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.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.
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.
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?