Today’s post is from the writings of the late Gerald May.
When I was six years old I prayed, “Dear God, let me do what you want me to do.” By the time I was a young adult the prayer had changed to “Dear God, let me know what you want me to do.” The two prayers may seem similar on the surface, but underneath they are very different. The childlike prayer is intimate and trusting, asking only to be led and leaving the leading to God. In the adult prayer I asked for knowledge of God’s desire, with the implied message that once I knew what God wanted, I would try to carry it out.
I don’t know how many years I spent with that adult prayer. I do know that the more I tried to discern God’s will so I could carry it out, the further away from God I felt. It got to the point where I sometimes acted as if all I needed from God was my marching orders; I’d handle the rest on my own. I thought I understood discernment, but what I had really done was substitute intermittent contact and willful activity for abiding intimacy and trust.
Then, thank God, a time came when my discernment abilities evaporated. In what I now call my “dark night of discernment” I lost all capacity for clarity or understanding of God’s desire for me. All the discernment methods I knew produced nothing, and it seemed somehow absurd to keep working at them. Further, I realized I no longer even understood the concept of discernment. The term seemed to have lost all meaning for me.
To say the least, this was disconcerting at the time. It felt like some kind of brain problem, as if whatever lobe does discernment had simply ceased to function. I talked to friends and colleagues about it. Some nodded wisely and smiled as if they understood. I hate when they do that. Others tried to help me recover my old ways or discover new ways of being discerning, but it was all to no avail.
The effect, as usually happens in dark night experiences, was to lead me to simplicity. In this case I found myself guided back to my childhood prayer: “Dear God, let me do what you want me to do,” under my breath adding, “even if I don’t have a clue what it is.” Since my own capacities had completely failed, I had no choice but to trust God again in each moment, like a little child.
I had been brought to my knees. In that position I felt relief, freedom and an intimacy I’d long forgotten. I still had to deal with certain self-image issues, like competence for example. It doesn’t sound very responsible to answer questions with “I have no idea,” or “God only knows.”
Recently however, I found some Scriptural support for my incompetence. In fact, Scripture says my childhood prayer is a very good prayer indeed; loving trust is a whole lot more important than understanding. There’s the passage about the lilies of the field where Jesus says not to worry about tomorrow because God knows what we need. And there’s Deuteronomy 30:14 that says the Word is already in our hearts so we don’t have to go searching for it.
More powerful for me is Jeremiah 29:11, where God is saying, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your wellbeing… reserving for you a future full of hope.” In context, those words are a rebuke of false prophets who think they understand God’s thoughts. But they do not; only God does. Some translations even render it, “I alone know…” So maybe it’s true that God only knows.
Here’s what the passage says to me: “I alone know the desires I have for you; the prophets do not know my plans, and neither do you. Nor do you need to, because I have told you my desire is for your wellbeing.”
In this light, the following verses (12-14) become especially beautiful: “Then when you pray to me I will hear you; when you feel your desire for me you will find me; when you want me with all your heart, I will let you find me.” These words say to me that it’s not understanding God’s will that counts, but simple abiding love and trust.
By definition, a dark night experience always leads a person to greater freedom of life and deeper intimacy with God. I think that’s what has happened to me in my journey with discernment; I’m a lot less competent and a lot more grateful.
On your own journey of discernment? Are you asking questions such as: Why am I here? What is mine to do? Who am I called to be? And what can I contribute and offer to the world? This Lent, journey with Patience Robbins for a 6-session eCourse series: Open Hands, Willing Hearts, February 22 to March 29, 2015.
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Gerald May, M.D. (1940-2005), practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology, including Addiction and Grace, Care of Mind/Care of Spirit, Will and Spirit, and The Dark Night of the Soul.
Header photo by Susan Robbins Etherton.