It is clear that a sense of being led by God is not infallible and has led to some terrible events in history. It has always been puzzling that totally opposing views can claim to be divinely inspired.
During this year at Silver Wattle, the course offerings on self-awareness and discernment, both corporate and individual, have struck a chord with many. Exploring the Quaker Testimonies also challenged us to consider ways in which we are true to the Spiritual testimony of living in the light and the testimonies of right behaviour. So many of us seek certainty in knowing the right path, and we long to be given a “Leading” that will take away all doubt.
Can we move beyond doubt to certainty that the Spirit is speaking clearly to us? Friends have from their earliest days recognised the need to distinguish between divine prompting and personal impulses, what George Fox called “vain imaginings”. Janey O’Shea’s Backhouse lecture (1993) describes in some detail the measures developed by early Friends to limit individual excesses and provide guidance by the Meeting.
From a psychological perspective self-awareness is the first vital component in discerning what we are being led to do. Our capacity for self delusion and rationalisation, for resistance and denial are part of our human survival skills! Being aware of our personality type and our spiritual gifts is a good grounding.
Feeling a prompt that is in line with our gifts is no certainty that it is Divine, and conversely getting a call that seems way outside our capacity is no block to the Spirit. When God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt Moses said – “I think you have the wrong guy. I am not good at speaking. Please send someone else”. Many inspiring men and women seen as prophets and pillars of strength have felt weak and inadequate to the task.
So what helps us to know a true Leading? I am no expert, just a psychologist who takes great delight in the human condition, and who seeks to move to the calmer waters beyond my Self. I have had no stirring major leadings, yet experience many prompts and ‘nudges’ which have helped me to trust more deeply in the Spirit and to serve more faithfully. I offer the following observations to help you assess the possible impact of personality and Self:
If you are a rigid, rules-driven person, beware of an apparent leading that takes you into more regulation and judgement.
If you are a flexible and creative person, beware of following something inspiring that tantalises with novelty.
If you are an emotional person, tread carefully when feeling ecstatic and deeply moved.
If you are a logical and rational person, understand that your cognitive strength may take you shallower, not deeper.
If you are a Big Ideas person, do not discount the small prompts on the way or see them as unimportant.
If you are a Myers –Briggs “J”, learning to live without clear goals or certainty may be how the Spirit is reaching out to you.
The second component is to use the strength of your group discernment and spiritual support. However, this is not infallible either, and Meetings vary in their capacity to sit with someone’s leading and really listen in a Spirit-led way. Remember that other Friends also have personalities and preferences! Find a spiritual companion or a peer group to help you discern before you expose yourself to a wider audience. A new leading is a very tender shoot, and I offer some further observations:
If you find yourself getting angry or discouraged or critical, step back and let go for a time: you may have ‘outrun your Guide’.
If acceptance from others is vital for you, know that opposition and even hostility may come your way when you seek new paths.
If you are a rugged individualist, letting the Spirit run your life and submitting to group discernment may be essential in your leading.
Above all, place your spiritual life in the forefront, seek quiet time in prayer, meditation, nature, reading and worship, share in spiritual friendship and community and learn to trust the Spirit.
“Live up to the Light thou hast and the rest will be given to you”.