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December 23, 2017 - David and Mary: Lessons in Spiritual Discernment

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent

Sunday Readings 

There are two stories in today’s scripture readings. The first reading tells us the story of David and gospel reading is the story of the annunciation. I am stepping aside Advent themes to deal with very common questions that people ask: “What is God’s will for me?” “How do I discern whether I am doing God’s will or not?” Discerning God’s will is a complex spiritual exercise. In the stories of David and Mary, we might have some insights.  

In the first story, David, only the second King of Israel has just given the kingdom some stability. The borders are secure and David builds himself a new palace. The Ark of the Covenant, however, was in a mere tent. David is troubled by this. He decides to build a temple for God. When David expresses his desire, God lets him know that instead of David building a house of God, God would build him a house. In other words, David believed he was doing God’s will, but in reality, God had a different plan. I feel for  David because David’s intention was good and holy. As we read this story in hind-sight, we realize that, in reality, God was going to accomplishing something far greater that David could have ever imagined. Actually, God was preparing the way for Jesus to come and redeem not only the house of Israel, but the entire world. In the Gospel reading we have Mary’s story. At the annunciation, the angel told her that God was building another temple…, that she would be that temple. She was to carry in her womb, the Son of God. Like any of us would be, she was both afraid and had questions. Unlike David, Mary did not really have much time to discern the meaning of this news. Yet she responded very quickly to the angel’s proposal. Somehow, Mary discerned that the angel’s announcement was indeed God’s will and surrendered completely to it.

How do we go about discerning God’s will in our own lives? Let me reflect this with you in three points. 

  1. What is the Issue? If we look back at our lives, I am sure we see times when we, like David, thought that we had honestly and genuinely discerned God’s will, made a decision, and yet, that God had a different plan. Then there are other times, when we, like Mary,  do not understand everything, yet surrender our wills to God, and it works out. Eight years back, I made a decision to stay back in the US instead of going back to India. As my parents deal with the effects of aging, and as I get older and find the distance with my family to be stressful, there are times I wonder whether I am like David or like Mary? I want to be like Mary, but what if I am like David? Many of us deal with similar dilemmas, don’t we? What to do with a difficult marriage? What to do when we know that the children are making wrong choices? What to do when the boss at work engages in questionable behavior? What do we do when we are confronted with two good choices or two equally bad choices? In all these instances, how do we know what God’s will is? More importantly, how do we know that the decision we prayerfully reach, is indeed God’s will. This is the issue.                                                                                                                                                                                                                
  2. Faith is Indispensable. Discernment and surrendering our will to God like Mary is not for the faint of heart. Radical surrender of our wills to God is difficult because it goes against a very basic human instinct - the instinct to be in control. Whether it is our health, our finances, bringing up children, or driving a car, being in control is a good and positive thing. Losing control makes our present and future look uncertain. Surrendering our will to God in many ways is going against our basic human instinct - giving up control over our own lives. David’s intentions were good but it kept him in control of the future. Mary, on the other hand, gave up that control. In fact, after the annunciation, her life took her in directions that no sane person would voluntarily choose. It was only her undaunted faith that kept her radically faithful to her original surrender. Praying “Thy will be done” is a huge risk. If we ever pray, “Thy will be done,” we better back it up with undaunted faith, like Mary. 
  1. Three Points About Discernment. Let me suggest three things we can do to make sure that we are on the right track in discerning God’s will. First, it is about a life-style. If we want to discern God’s will when it matters most, then we need to also do it in small matters. For us to be good at it, discernment needs to be a regular exercise. The more spiritual discernment is a regular way of life the more we can expect to be able to discern God’s in more serious matter. Second, it is about intention. What is our intention in making a decision or hoping to take a certain direction in life? Are we really seeking God’s will or are we seeking approbation from God to do as we wish? If our intention is selfish and for self-gain, then even if we have prayed hard about something, it probably is our own decision. Also, to make sure that we are not running away from reality, or if we have mental health issues, or if in spite of our discernment we are in turmoil, it is better to consult a spiritual director or a third person who will give us honest feedback. If our decision will cause harm (I do not mean that our decision may not be challenging for others or sometimes even cause serious differences of opinion), then we know that we are on the wrong track. Third, when we have discerned a decision, the most common sign is a sense of peace. We are in peace when we have no qualms about confidently standing in God’s presence with our decision. If God has a different plan other than the one we have reached, at least we can know that we did the best we can humanly do. Like David and Mary, we can then leave the rest to God.  

May this Eucharist strengthen our faith to surrender our wills to God like Mary did. Amen.  

- Fr. Satish Joseph