Discernment and the Cross

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For a Christian, everything in life revolves around the person of Jesus Christ, everything draws meaning from his life, death, and resurrection, everything is patterned on his example, focused on his Lordship, intended for his and his Father's glory. Jesus' claim, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life' (Jn.14:6) is the very foundation of all discipleship.

Hence, discernment must at once be situated within the frame-work of one's vocation to become like Jesus, to do things his way, to radiate his truth, to live his life.

Out of his immense love and wisdom, God gave freedom and intelligence to his human creatures (Gen.1:26f) and invited them to become his partners, co-creators (Ps.8:3-6), heirs, and to be the brothers and sisters of his beloved Son Jesus (Rom.8:15-17). To discern the Father's will becomes a felt-need, therefore, for those who have accepted this 'spirit of sonship', that is, for those who are convinced that they have been "predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus, so that Jesus may be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters" (Rom.8:29).

Discernment is nothing else than a prayerful searching for authentic 'life in the Spirit', wanting always to 'walk by the Spirit' (Gal.5:25) in the footsteps of Jesus. But 'life in the Spirit' can only be received through the mystery of the Cross, hence the ongoing process of discernment must help one discover the steps (that are according to God's will) whereby one's personal pilgrimage becomes a true participation in Jesus' Way of the Cross! This Way is not at all something to be afraid of, because for Jesus it meant a life of deep inner consolation and joy, and of fruitful servant-hood in the power of the Holy Spirit. God wishes our own personal histories to be an extension of the life of Jesus.

In his anointed book, "The Cruciform Church" (Texas, 1990), Pastor Allen Leonard comments that Christians throughout the ages of every place, language, and culture have pointed to the cross as the most fundamental point of reference for Christian faith. "They have sung its praises, lifted up its symbol, extolled its benefits. But, at the same time, they have often removed its scandal. They have cherished its symbol, but shunned its discipline. They have lauded its blessings, but sought to remove its burdens. There has always been something deeply disturbing about the cross, something that deeply offends human pride and achievement, something that insults human self-reliance. And so, while confessing the importance of Jesus' death for us, Christians have been tempted in many ways to alter the radical message of the cross into something more in harmony with human reason, human sensibilities, and human wishes".

What does it mean, in a secular culture that values nothing so much as comfort and self-fulfillment, to find one's most basic identity in the cross? To provide a personal answer to this question will be the context and scope of all our discernment.

"The cross challenges our favourite conceptions of God. It assaults all human pretensions, all human achievements and wisdom, all reasons for glorying. The cross shows us that God has chosen to work his will through the power of suffering love."

In the secular ethos of today the very idea that one would choose to follow the Way of the Cross has become nearly incomprehensible. Most of us, in our heart of hearts, view all suffering as bad. For most of us the highest good has become the removal of all suffering. We seek above all peace, safety, pleasure, the removal of all pain. As much as possible suffering is to be avoided. And so we marshall all the technology, wealth, and ingenuity at our disposal to do that.

With this dominant vision of the good life, Paul's testimony to being 'crucified with Christ' becomes almost nonsensical. Jesus' call to forsake everything, to 'hate one's own life also' (Lk.14:26), and his charge that he who would save his life must lose it (Mk. 8:35-36) simply do not make sense to people who live by this vision of the good life.

"In the New Testament, and especially in Paul, the Holy Spirit is the power of the messianic age that has dawned in Jesus Christ. The Spirit makes the crucified and resurrected Christ present in his body, the Church. The Spirit extends Christ's Lordship, and arms God's people in their battle against the 'world,' the 'flesh,' and the 'powers.' The Spirit moves us through enemy territory toward God's final victory, along the way offering us a quickening foretaste of the glory to come.

But far from leading us out of the world into otherworldly glories, far from spiriting us away from struggles in the worldly arena, the Spirit always directs us to the Crucified One and thus to the Way of the Cross. The Spirit forms in us the character traits to follow that way. The Spirit implants in our hearts the strength to follow the way of weakness, the power to receive and care for the powerless, the peace to endure and absorb hostility". (Consider the example of the Saints, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Don Bosco, Maximilian Kolbe, etc., and Mother Teresa as well!)

Pastor Allen Leonard sums it up well by concluding that we face temptations in two directions: on the one hand, we are tempted to spiritualize the Church and its mission; on the other hand, we are tempted to secularize it. "Against an overly spiritualized faith we are called to active, compassionate, sacrificial involvement in the world. And against the secular faith so rampant among us today, we are called to offer not simply a helping hand or various forms of therapy but redemption - a proclamation of the radical human estrangement from God and the transforming power of God's atonement through Christ.

Some may say the Way of the Cross is too arduous a calling, too demanding an ethic. Some may say it is unreasonable and unworkable. Some may protest that the Church cannot live such a life in this world. Hearing Jesus' hard demands some may well ask, with Jesus' first disciples, 'Who then can be saved?' Faced with such concerns, beset with such misgivings, our discernment must help us hear Jesus' answer: 'With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible' (Mt.19:25).

Only in the power of the Spirit can we find the resources for following such a way..."

To discern well, it will also help to remember that we are all involved in a spiritual warfare. God has invited us to be on his team against the mysterious Evil one. As a consequence of original sin, man's and woman's mind and heart have become the battlefield, and Satan's tactics are to seduce them, with lies and false promises, from loyalty to God to an illusory independence. Illusory, because there can be no neutral state, one is either on God's side or one falls into bondage to the kingdom of darkness. St.Paul's exhortation is still relevant:

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against human enemies, but against... the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph.6:10ff).

Hence, the consequence of a right or wrong discernment affects not only the private individual concerned, but God's entire Kingdom (to the extent that the victories or defeats of individual soldiers have an influence on the final outcome of the whole battle). It is very important for the world and for human society that Christians become discerning disciples of Jesus Christ!

A Prayer for Discernment

All-highest, glorious God,
cast your light
into the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith,
firm hope,
perfect charity
and profound humility
with wisdom and perception, O Lord,
so that I may do what is truly your holy will.
(St Francis of Assisi)

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