and over, the biblical story teaches us that God responds to us in the fullness of our humanity and makes the Spirit known to us even in our imperfection. But we must be willing to go deeper when asking the hard questions of faith and life. It is from those deep places that wisdom is born.
God said to Solomon, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon prayed a prayer for wisdom-for an understanding mind and a discerning heart. I offer to you this morning another prayer-one that I pray daily as I respond to God’s invitation, “Ask what I should give you.”
Deepen my hurt, O God,
Until I learn to share it
and my needs honestly.
Sharpen my fears
until I name them
and release the power I have locked in them
and they in me.
Accentuate my confusion
until I shed those grandiose expectations
that divert me from the small, glad gifts
of the now and the here and the me.
Expose my shame where it shivers,
couched behind the curtains of propriety,
until I can laugh at last
through my common frailties and failures,
laugh my way towards becoming whole.
O persistent God,
let how much it all matters
pry me off dead center
so if I am moved inside
they will be real
and I will be in touch with who I am
and who you are
and who my brothers and sisters are.
May each of us find a prayer for wisdom as we live into the questions of our faith!