And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
“How do we know that we are doing the right thing?”
One thing that I didn’t expect, when I started this question-answering series, was the extent to which the questions function like Buddhist koans. “How do we know that we are doing the right thing?” has been sitting in front of me, written in green ink, for more than a week now, and I can honestly say that I don’t know what “things” the asker was referring to. I’ve tried pretty hard not to identify the sources of my questions, but I also haven’t gone back and asked for a lot of clarification- so perhaps the asker was thinking of a specific dilemma, or perhaps it’s more of a general ethical conundrum.
So, as is my wont, I first tackled this question by researching things on the internet. I opened up Google and typed in “quaker discernment process.” There was lots of good stuff there, but none of it answered the question, “How do we know that we are doing the right thing?”
I read about clearness committees, concerns about stewardship and the environment, formation of queries to use in business meeting, leading a worship sharing group, threshing sessions, none of which even tried to answer the question “How do we know that we are doing the right thing?”
By this point, I had a screen full of open tabs loosely related to different aspects of discernment. Some of you probably saw me posting discernment-related material all week long on our Facebook page. I didn’t run out, and it made me feel like the research time was more useful. I enjoy that illusion.
Basically, though, most of it boiled down to ‘follow your Inner Guide.’ As Caroline Fox put it, Friends are to live up to the light that we have, trusting that if we do so, more light will be given. The Inner Guide functions like the GPS in your car- you turn the wheel and hit the gas, but the machine is doing the navigating for you.
“Follow your Inner Guide” is one of those phrases that is simultaneously completely true and absolutely infuriating. I mean – follow your Inner Guide – people say this as though their Inner Guide gives them some kind of useful instructions! Mine seems to sound more like “well, look under that rock under there, you’ll find a key, and the key will open the door, in ten years or so, no you haven’t seen the door yet, why do you ask so many questions?”
So. One answer to “How do we know that we are doing the right thing?” is that, in a sense, we just don’t. We don’t know for sure. I mean, I know that the Statue of Liberty weighs 225 tons, and I know that my mother loves me, but, well, how do we know that we are doing the right thing?
Some questions are easy, of course. Should I kick my cat like a soccer ball, or should I refill the food bowl? Should I pay for this candy bar, or should I just stick it in my pocket and walk out of the gas station? Should I try to guilt Craig into taking care of all the household chores, or should I suck it up and do my share?
Questions like those do not involve a great deal of spiritual discernment on my part. If one option is “love your neighbor,” or “take care of creation,” or “don’t violate basic commandments, there are only ten so it shouldn’t be hard,” and the other option is the opposite, then your ethical question is not much of a dilemma.
Other questions don’t seem to have a clear right answer, though. Should you keep your current job, or search for a new opportunity? Should you stay in your house, or is it time to start looking at someplace like Cape May? Are you going to stick to your original plan to study biology, or is that anthropology major looking more interesting?
Even questions with clear moral components can be opaque, overall. Take, for instance, the perennial question this meeting has with regard to financial investments. There are investment firms, like Friends Fiduciary, which practice Socially Responsible Investing. They refuse to profit off weapons manufacturing, or to invest in companies with poor environmental records, or involve themselves in anything regarding gambling.
It seems cut and dried, then, that we’d want to have the meeting’s investments there. I don’t think that any of us want to keep the lights on in this building by helping armies kill innocent civilians, right? Abusing vulnerable employees may be a good way to raise profits in the short term, but to use FCNL’s phrase, it is not part of the world we seek.
But… right now, all the money is invested through a local bank. (That may not be precisely true, since the bank was just sold, but work with me here.) I like local investment! I’m not a very good sharer, so when there’s money in this county, I like it to stay here.
Friends Fiduciary is based in Philadelphia. I’m sure they’re all lovely people, but why should I pay someone in Philly to do the job? Someone here in Wilmington could be getting that paycheck, then spending some of it on dinner at the General Denver, and donating some of it to the Murphy Theater, and buying some flowers in the spring from Schwindler’s, and so forth. How do we know that we are doing the right thing with our investments? Do we know?
Here’s a different, harder version of that question, as it was posed to theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer during World War II. Bonhoeffer wasn’t born into a pacifist version of Christianity, but after a close study of the Beatitudes, he became convinced that refusing to take part in any form of violence was part of the faithfulness that following Christ demands. As Nazi power was growing in Germany, Bonhoeffer became well known for his opposition to fascism, his refusal to be part of a state-run church, and his work in organizing what would become the Confessing Church.
There’s a long and complicated story here, but to boil it down, Bonhoeffer’s contacts with other people opposing the Nazi regime didn’t stay limited to pacifists. He got involved with a subversive group, and was eventually involved in an unsuccessful plot to kill Hitler. He was put to death on April 9th, 1945, at a concentration camp that was liberated only two weeks later. How does a pacifist end up involved in a murder plot?
Well, it was Hitler. If you started to waffle in your commitment to peace, and you began a list of people who were maybe, you know, not being terribly responsive to that of God within them – a list of people whose deaths could be justified – I bet Adolf Hitler would be on it.
It interests me, though, that this is not the direction that Bonhoeffer went. We have volumes of his theological writings, and to the best of my knowledge, he never espouses anything less than full pacifism. Bonhoeffer does not try to justify his actions. Bonhoeffer never says that trying to kill Hitler was the right thing to do.
Killing is a sin, and Bonhoeffer is clear about that. He takes responsibility for his actions, and accepts the guilt. About this notion, in the abstract, of intentionally sinning and accepting the blame, he wrote “before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”
That’s a striking image, to me: a pacifist, knowing more than most Germans knew about the horrors of Nazism, choosing to sinfully shed blood and then ask God for grace. He looked at the options, he weighed the costs, and he chose to get his hands dirty.
I wish for the alternate universe in which Bonhoeffer and his friends had been successful, if only because I wish I could read his reflections back on that decision. He would have been hailed as a hero. I don’t think he would have accepted or appreciated the title.
I’m not sure that Bonhoeffer ever answered the question: was he doing the right thing?
Our text this morning is a prayer, written by the apostle Paul for the ancient church at Philippi, but I think we can steal it for ourselves. Paul prays that they (and let’s also say we) will be more and more able to discern what is best.
You know what, though? I don’t want wisdom in degrees. I want it all now. So, here goes: a nine step process for how to know for absolutely certain that you are doing the right thing.
First, entertain the possibility that you might not be doing the right thing. Doubt is the first step. If anxiety is preventing you from examining your own choices, there’s probably a reason that you’re not wanting to look, and that reason is probably that you’re doing it wrong. Consider the chance that you might be able to do better.
Second, stop talking for a minute. You’ve got good stuff to say, but in the quiet, there are good things to hear. If somebody says that you’re on the wrong track, don’t try to shout them down. If it does turn out that you were wrong, you’re still a loved and valuable person, so there’s no need to get defensive.
Third, find three voices that you might not otherwise have heard. Listen to them. Pay attention. Hear how your question sounds when articulated from a very different place than your own.
Fourth, look at your Bible. It’s kind of a long book, so I’ll sum it up: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. Love your neighbor, and love the people you don’t want as neighbors. Does your potential course of action live up to that? Can you do better?
Fifth, what do your closest friends think? If you do this, will you be ashamed of it? Will you try to hide it from your friends? Will you justify it inside your own head, but never want to say those words aloud? Sometimes your friends are wrong, sure, but if you don’t think you need new friends, then you probably need a new course of action.
Sixth, what does the meeting think? Obviously, not everything rises to this level. I suspect that most of us do not care whether you prefer mayonnaise or Miracle Whip. If you feel under the influence of a serious spiritual leading, though, one that you’d like to pursue with some support, the meeting can always pull together a committee to talk and pray it through with you.
Seventh, stop talking again. God took six days to make the world, and rested on the seventh day. At this point, you’ve gotten input from yourself, from your religious tradition, from your friends, and from your co-worshippers. Take a rest. Let it simmer.
Eighth, think about the eighth day. The eighth day is when the resting is over and the work starts anew. The eighth day is today, actually. We don’t worship on the Biblical Sabbath. We worship on the day after, because of the Easter story: Jesus rested in the grave over the Sabbath, and then was resurrected on the first day of the work week.
So, is your decision going to be building the new creation? Is your decision ushering in the kingdom of God?
Here’s the Ninth thing, which could also have been the first thing: look at Paul’s prayer again. I know when I try to make decisions, I like to go for the option that makes the most sense. I think it through. I do my research.
Paul, though, puts love in the drivers seat. Love has to abound before discernment can arrive. There is no wisdom apart from love.
The standard of love is a pretty high standard to meet. This removes, entirely, the possibility of acting for vengeance. Love is the first thing, the glue that holds the universe together.
The Rabbis, Jesus included, said that all the law, each nit-picky rule about what you could and could not do, boiled down to: “love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is the primary law.
This brings us back to the Inner Guide. Who else knows the contents of your heart? Quakers have found and have taught that if we will sit still in the Light, it will reveal to us aspects of ourselves that we otherwise would not have known. This will not necessarily be a pleasant process – I know there are things in my heart that I’d rather not see – but it ultimately leads to healing. The things that can be seen are things that can be saved.
In the end, you will be the only one who knows if you are doing the right thing, if even you know for sure. You’re the one who has to sit still with the Spirit and listen.
So, let me give you a question back in return: do you believe that God is present to guide you? What steps are you taking to be open to new leadings?