Format: One time workshop
Most of us have had experiences where we get the sense that God has been active or present in our life in some way, Maybe we felt a sense of God’s presence or peace, or it seemed that God was giving us some guidance, revelation, idea, or inspiration. Sometimes these moments feel subjectively very important, exceptional, and emotional, other times they may seem quite subtle and easy to overlook or question. An important skill set which many Christians want to grow involves being able to more clearly recognize, discern, and respond to God’s presence, guidance, and activity in the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances of our lives. For the purposes of this brief overview I will limit my focus to these three important skills—recognizing, discerning and responding; then this workshop will focus in particular on the skill of discerning God’s guidance.
- Recognizing: The first skill is recognizing which of the many things happening around and inside of us all the time may be coming from God either directly or indirectly.
- Discerning: The second skill is to be able to discern with adequate even if imperfect accuracy whether such a thing is likely to be coming from God and worth following up on, or whether it is unlikely to be coming from God, or whether it is still unclear and needs additional help to discern.
- Responding: A third skill is developing wise, helpful and loving ways of responding to and following up on those things which seem likely to be coming from God.
To make this a little more concrete I will attempt to list some of the types of things that may be coming directly or indirectly from God. We will start with ways people often report a direct perception of God’s presence/guidance and then move to ways people often report an indirect perception of God’s presence/guidance.
Direct Perceptions God’s Presence or Guidance:
- Sensing God’s Presence: Perceiving a felt sense that a loving God is with me, around me, in me, or present in a way that I can sense in this moment. Often this comes with a bodily and/or emotional sense of peace, relief, or rest.
- Seeing Jesus/God: Perceiving a visual sense of God’s presence such as seeing an image of Jesus, or of God in another form in which God seems to be choosing to come because it is appropriate in this moment such as a Lion. Or as in the scriptural record in the form of a flame of fire, a cloud, within a burning bush, etc. Note that the image often captures one important aspect of God which God really wants the person to be aware of in the moment such as God’s protectiveness, gentleness, etc. This often happens more easily in specific Immanuel prayer sessions with a facilitator as well as during times of meditation or receiving a vision, etc.
- Hearing God: Perceiving a sense of God speaking to me directly. Not usually in an audible voice but more as a very clear thought with a sense of a tone and emotion along with it that is worded in a way that sounds and feels like someone is talking directly to me, for example, the spontaneous thought, “I’m really proud of you” along with a sense of pride and compassion after a person took on a hard challenge out of love and but they are not sure they succeeded very well.
- An Inspiration: A clear though unexplainable inspiration or sense that it is important to do something. Parents sometimes report this when they are awakened in the middle of the night and just know they need to pray for their adult child and later find out what the circumstances of danger were at that moment. Another way this happens is when one gets a clear sense that he or she needs to go visit somebody, send someone a gift, share a word of encouragement, etc. These promptings often seem to come out of the blue and seem unlikely to be generated by our own logical thought processes but feel more like a prompting being given to us from beyond ourselves.
- One Spontaneous Thought, or A Flow of Spontaneous Thoughts: Often it seems that God may speak to us through spontaneous thoughts and ideas that come to us which do not seem to have been generated by our own minds alone. Dr Karl Lehman humbly writes about how some of his most important discoveries related to the development of the Immanuel Approach for Emotional Healing came during emotional healing sessions where he was stuck, did not know what to do. In these cases the person he was working with was in deep emotional pain, and he was out of ideas to help, so he prayed internally something along the lines of “God, I don’t know what to do. Please show us the next step.” Then he would notice the thoughts that would come into his awareness. Often he would share these spontaneous ideas with the person and if both Dr Lehman and the person felt like the idea was responsible and worth trying they would implement it often with a great deal of success. Many of the troubleshooting techniques Dr Lehman teaches for helping a person re-establish a lost interactive connection with God during emotional healing sessions came in this way.
Indirect Perceptions God’s Presence or Guidance:
- Scripture: Among the many indirect ways that God seems to be able to interact with us the first to mention is scripture. Many people can describe times when the verse they opened to or were scheduled to read that day spoke exactly to the circumstance they were dealing with or prepared them for a situation they were about to encounter. These instances seem to indicate that one of the many ways God uses Scripture to bless us and form us is by speaking directly to us about something in the our present life through highlighting particular stories and words written long ago.
- Other people: Another really common way in which God seems to interact with us is when someone says or does something that is exactly what were needing to hear or receive in that moment. This often comes through people we wouldn’t have expected who happen to be saying the exact things we were needing to hear. For example, I was recently feeling overwhelmed by a high number of responsibilities and unable to access the depth of compassion for myself and others I know I am capable of. Just minutes after accepting internally that I simply had too much on my plate this week, I heard a young child saying, “Dad, we need to rest a long time so that we can use our superpowers. You know why? Because our superpowers won’t work unless we rest.” This child was just flowing with the spontaneous imaginative world bubbling up inside but the child’s words perfectly summarized the message God seemed to be trying to get through to me.
- Circumstances: Another really amazing way which God seems to interact with us indirectly is through what is happening in around us. Coincidental meetings with just the person we needed to talk to, a song on the radio that speaks just the words of comfort we were needing to hear, etc. Another way this looks is when a bunch of different experiences all seem to point in the same direction. For example, a conversation, a scheduled scripture reading, opportunities closing in several areas and opening in a particular area all of which seem to confirm this is the way, walk in it.
Going back to our three previous components of Recognizing, Discerning, and Respoding to God’s guidance, we could spend week long seminars on each of these topics but the one which this particular workshop will focus on is discernment. How do we improve our ability to discern what is coming from God and what is more likely not coming from God. This is a very important yet challenging topic which is only made more complex by bad experiences with feeling like we got it wrong in the past or getting confusing or mixed messages about how to discern God’s guidance from respected spiritual authorities in our lives.
I will pause for a minute just to take a deep breath with you and sigh and say, yes, this may feel like scary waters to enter and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. However, if you would like, perhaps it would be helpful if it feels safe enough just to name a particular concern you might have about this topic to God in this moment. For example, if you feel nervous about even exploring this topic for fear of assuming something is from God when it is really just your own mind you might want to just share that concern with God right now. If you decide to share such a concern, you may want to then pause and see if any thoughts or feelings come into your awareness in response. If something comes to your awareness then we’ve arrived exactly at our key question. Is that thought that came in response to my concern from God, my own mind, or from somewhere else?
Before we proceed further I’ll suggest to you one very simple test you can use to start sorting this out. Does the thought feel peaceful? Did this thought give you more peace as it came to you? Or did it make you feel less peaceful and maybe instead feel pressured, confused, or anxious? This one simple question, which Dr Jim Wilder calls the “Peace Test” is a good starting point towards getting more clarity about whether something is likely to be coming from God or not. It seems that things from God seem to come with a sense of peace and invitation versus pressure and confusion. There is so much to explore about this topic that we will only scratch the surface during this workshop but the most important thing may actually be just opening up the conversation and learning to make the kinds of safe spaces where we can explore together what more God might want to show each of us about discerning God’s activity in our lives. I hope to see you there. And if this one doesn’t work there will be more workshops in the future.
Facilitator: Andrew Ross