C. S. Lewis was attributed with the statement, “Prayer is more about changing yourself than changing God.” That is, through prayer, the believer changes his desires to fit God’s rather than vice-versa. The same concept could be applied to the thesis of Gordon Smith’s recent book, The Voice of Jesus.
By listening to Jesus’ voice, the hearer is apt to change his life to fit with the direction that Jesus intends him to follow. To understand what Jesus says, Smith explores the meaning of John 16:7-14 in the believer’s life today. Smith, the president of the Overseas Council Canada, unpacks this dense passage from the fourth Gospel and proposes that Jesus’ program of listening, discerning and choosing can be experienced under the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
The writer offers the theological underpinnings of his thesis in the first three chapters. Jesus speaks to the believer through the Holy Spirit. Ignatius Loyola, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards provide evidence to support this claim. The contemporary church has ignored one key feature of the spiritual discernment of the believer, the emotional-affective side. There is a necessary component to discernment, the emotional response to the decision. Joy provides evidence of the rightness/correctness of the decision.
The Spirit’s inner witness has four dimensions, as Smith explains in chapters 4-7. These are (1) assurance of God’s love; (2) conviction of sin; (3) illumination of the mind; (4) guidance in decision-making. Each dimension builds on the other, and the first one–the assurance of God’s love–encompasses the other three and makes them possible.
Chapter 8, the climax of the book, describes the importance of prayer as the means through which the believer listens to and discusses his options with Jesus. In Chapters 9-12, Smith offers a practical guide for making decisions privately and communally. People face vocational and moral decisions that Smith refers to as the “Call of God.” Individuals and the community at large require the importance of spiritual direction from pastors and friends. The book concludes with suggestions for implementing his plan in a church committee.
The heart of the work is Smith’s understanding of discernment. “Spiritual discernment is an intentional way by which we respond with courage and integrity to our world. Discernment enables us both to see the world more clearly and to respond well to what we see.” It is not “merely weighing the pros and cons”; the task is an intentionally collaborative process among spiritual guides, the inner witness of the spirit to the individual, the awareness of the needs around the person, and the emotional dimension that the spirit brings to the believer’s life.
Smith rightly taps an important stream in the Christian tradition, spirit-led discernment for Christians and communities. The work is clearly written, easily understandable and suitable for lay reader or parish minister. He correctly balances the tendency for some to be too subjective in their spiritual guidance, asking how a certain issue speaks to “me,” with an important call for the community’s affirmation and assistance in discerning the pathways of life.
But Smith lacks any concrete examples where these principles have been tried or tested among a group of believers.
The author also makes two faulty assumptions:
(1) He incorrectly attempts to separate the “inner witness” of the Spirit (God speaking privately to the person) from the other ways God speaks in the world. It seems to me that God is always speaking in many ways, and the individual is one component of a multi-faceted process. By the end of the book, Smith even calls for external voices (the witness of the community) to be God’s voice in speaking to the believer. Either he does not recognize the outcome of his proposal or needs to define better what he means by the inner witness.
(2) He misses one important community in the stream of Christian tradition, the outsiders. Jesus often discerned his own calling in the midst of non-believers such as the stranger, destitute and adversary. Another voice in the Christian tradition of discernment, Francis of Assisi, stated: “Jesus Christ, our Lord, whose footsteps we’re to follow, called his betrayer ‘friend’ and willingly handed himself over to his crucifiers. Our friends, then, are all those who unjustly inflict upon us tests and ordeals, shame and injury, sorrow and torments, martyrdom and death. They are the ones we should love most, for what they’re really inflicting upon us is eternal life.”
This book provides an important resource to help Christians develop the inner dimensions of the spiritual life. While lacking concrete examples from contemporary experience, Smith opens the door for further exploration in the church today.
Bill Shiell is senior pastor at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas.
William D. Shiell is the President of Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois. He is the author of five books, most recently Acts in the Preaching the Word Series (Smyth & Helwys).