4. The Step Aside: Discernment
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Luke 5: 16, NIV
Decision making may be the trip-wire that sends many of us to the sidelines. The drop-out rate in the Christian community escalates as sincere believers over-commit, accept ministry assignments outside their strength, gift, or time commitment capacity, or say "yes" before spiritual deliberation and prayer. Priorities slip into the margins every day as a result of so many competing side-tracks. In frustration we are apt to hit the delete button on all of them. Deciding which ones should receive our attention is a grueling competition of worthy commitments. Stepping back for perspective should give us the clarity to assess and analyze the grid of entanglements. Seeing things clearly is the outcome of Step 3: The Step of Perspective. Step 4, The Step Aside will give us guidance in deciding which ones become the beneficiaries of our personal resources. It is the step of discernment.
The step aside is the discipline of discerning God's direction in making significant
mission decisions and determining spiritual direction.
That Jesus regularly stepped aside from the pressing multitudes, arduous travel conditions, training the Twelve, and dealing with opposition is obvious in the New Testament. Luke's summary in the theme verse above is but one reference. There are others---
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went
off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
Mark 1:35, NIV
After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later
that night, he was there alone,
Matthew 14: 23, NIV
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent
cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because
of his reverent submission.
Hebrews 5:7, NIV
His heavy hours in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest may be Christ's most memorable step aside for most of us. Jesus knew his hour had arrived and the passion of the Cross was near. Luke wrote---
Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On
reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He
withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you
are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from
heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more
earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Luke 22: 39-44, NIV
Jesus wanted the counsel of heaven as he faced the horrors and agonies of the cross. An angel appeared and he was strengthened. He stepped aside to affirm and yield to the Father's plan.
The step back gives us a new, perhaps fresh perspective on any life situation. The step aside gives us His perspective. And, that's a significant fallacy in contemporary decision making and leadership. Stepping aside isn't about discovering our thoughts, validating our decisions, or selling our vision about life. It's about discerning His counsel, His direction, and his wisdom to rivet us to His plan. What Henry and Richard Blackaby wrote in their excellent annual read Spiritual Leadership resonates strongly with me---
God doesn't want people to do what they think is best: he wants them to do what he
knows is best, and no amount of reasoning and intellectualizing will discover that.
Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God's Agenda (B & H Books, 2001).
As one great mentor said, discernment isn't about what happens in the board room. It's about what God reveals to us in the prayer room.
In Scripture, spiritual discernment is gifted to some believers (see 1 Corinthians 12: 10, NIV), the gift of distinguishing between spirit. Still, every believer is cautioned to develop knowledge and insight for the spiritual discipline of discernment. The Apostle Paul wrote---
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and
depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and
blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through
Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Philippians 1: 9-11, NIV
These five steps to the finish line are intimate elements to our personal development in forty years of pastoral ministry. Our most critical lessons about them were what God has been teaching us since the murder of our son, Brian Eliot Holmes, on July 18, 2011. Those days are somewhat of a blur---shock and dismay, confusion, decisions to make, and the generous blessings of the congregation of Northwood Baptist Church, our family and friends, South Carolina Baptists, and so many more. We stepped back so we could gain the proper perspective about what had happened, consulting police officials, the coroners office, and several new friends in the news media. Then we stepped aside for discernment about our response to these events. In a prayer time on our back porch that very first night God gave us this Bible verse---
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due
1 Peter 5:6, NIV
Did all of our questions about his death go away? Did prayer and that verse erase our grief and sense of loss? Did that Bible verse alleviate long sleepless nights? Of course the answers are no. But, that step aside, the prayers for discernment did give us the promise that God would one day, in his time, lift us up. And, we have found comfort in that promise and hope for that day.
God has something he wants us to do, a life mission. It's not easy. He never promised it would be. But, he did promise to give us what we need to accomplish his plan in our lives. When we're humble, we are positioned to receive his provision. When we step up to his assignment we become the leaders he expects in that personal mission. We must often step back to gain the right perspective about his expectations in our lives. And, we must step aside on occasion to discern his counsel for our direction.
Wednesday, 5. The Step Away: The Step of Refreshment.
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