Ethics and Discernment – Dr Paul Mercer

Is God guiding us, or someone else?


from Luke’s Journal 2018 | Hot Topics #1 | Vol. 23 No. 3

In a broad sense, ethics is doing “the good” in any situation. Doing good is likely to involve the challenge of seeking a wisdom to act well. It will include collecting evidence and thinking critically about such information. It will be marked by an openness to others and for Christians an openness to the surprise of God speaking into our lives. Doing good will contain an integrated connection between our hearts and our minds. An important question remains in deciding the “good” – what might be the indicators of God guiding or speaking to us, and not someone else?

Gordon Smith1 describes discernment as “a way of knowing and seeing that is experienced as a profound interplay of intellect and emotion in which head and heart are informing and guiding each other. Discernment is a matter of attending to both. The circumstances of our lives and the emotional contours of our hearts.” (p53).

In our post-modern secular culture, with ever expanding choices, how are Christians to exercise discernment? When is the right time to take a stand? Could now be a time for change, the prompting of God towards a new way of seeing? The pace of change in medicine and dentistry poses regular new challenges for Christian ethics. Discernment is critical to an ongoing commitment to doing “the good”.

In some ways ‘discernment’ is an old fashioned concept. Us moderns are more comfortable with the concept of ‘spirituality’. Here Simon Chan2 helps us when he observes, “The question of discernment cannot be dealt with apart from the question of spirituality.” He adds “the ‘how’ is far more important that the ‘what’ when we come to the question of God’s will.”

The “ministry of reconciliation”

As a young GP I felt a certain moral outrage when sex-workers presented asking me to be the doctor who kept them and, by implication, their clients healthy. How could this be “good”? My response was to say, “No”. I couldn’t support with integrity what seemed to be ‘sinful behaviour’. The response to my stand was always critical, including a polemic against the love of God. With the prompting of the Spirit, I began to recognise that love implies acceptance but not necessarily agreement – “While we were yet sinners Christ in love has died for us”! By accepting the challenge to care for sex workers, I began to encounter the surprise of God’s healing for such people. Now the “good” was not moral condemnation, but the “ministry of reconciliation”, of being part of the space of God’s grace at work in a person’s life. Chan puts it this way. “By sensitively listening to and reliving the Christian story, we begin to discern more clearly what belongs to the main story line and what does not.” (p25)

“By accepting the challenge to care for sex workers, I began to encounter the surprise of God’s healing for such people.”

As doctors and dentists, what are the practices we commit to so that discipline and growth in our spiritual journey do occur? So that we might “continue in doing the good”? In the early church, the Eastern Theologian, Evagruis, stated, “A mature Christian is one who discerns and one who discerns is a mature Christian.” John Cassan was another church father interested in exploring the scope of discernment. He noted, “Discernment is the ‘eye and lamp of the body’, without which the whole body is plunged into total darkness.”

Cassan recognised the sphere of discernment is both external and internal. There are times when as Christians we need to apply basic biblical truth to an external problem. Another ‘external’ discernment is to assess the claims for revelation by someone else. We could argue that God speaks to humanity through our historical existence. So, what is God doing in the world today? Where is Jesus today? These are external discernment questions.

Internal discernment is clarifying God’s will for one’s own life in a particular situation. Chan again notes, “The ability to discern implies a degree of maturity or spiritual proficiency. Spiritual sensitivity is honed through constant training in listening to God and obeying his voice.” Humility is the virtue which grounds both internal and external discernment. Courage is the virtue which overturns inertia and allows risks to be taken.

The challenge for busy practitioners

The challenge for busy practitioners is to focus not only on professional excellence but intentionally ‘growing in Christ’ and the grace of God – to find time for prayer about our external and internal environments. There is a ‘wider lens’ view when we consider ethics. Discernment will need to account for how we combine professional commitments and spiritual maturity through the vision of God’s ‘image bearers’. James Smith3 puts it this way: “We are commissioned as God’s image bearers, his vice-regents, chargedThe challenge for busy practitioners with the task of ‘ruling’, and caring for creation, which includes the task of cultivating it, unfolding and unfurling its latent possibilities through human making – in short through culture!” This will include the cultures of medicine and dentistry. Indeed, Smith adds to his argument by quoting Richard Middleton4 who writes, “‘Imaging God’ thus involves representing, and perhaps extending in some way, God’s rule on earth through ordinary communal practices of human sociocultural life.”

The Genesis narrative identifies a fundamental brokenness to this vision. Subsequently, God recreates the vision through a call extended through Abraham to Israel. Failure resurfaces. Thus,
argues Smith, “The task of properly being God’s image bearer, is taken up and performed by the son, by Jesus, who is ‘the image of the invisible God’ Col 1:15. Jesus shows us what that looks like. When the world is violent/ broken/ sick and in pain, the shape of such image-bearing will be cruciform.” To drive his argument home, Smith draws on Tom Wright5, who integrates Christian spirituality and ethics this way: “The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods (ethics), as well as the message, must be cross-shaped through and through.”

Smith wants us to recognise that our faith, and therefore our ethics, is not simply a set of “cognitive, heady beliefs, nor fundamentally a worldview”. What we think and do grows out of our encounter with the love of God. Cruciform love. Resurrection powered love. This is love lived as a verb and not simply restricted to our internal belief system.

Making good ethical choices

When it comes to making good ethical choices in the doctor-patient encounter or the broader cauldron of health care, it is likely that a ‘cross-shaped’ Christian maturity will stand us in good stead. In our thinking about discernment, the question then emerges, “What sustains our connection to the love of God?” We would be right to instinctively think of gathering with fellow believers for prayer and worship. But what happens in our lives beyond Sunday? What we can think of here are called ‘Christian practices’ – Bible study, hospitality, times of retreat, fasting, peacemaking and so on. Practices reinforce the rhythms of grace that keep us close to God’s ever-extended love.

Dorothy Bass6 has identified four components of Christian practices. Christian practices are meaningful clusters of human activity that:

  • resist the separation of thinking from acting that maintains an integration of doctrine and Christian living.
  • are social, belonging to groups of people across generations. This reflects the churches’ communal life, i. e. prayer gatherings.
  • are rooted in the past, but are also constantly adapting to changing circumstances(including new cultural settings).
  • articulate wisdom that is in the keeping of practitioners who do not think of themselves as theologians. Indeed, Christian living and worshiping involve the whole community in premeditated theological work. The Bible is given to us mainly in the plural sense, and so reading together will generate a wider insight than reading individually.

For a Christian health professional, practices promote the integration, sociality, stability and adaptability that lead to wisdom. Under the scrutiny of the world, our peers and our patients, these practices will contribute to a seamless discernment reflex when attending to ethical decision-making.

James Smith summarises for us when he states, “A reordering of creation has already broken into creation in the person of Jesus Christ, and we are gathering as a people in order to practice for the arrival for the kingdom in its fullness – and thus in order to be trained to be a kingdom-kind-of-people in the meantime, as witnesses to that kingdom, in and through our work as cultural agents.”

Any discussion about discernment, including discernment in ethics, must recognise for Christians that it is also a reflection on the nature of religious experience. So I now want to return to the work of Gordon Smith in his book The Voice of Jesus. Smith identifies three important contributors in our Christian tradition to this matter of discernment: Ignatius Loyola, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. All three of these witnesses start with the premise that we are fully committed to God in Christ. From this point, “listening to God is a matter of being attentive to the affective orientation of one’s inner consciousness.” It is God-centred prayer with all of who we are.

“Wesley also always insisted that God does not call us to be irrational. We should take the best science and the best arguments into consideration.”

Ignatius Loyola was a Basque soldier who, in his convalesce from injury, began to engage in spiritual reading and so entered a deepening spiritual life. He documented this transformation in a book called Spiritual Exercises. Essentially, Ignatius recognised the importance of being conscious of the activity of God in experience. He recognised times of ‘desolation’ (times of diminished faith, hope and love) and ‘consolation’ (a contrasting emotional state of peace or joy, in which one senses that one is in communion with the Lord and growing in faith, hope and love).

To push back against pessimism or arrogance, Ignatius emphasised the priority of humility. Humility, then, was to “see oneself in truth”, and it is through humility we order our affections, our commitments and what we love. This perspective allowed Ignatius to develop ‘the principle of holy indifference’ – “and so, all creation and all created things (including medical/dental practice), while coming from God, can never take the place of God and delight in God. Indeed, it is important we sustain a “holy indifference” to these things, whether wealth, or honour or career or reputation.” (Gordon Smith, Pg 41)

As the founder of the movement known as Methodism, John Wesley stressed the vital role of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in discernment. This inner witness was evident in two ways:

  • The joy of being children of God.
  • Moral renewal and reform (becoming Christ like).

Wesley knew that suffering and sorrow often cross our path in life, but he argued that through the gracious work of the Spirit, joy will consistently return as the dominant disposition of our hearts. Wesley also recognised that there are safeguards to the witness the Spirit. He nominated scripture, the church and reason. The inner witness of the Spirit will never contradict the testimony of scripture. In the same way, the church in its role as the keeper of tradition, while at the same time being a living community of believers, also harmonises the witness of the Spirit. Wesley also always insisted that God does not call us to be irrational. We should take the best science and the best arguments into consideration.

John Wesley
John Wesley ©

Like Ignatius, Wesley also emphasised the importance of humility. He recognised that a person of humility is disposed to the purposes and will of God and that pride is the greatest threat to authentic discernment.

Jonathan Edwards comes from the Calvinist tradition and was involved in a revival movement in America called the “Great Awakening”. In this time of passion and spiritual enthusiasm, Edwards sought to define the ‘distinguishing marks’ of God’s work. He interviewed many people touched by this ‘awakening’ and developed a ‘phenomenological’ approach to discernment against the backdrop of an established doctrinal understanding of faith. In doing so, Edwards recognised the substance of true religion is found in the ‘affections’. He affirmed that as humans we have understanding, affections and will, but he insisted that it is in the affections that we find the centre point of the spiritual life. The second awareness Edwards recognises is that we must not be naïve about our emotional state. An emotional state is not an end in itself. Consequently, Edwards argued for a personal testing of the Spirit. We can seek the counsel of others, but we cannot pronounce final judgement on any but ourselves.

Finally, Edwards developed a number of ‘certain signs’ or ‘distinguishing marks’ of God’s presence and salvation. Included here was a recognition that genuine spiritual influence arises when our thoughts are focused on that which is good – on that which is aligned with the work of the Spirit in the world. Also identified were the development of ‘an enlightened mind’, the central place of humility and the impact of religious affections in the transformation of character. For Edwards, there was a ‘bottom line’ in authentic religious experience and (for our purposes) ethical discernment – in that there is an abiding peace that one experiences in the knowledge of God and of God’s love in one’s heart.

Gordon Smith recognises a study of Ignatius and Edwards by Evan Howard7 who concludes that, when considered in the light of modern psychological discoveries, Christian discernment is “an affectively rich act of knowing”. There is much in what I have documented from these rich sources to inform, challenge, and inspire practical discernment in ethical decisions for health academics, clinicians, administrators and others.

While there are ‘fifty shades of grey’ that can be explored in terms of discernment, I want to conclude this paper with some thoughts on ‘moral discernment’ as outlined by Gordon Smith. We have arrived at an emerging awareness that discernment requires we learn to cultivate a particular set of skills and perspectives. Noting the work of ethicist, James Gustafson, we can say, “The discerning act of moral judgment is impossible to programme and difficult to describe. It is something like both literary criticism and good literary creativity – it is both rational and affective.”

So Smith outlines three further affective elements at stake here:

  • As Christians, our conscience is informed by a biblical theology of love and justice. As we have seen, a Christian conscience is formed and informed by our identification with a person, Jesus Christ. So if we lack compassion or hold a judgmental orientation, we can recognise we are out of step with Jesus. The modesty of following Jesus will keep us grounded.
  • Discernment is about seeing our environment truthfully. This will include our capacity to see ambiguity. If we cannot discern good we cannot discern evil and an appropriate response to evil.
  • Moral discernment is about our response. It is a response to the world that arises out of our experience of having been loved and forgiven, and continuing to be loved and forgiven.

When it comes to moral discernment, we all have a propensity to act out of guilt or to be inactive because of fear. As Christians, there is significant value in the conversations and relationships of our networks and church family friends. It is here that conscience and moral discernment is rounded out. Smith offers a further insight from Gustafson who muses, “The community is in part the present gathering of Christians, in a congregation or some other group, that engages in the moral discourse that informs the conscientiousness of its members through participation in moral deliberation.”

What discernment could look like

In preparing this paper I have avoided developing a ‘recipe’ for discernment. In adopting Gordon Smith’s definition of discernment in the second paragraph, I have gone on to spell out what discernment could look like. It will involve:

  • Reading scripture for ‘the main story line’, to keep us on track.
  • A spirituality that leads to Christian maturity. This will include both an external and internal skill set. It will involve personal prayer and praying with others.
  • Maturity to accept the challenge to grow in Christ – so that growing out of God’s love for us, we develop a cross-shaped spirituality.
  • Engaging in Christian practices which strengthen and affirm God’s presence in our consciousness. We practice as ready witnesses to the Kingdom of God.
  • Ignatius, Wesley and Jonathan Edwards are three historical figures who have thought deeply about discernment. Their insights are invaluable and affirm that Christian discernment is ‘an affectively rich act of knowing’.
  • Finally, we have seen that discernment takes place in the context of a relationship with Jesus. This relationship is consistent with the message of Scripture, ever-vibrant through the active presence of God’s Spirit and also moderated by the fellowshipping networks God gives us.

Dr Paul Mercer
Dr Paul Mercer
Dr Paul Mercer is a GP principal at Manly in Queensland. He is the editor of Luke’s Journal and among other things is part of the “Theology on Tap” team in Brisbane and has been a member of the CMDFA ethics working group.
This article is reworked form a paper presented at Theology-on- Tap in Brisbane, August 2017.

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  1. Gordon T. Smith The Voice of Jesus IVP 2003
  2. Simon Chan Spiritual Theology IVP 1998
  3. James K.A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom Baker 2009
  4. Middleton R. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 Brazos 2005
  5. Wright N.T. The challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering who Jesus was and is IVP 1999
  6. Dorothy C Bass and Miroslav Volf Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life W. M.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2001
  7. Evan B. Howard Affirming the Touch of God: A Psychological and Philosophical Exploration of Christian Discernment Lanham, Md. University Press of America, 2000.