May 18, 2006

Quaker fundamentals:
Understanding what God wants

Recently I was asked by someone relatively new to Quakerism:

How could anyone know what God is saying to us or what God wants for us? Isn't that presumptuous?
It is so very important for newcomers to Quakerism to share their beginner's mind with those of us who have been around a while. Here is how I responded, and I'm hoping you can fill in whatever points I missed.
Your concern is valid, that we must be very careful to claim what it is that God wants, or hopes for, or says. This concern very much speaks to the discipline of corporate discernment among Friends.

The belief is that if indeed God is accessible, and God is communicating with us, then if we are all "listening" well, we should all be able to "hear" the same message. So we test with one another what it is that we think we hear or receive from God.

A related belief is that there is a Gospel Order that God wishes for all of us to participate in, co-create, and help sustain. So if there is a Gospel Order that can be known, then we must search for it and work for it, together and individually.

But being human, we can very easily misinterpret or misunderstand what it is that God is wanting us to know, or what it is that amounts to Gospel Order. So we learn what others are sensing, feeling, hearing, seeing, to see if it "matches" our own sense, feeling, understanding. And, if the matter is weighty, we may season the initial discernment and revisit it at another time, to see if there is consistency to our shared understanding. We might also test it to see if there is consistency with something in Scripture and among the writings and traditions of early (or earlier) Friends.

So yes, while there is a comfort in naming our experience as a "mystery" or an "unknowing," as Friends, there is also a history of having experienced clearness--a clear and definite knowing that God wills something or conveys something directly to us, such as George Fox's awakening, "I heard a voice... 'There is one even, Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition'... And my heart did leap for joy...".

And if we are faithful, then our discernment and our actions will bear fruit over time:


You are asking important questions, Friend, and I believe that there is certainly a place for them. No doubt you will get different answers from Friends, dependent on each Friend's experience among Quakers.
And this is why I carry the concern that I do, that modern Friends keep close to the root of our Quaker heritage; that we pay attention to how we convey our faith to each other.

When I am asked a question that speaks to a fundamental belief or practice of Friends, I sometimes am tempted to pull out a Quaker resource and quote directly from it, but there are times like this one when I felt it was important for me to speak from my own understanding.

The resources will always be there for this Friend and I to refer back to, as needed. But that moment of being present to one another, in the openness we shared at that time... I did not want to interrupt it by paging through books, when spiritual authority and the witness of Friends are experienced and discovered elsewhere.

What might any of you have added, I wonder? And is it presumptuous to say that we ever might come to know what it is that God wants for us?



Judielaine said...

Your post reminds me how thankful i am to have been attending at the Cherry St Monthly Meeting in Philadelphia after they came to clarity on a question of marriages to be taken under their care. Meeting for Worship was after Meeting for Business, and the ministry -- possibly just one person, i'm not sure i remember -- was powerful that day. Hearing someone witness their experience of coming to certainty that God's will was one way even though they "disagreed" inspired me: i wanted to take part in the process, the continuing revelation.

Sometimes when i am tempted to feel Meeting for Business is indistinguishable from any other committee meeting except for silence before and after or that it resembles the light bulb joke, i remind myself that i and other Friends are holding the process in the Light. And i trust.

Will T said...

But isn't also presumptous to believe that a God who was able to speak the entire universe into being and to set the stars to burning and to build our world from the specks of stardust cast off over billions of years is somehow incapable of whispering in our ears in a way that we can hear? Do we have more faith in our deafness and our lack of understanding than we do in God?

Lorcan said...

For me, it is very simple... it is not a formula, some rule some God distant wants us be be good and do... but rather, to be in unity with each other is to recognize that comon intent of being present to God, to be within God in each other... we know when we are not seeking unity, shutting others out, being selfish - being cold, being... oh... we all know.

Thine in the light...

Anonymous said...


Something you said really resonates with me:

"And if we are faithful, then our discernment and our actions will bear fruit over time:"

You emphasized "bear fruit," and that's great, but I would also emphasize "over time."

Over time. To me, it's *so* important.

I fear it's human nature to treat God all too imperiously, like a cosmic waiter, standing at breathless attention, as if ready to snap to, and give us what we want (even answers) -- now , right now.

Maybe things bear fruit over time because it takes time to establish a partnership with God?

-- Mitch

Liz Opp said...

Judielaine - Thanks for your comment and for the link to the "light bulb joke." I had not heard that one before but I now have bookmarked it! It is a fine example of considering if the process is right for the concern, in addition to illuminating--so to speak--how leadings might emerge as part of a parallel process, parallel to whatever the item or task we are considering. And the two may well be interconnected, so it is important that we be faithful, even if we wonder how one item could possibly relate to the other.

Will T - Very good questions. I especially feel the concern that underlies the question of whether we have "more faith in our deafness..." I include in that deafness our lack of Quaker education, of what is at the core of our faith tradition, and how that core shapes and weaves our faith...

Lorcan - Your comment reminds me of some recent reading I just completed, which reiterates that one of the initial ways we come to know the Light is by coming to understand that it is the Light that shows us how we have acted wrongly, how we have sinned. Once we understand that the Light has shown us our wrong-doings, then we can also understand that the Light can show us the way forward, if we submit ourselves to the Light.

Thanks for staying in touch, everyone.


Liz Opp said...

Hey, Mitch -

Looks like you and I posted at the same time, so I don't want to leave your comment hanging.

I didn't intend to emphasize the phrase "bear fruit," as much as I intended for that phrase to be linked to Scripture (Galatians 5:22-23). Nevertheless, I agree with you, that the phrase "over time" also needs attention and respect! Americans especially are heavy into instant gratification, but Quakerism is more about "slow and steady wins the race."

In addition to the partnership with God, I wonder if actions that are well led bear fruit over time because it takes time to find enough "good soil" for the seeds we are called to sow to take root.

Thanks for writing.


greyingquaker said...

After reading Liz's blog I sense how important it is to keep in touch with the way in which olden Friends understood the 'Gospel', and lived within the Light.

I find it very important to read (and understand) olden Friends journaling, and other, writings.

Again I thank Liz for pointing out an understanding to we modern Friends of how important it is to keep in touch with olden Friends, and our 'Roots'.

In the Light of Christ, Greying Quaker

Gregg Koskela said...

Wonderful wisdom, both in your words, Liz, and in the comments. Thank you.

I was writing to a friend yesterday about Quaker discernment in groups, hearing the voice of God together better than on our own. You wrote in a similar way about testing our leadings against other voices and scripture, as well as seasoning with time. Here's some of what I wrote:

"I’ve heard clerks say something helpful: every person in the group has a piece or a couple of pieces to the puzzle. It’s every person’s responsibility to share the piece they have, even if they feel like it doesn’t fit or isn’t consistent with the rest of the group."

"After all the pieces are on the table, it’s good for the clerk to remind every one that now that each one has named their piece or pieces, it is time for each person to completely release personal ownership of their piece. We share our heart, our vision, our understanding of the Spirit, and then we completely release it to God and the group. NOW comes the real discernment. NOW the group is a team, working on the puzzle together, seeing where each piece fits, and discerning together which pieces might even belong in a different box."

Liz Opp said...

Greying Quaker - I am not the first to point out the importance of keeping in touch with our roots, and I certainly shall not be the last.

Not only that but, like with so many other elements of Quakerism, there is a balance to be struck between conserving the tradition of early Friends and following God's leading to explore new forms that may equally bring us closer to God.

Gregg - Good to see you here. I too resonate with the puzzle metaphor, sometimes adding that God is the one with the boxtop, so we don't necessarily know what the puzzle is supposed to look like!

I also like the reminder that it is important that we not "attach" ourselves to the piece(s) we are carrying.

Thanks for lifting this metaphor up as an example of the corporate work Friends engage in. Sometimes the corporate nature of Quakerism is hard to convey.