by guest writer J. Thomas
How can I improve my conscious contact with God and gain spiritual
Improving my conscious contact with God and gaining spiritual discernment is a question that I’ve been mulling over as a member of a 12-step group for recovering addicts for the last 10 years and as a Christian for the last 27 years.
In 12-step fellowship, we say that we “work the program” and we “work the steps.” There is wealth of wisdom in the rooms and it took a while to find a meeting that “worked” for me. My first experience going to a 12-step meeting was strange. It was in the basement of dimly lit church basement. As members share, they stare sadly and blankly at the center of the floor, as if to raise their eyes to look at the others were a shame too painful to bear. I feel out of place, and it takes another 5 years before I finally come back to 12-step. And when I do, there is such a difference. Still in a church basement, but with better lighting – but really, it’s the people. Sharing about their victories and failures, sometimes even laughing at how God is keeping them sober despite themselves. Once committed to a healthy community and reading the literature, I eventually begin to work Step 11 with the help of a trusted sponsor. Step 11 states, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.” That’s a nice definition of discernment – knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. And the way to improve it, equally clear – through prayer and meditation.
From a mainstream Christian perspective, I sift through my memory verses I learned in college through The Navigators’ Topical Memory System. The winner is what Paul writes to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2 ESV). So, if you define spiritual discernment as the ability to know that God’s will is good, acceptable, and perfect, discernment is gained by (i) resisting worldly patterns and (ii) renewing the mind. The authority on spiritual matters comes from the Bible and the Holy Spirit within the context of a community of Christians. Bible verse, check. Holy Spirit, check. Community of believers? Let me tell you what one of my many youth group pastors pointed out to me. Paul uses two distinct words, conform and transform, which both mean to change. However, the word conform emphasizes change coming from an external pressure while the word transform emphasizes an internal change that makes its way outward.
As an analyst by trade, I know that there is a lot to unpack here, and I am excited to share with you my story on how I weave the two takes on spiritual discernment together that will both demystify discernment and provide a useful application to increase freedom one day at a time. Let’s take a deeper look at 2 questions: How is my relationship with God and spiritual discernment connected? Why do I need spiritual discernment and knowledge of God’s will?
How is my relationship with God and spiritual discernment connected?
By knowing God, not just knowing about God, I begin to recognize His voice and wisdom for me. As a teenager growing up in the 1990s, my dad smokes Marlboro Lights, and I am getting more curious about cigarettes. After four occasions of stealing my dad’s cigarettes and smoking them in the attached garage when my parents aren’t home, I begin to worry that I’ll become addicted if I continue. My burning question – is smoking a sin? It’s not an easy answer because it’s not one of the Ten Commandments. I also don’t see direct Bible references, only something about how my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, but it is way too abstract for a teenager to grasp. And if it is a sin, is my dad sinning every time he smokes?
With my budding relationship with Jesus, I literally enter my closet and through prayer, I ask God the question, “Is smoking a sin?” I quiet down my own thoughts (meditate) and pretty soon a thought comes to mind: “What does it matter to you? You don’t smoke.” Whoa! Where did that thought come from? It certainly wasn’t from me because I have exactly two possible answers to the question – yes or no. This third answer, that didn’t come from me. Because I’ve encountered God and have a personal relationship, I recognize the love in His voice. It took the whole dad-thing out of the picture. There was no more conflict between my dad’s actions and what I felt uneasy about in my own internal compass. And after receiving a communication like this, it was simply a matter of obeying or disobeying a direction that was just for me.
Prayer and meditation is a two-way street, not a one-person monologue to God. How did God communicate His will to me? He used my thoughts – but an inspired thought that I discerned was not from me or from the world. The miracle is that I believed and followed. I admit that I tried a few more cigarettes after that encounter, but soon afterwards, I prayed confirmation of God’s revelation to me – to really know – it was God’s will and by the Holy Spirit, the willingness to believe and put it into practice. God’s direction can come from anywhere – people, books, sermons, my own thoughts. When that direction is verified through the Bible and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the context of Christian community, an inkling can become a God-encounter.
To demystify my example, I probably heard dozens of public service announcements on smoking, even more pastors and adults telling me not to do it. To add to that, many inklings from my conscience when the temptations to experiment arose. Maybe 100 messages like this telling me that I shouldn’t smoke. But for whatever reason, on that 101st time I heard it, it clicked in my head. I attribute that difference to my Lord and Savior.
Why do I need spiritual discernment and knowledge of God’s will?
Discernment and knowledge of God’s will allow me to do the only thing I can do in this life – enjoy the journey. When I walk through a challenging life season, the most difficult thing is confusion. The uncertainty of not knowing why or how long I will endure a sour lot. Spiritual discernment does not promise exact reasons for God’s will, but it is a way for me to attest that His way is good, pleasing (NIV translation), and perfect. Paul provides a framework for gaining discernment that can be applied every day with a little thought and intimate time with the Holy Spirit.
First, is to recognize the worldly patterns that pressure me – and to not conform. I recently went through a difficult season with my wife where I was constantly asking for us to sit down and talk about important issues in our marriage that had been building up. Each time I ask, I get the message that she is too tired or that it is not a good time. As I persist on a particular topic that’s causing me sadness, I feel wounded that she doesn’t want to talk it out with me. As I meditate and allow myself to feel the feelings of rejection, I realize that this thought, “my wife doesn’t want to talk with me” was an echo of a thought that my parents didn’t want to talk with me.
Growing up in a Korean-American home, the language barrier, generation gap, cultural differences, and time-constraints of an immigrant family led to my feeling deep isolation and loneliness. I was not asked about my day, and I couldn’t communicate to my parents basic feelings like “I feel sad” because I didn’t know the word for “sad” in Korean. Unconsciously, the family context (the world) sent me a strong message – my parents don’t want to talk with me. In my formative years and adolescence, this message penetrated my flesh like a bullet and got lodged in there. What I realize is that my wife, unknowingly, is pushing on the spot where the bullet was lodged each time she communicates she doesn’t want to talk. She didn’t shoot the bullet, and even I didn’t realize it was there. Through meditation, I uncover the worldly pattern responsible for my woundedness.
Second, Paul writes that I can be transformed by the renewing of my mind. As I discover this bullet, I cry out to God and feel the pain of growing up in an emotionally neglectful family. I renew my mind with the truth that my heavenly Father does want to talk with me. He wants me to share about my day. He wants me to listen. He wants to communicate back to me. In that encounter, God does heart surgery and removes that lodged bullet from decades ago. The old pattern thrust upon me by an external system is cast off, while I let a new thought into my heart. As I let God’s truth come into my heart, the Holy Spirit changes me from the inside out. I don’t feel with such intensity a woundedness when my wife says she doesn’t want to talk. Feeling misunderstood in my intentions or invalidated in my feelings, still hurts – a lot. But it doesn’t cut me to the core like it once did. I am still in the process of healing. My childhood and marriage struggles were difficult and confusing times, but I am enjoying the journey because I can say with confidence that all of God’s will and good and acceptable and PERFECT.
The Holy Spirit changes me from the inside out.
Bio for J. Thomas
Almost 20 years after returning from a short-term mission trip to Mongolia, J. Thomas is publishing his book Dry and Barren Land: Walking through Seasons of spiritual dryness in a blog format at dryandbarren.com. As a religion major at Dartmouth College, he studied philosophy, biblical studies, and the sociology of income inequality. J. Thomas lives in New Jersey with his wife of 17 years and their 4-year-old daughter who loves being read the book, The Thomasbears and Great Door, a book (for kids of all ages) he wrote for his wife on their 4-year anniversary. He taught himself guitar to express love to God in worship and devotion. J. Thomas also picked up a new hobby in July 2020, tweeting under @dryandbarren to translate mainstream Christian truths for our generation.