Discerning the Will of God

Recently, especially since the layoffs at work, I’ve been more concerned than usual about discerning God’s will. That in itself is problematic – I should have been more concerned about God’s will long before that, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. What I’m concerned with is how do we know what God’s will is for any given situation? Most people I know who consider themselves Christian, and who take this seriously, are concerned about the same.

Typically, the standard response is pray, and God will reveal his will to you. That is sound advice. Decisions taken without thought to prayer are likely misguided. Orthodox elders will tell you the same. An Abbess at a skete in northern California related the need for prayer in a talk she gave on this subject. However, that really only addresses the asking of God. How is it that I am supposed to hear Him? Mother Dorothea continues and shares the wisdom of various Orthodox saints and elders on that topic.

Before getting to that, though, I think it worth pondering a couple of stories in Scripture that relate to hearing and speaking with God. These stories provide the backdrop, really, to the counsel we hear from the spiritual giants of Christianity. The first is the famous story of Elijah and the “still small voice”. While God is powerful and creates the winds, and causes the earthquakes, etc., He is not in those. Rather, He comes in a still, small, voice. How, then, can we hear God when our lives are filled with noise, and activity, and even more importantly, the maelstrom that is our passions. Blown this way and that by our desires and our will, how can we stand still long enough to even be aware of God? Mother Xenia cites St. Pimen the Great who said that our will is like a wall of brass that stands between us and God. She then quotes, at length, St. Silouan as to the need for great humility to submit our will to God. So, not only can we not hear God, it may be as much that we truly don’t want to. For to do so, requires humility.

The second story is that of Moses bringing the Israelites before God in the wilderness. In order for them to even come near to God (and at that not very near), they must prepare. Moses is required to sanctify them. They must wash their clothes, and abstain from women. They must purify themselves. In the New Testament, we see the Apostles fasting and praying prior to great undertakings, just like the Israelites.

Mother Xenia says the following: “Arguing and judging come from pride, and pride immediately cuts us off from remembrance of and communion with God. St. Silouan said, ‘A cloud blows over and hides the sun, making everything dark. In the same way, one prideful thought causes the soul to lose grace, and she is left in darkness. But, equally, a single impulse of humility—and grace returns. This I have experienced and proved in myself.’” The Church has always taught that the ascetical practices of prayer, and fasting help us to learn humility and to not allow pride and our desires to rule our lives. The purpose, then, of these practices is to allow us to draw nearer to God. It is only then that we can hear that still, small voice.

The Church has also directed us to seek the counsel of a spiritual father, someone who has spent much time growing closer to God. The reason for that is all of what is stated above. These individuals have humbled themselves (one has to go find a spiritual father, they don’t advertise, that’s why St. Theophan was known as the recluse), and by that humility, they allow themselves to hear that still, small voice. Thankfully such people exist, to help keep us from the delusion of our pride.

This is a great wake up call for me.