Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Shaping a Lifestyle of Discernment

Written by: on September 12, 2019

Henri Nouwen is one in a constellation of Christian mystics who speaks of the sustainable, centered, cohesive way of life that is present to and oriented around the God we can discover in Jesus. With each paragraph saturated in humility and vulnerability, Nouwen offers us permission to be nothing more than human beings who are sorting out the complexity of life and are in pursuit of both the Creator and the created.  Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life is one of his posthumous works compiled by former students who sought to allow Nouwen to give voice to his own discovery of discernment, to highlight why it mattered to him, and to invite us to experience the nearness of God through it’s daily practice.

As is always his style, in Discernment, Nouwen narrates his experience of the Divine, this time through the practice of discernment, with a conviction that God is lovingly alive, present, and invitational within every corner of the cosmos. Accompanying that conviction comes a second one: namely, that every moment of every day is saturated with both the presence and power of God and, therefore, the potential for transformation and restoration. Each of these previous convictions suggests a third: by the Spirit, God affirms our belonging to Godself, sharpens our understanding of our identity as the beloved, and affirms and/or adjusts our sense of purpose. Discernment, according to Nouwen, “is a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of how God is active in daily life….so that we can fulfill our individual calling and shared mission” (Nouwen, p.3). Within the pages of this book, Nouwen invites us to proactively pursue intimacy with the Divine through the practice of discernment within the mundane, painful, meaningful, and unusual of our everyday.

Rather than pursuing answers to our questions, Nouwen understands discernment as the means by which we experience intimacy with the Creator and gain clarity on whose we are (belonging), who we are (identity), and what is ours to do (purpose).  Within my own practice of discernment, be it in the form of Scripture, stillness, and solitude, wilderness wanders within my neighborhood, or curious conversations with trusted confidants, I’ve noticed how frequently I hover in the “What’s mine to do?” space as the allure of productivity and relevance are strong. Experience tells me, however, that when I first actively wait for the Spirit to reinforce that I belong to the Creator and the created, the pours of my soul are opened to the reality that I-who-belong am also the beloved. It is once I’m reminded of my belonging and my belovedness that I am able to discern more accurately not only what’s mine to do for today, but how my purpose is a participation with the Divine.  Discerning belonging, identity, and purpose is the liberating antidote to the toxins of self-rejection and relevance-seeking that lead to our haphazard wondering and wandering. Thus, the interconnectedness of discerning these three (belonging, identity, and purpose) cannot be understated as they draw us nearer to a more accurate understanding and intimate experience of God, self, and others.

The most significant critique I offer in relationship to Nouwen’s framing on discernment is that, from my perspective, he provides an approach that is far more individualistic than communal. Being that the gist of his argument is that we can and must become women and men who train our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to an everyday awareness to and experience of God, I understand why he’s positioned his suggested practices and environments for discernment as he has.  That said, the individualized practice of discernment that is void of a community of discernment who listens with and on our behalf seems dangerous. Paying attention to my own preference for an individualistic approach, I’m recognizing that I default here most often because I do not prefer to face the possibility that what I may be discerning is more a manifestation of my personal preference than the presence and invitation of God.  What’s more, my addiction to efficiency too frequently seduces me into an uninterruptible pace that cannot be slowed by the slow-baked process for communal discernment. Because the tuning of my ears to the frequency of the Spirit is a life-long pursuit, I’d be wise to slow down and error on the side of communal discernment, especially if and when the indicators of my life reveal that I’m untethered, unhealthy, and/or fatigued.  Thus, I would expand Nouwen’s concept of “acitve waiting” to “active and communal waiting.”

The doctoral pursuit in leadership that we’ve embarked upon provides us a remarkable opportunity to shape and refine a lifestyle of discernment.  This is a new environment with soon-to-be friends that offers us the chance to pursue not just expertise in a given subject, but a deepened experience of belonging to God and one another, a greater certainty of our belovedness, and a focusing and celebration of each others’ unique Kingdom contributions.  Through copious amounts of reading and reflection, hours of conversation, and immersive experiences, we, together, can choose to try new approaches to individual and communal discernment. For, knowledge alongside our ability to carefully and consistently discern whose we are, who we are, and what’s ours to do, will significantly season our leadership.

As it pertains to our upcoming advance, I’m impressed by how the practice of intentional displacement invites me to sharpen my senses, awakens my imagination, and opens me up to new possibilities. My intention is to enter our time together in London and Oxford committed to walking at the pace of trust, listening longer, and actively wondering about what God might be saying to me and to us.  I intend to identify what lures me from being fully present that I might more accurately discern the presence of the Divine within the mundane, painful, meaningful, and unusual experiences of our time together. Alongside you, I will not simply seek intellectual enhancement, but, in Nouwen’s words, “a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of God” that I might take one step closer to my “individual calling and shared mission” (ibid. p.3).

About the Author

Jer Swigart

9 responses to “Shaping a Lifestyle of Discernment”

  1. Greg Reich says:

    I appreciate your depth of insight. I have a great love for the body of Christ, but am thankful for the ability to go directly before the throne. One of the profound truths of the reformation was the concept of the “priest hood of all believers” and our ability to come directly before God without the need of a priest to intercede for us. The humbling ability to have Christ interceding on my behalf and the indwelling Holy Spirit guiding me strengthens my desire to discern the deeper things of God. Though I greatly value the individual approach I realize nothing happens in a vacuum. The value of community for me becomes the very form of confirmation or lack of confirmation that I need to assure or correct me in whether I am hearing God correctly. Community becomes the iron sharpening iron process that refines my character and sharpens my ability to hear God. It also becomes the avenue of where I can express and prove my love for Christ. Obedience to the commands of Christ becomes our expression of love toward Christ (John14:15-21) and what better place to express and experience that then in community.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Good insight here, Greg. Your mention of the reformation is spot on and, I think, it highlights where the reformed have gone too far in our go-straight-to-God approach. Whether it be confession or discernment I fear that we’ve errored on the side of individualism and, thus, too often the “voice of the Spirit” ends up sounding a lot like my own internal monologue. Because my spiritual roots are of the reformed tradition, I have very little experience of and, therefore, muscle in taking my wonderings to others much less inviting them to listen with me. The experiences that I have gained in this (mostly connected to Quaker and anabaptist traditions of communal discernment) have strengthened my conviction that, especially with regard to significant decisions, inviting others into the process is not just wise, but essential.

    • Greg Reich says:

      Jer I look forward to getting to know you better. Your transparency and depth of insight blesses me!

  2. Shawn Cramer says:

    As a bit of a side note, your use of vivid verbs and imaging-provoking language is engaging to read.
    I had a different takeaway with Nouwen’s emphasis of other people in the discernment process. I think I can see what you’re saying. To extrapolate your point, I understand you saying, even though other people are mentioned, the means of discerning God’s movement in one’s life is still individualistic. The “other people” are only mechanisms to prompt that discernment, according to this text. Am I understanding you correctly?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks Shawn.

      What I’m suggesting is that while Nouwen does a great job highlighting how relationships to and dialogue with others (be they immediate friends, authors, ancestors, or saints) are fabulous avenues to for us to discern God’s presence and invitations, I don’t think he goes far enough to interact with the role that community can and, perhaps, should play in our process of discernment. My sensitivity to this is likely born out the copious amounts of times I’ve heard people say, “God told me to change jobs, shift locations, end relationships, etc.” When pressed as to how they heard God’s direction, rarely is there mention of any community of discernment around them to accompany them toward what is true, right, and beautiful vs. personal preference, what is near-sighted, and what is deception. While learning to sense the presence and power of God through interactions with others is significant, there have been few more important and accurate moments of discernment in my life than the ones where I have submitted my wonderings to a community who not only loves me enough to listen with me and on my behalf but also are willing to tell me the truth…especially when that truth differs from what I “heard.”

  3. Dylan Branson says:

    Jer, I appreciate your self awareness on your tendencies regarding discernment. I’m always taken aback at the “both/and” aspect of Christian faith. It is both individual AND communal; our relationship with God is both individual AND communal; the church is made up of many individuals brought together through Christ as the head. Discernment itself lies in both realms. I do agree that discernment done purely as an individualistic exercise can be dangerous, as it runs the high risk of falling into our own preferences. I think that is a big part of the way our research runs, especially in the initial stages of figuring out the exact problem. Add our cohort to this and we have definitely been given people to walk along side us in our different processes of discernment.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Dylan. Here’s to living in the “Both/and”!

      I agree with you and Nouwen that discernment is a way of life that either I choose to live in or not. I’m drawn to his invitation to live as a human being that is ever growing in my awareness of God’s presence, affirmations, cautions, and invitations. And, if you read some of my comments from above, you’ll see how I attempt to strengthen my argument for the communal side of discernment as well. Because I was raised with such an individualistic approach to life, faith, and leadership, I’m finding myself more and more so drawn to the communal, mutually submitted and reciprocal traditions and practices. The pursuit may be bringing me closer to the elusive both/and.

  4. Nancy Blackman says:

    I groaned (in a good way) as I read your post, resonating with so much of this. Here are the places where I groaned the loudest:

    • “…Nouwen offers us permission to be nothing more than human beings who are sorting out the complexity of life and are in pursuit of both the Creator and the created.”

    When someone offers us permission to just “be” it feels so luxurious.

    • “…every moment of every day is saturated with both the presence and power of God and, therefore, the potential for transformation and restoration.”

    As a Spiritual Director, one of my foremost questions as I listen is how did you sense God’s presence? It’s hard to imagine, however, that every moment is saturated, but I agree it’s true for me. It’s not always easy to sense, see, hear or feel.

    • “… “What’s mine to do?” space as the allure of productivity and relevance are strong.”

    Yes! I think I groaned the loudest here. Isn’t it difficult to know when to say no even if it has a cherry on top? But deeper then that comes the question, where am I meant to be with You? The idea that “my purpose is a participation with the Divine” is what I have referred to as a sweet spot. It doesn’t necessarily mean that things are easy, right? It indicates a willingness in our spirit to participate with the triune God.

    Thanks for making me groan.

    Blessings on the journey,

    • Jer Swigart says:


      Thanks for your input and thoughts here.

      I’m with you on how luxurious it feels to be given, much less to give myself, permission to simply be. I imagine it has much to do with the allure of doing that fills my life and inhibits me from being. Why so luxurious for you?

      I love to imagine that every moment is saturated, yet because I don’t experience nearness and divine possibility consistently, it’s hard to believe. Brother Lawrence is my current guide for this journey. Who is yours?

      My purpose as participation with the Divine as “sweet spot.” Yes…so helpful for me to read. I’m with you…rarely easy yet always good.

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