Discerning God's Will in Justice Work

By Drew Gilliland
Program & Research Associate, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

Recently, I have been reading an excellent book, Discernement by Henri Nouwen, the renowned Catholic priest & academic who spent his latter years residing at L’Arche Daybreak, a community of people with intellectual and physical disabilities. He had tremendous concern and love for those in society who are marginalized. And yet, he found time for quiet, contemplation, and a simple life. For many of us, it’s very easy to get caught up in the frenzy of seemingly non-stop and never-ending work of justice while neglecting the inner work and rest that is absolutely necessary for our own health and effectiveness. Nouwen provides timeless and timely wisdom in this regard in this book. 

Nouwen notes that the apostle Paul defines “discernment” thus in Colossians: “We ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord” (Col. 1:9-10 NRSV). Nouwen continues, “By ‘spiritual understanding,’ Saint Paul means discerning, intuitive, and perceptive knowledge, usually found in solitude, the fruit of which is a profound insight into the interconnectedness of all things, through which we can situate ourselves in time and space to know God’s will and do God’s work in the world” (pgs. 5-6). 

I find Nouwen’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of things fascinating because other theologians include this as a part of our being created in the image of God, and therefore as a core component of doing justice. As Migliore puts it, “Being created in the image of God means that humans find their true identity in coexistence with each other and with all other creatures…We become and stay human in the tension between personal identity and communal participation…Stated briefly, we live in dialogue.” In the Old Testament, this is confirmed through the words tzedekah (righteousness) and mishpat (justice). The former refers to a state of right relationship between people that affirm their God-given dignity as image-bearers, while the latter refers to a justice that is restorative and that includes advocating for “the least of these” and working to change social structures so that injustice ceases to exist. Both of these forms of justice are inherently relational; we are “political” creatures, as Aristotle puts it – we “live and develop [our] capacities in the intricate relationships and interdependencies of the polis, or city. This wisdom is beautifully captured an African proverb: ‘I am human only because you are human’” (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, pg. 145). 

We all know this and work hard for it. But how often do we take the time, whether in solitude or in community, to discern how God would have us live in light of this reality today

Jesus was certainly one of the most prolific justice-doers of all time. After all, in John 21:25, the beloved disciple writes, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (ESV). Jesus had no limit on the demands upon his time, energy, and mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual resources. He could have done the work of justice, mercy, and love 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it still wouldn’t have “fixed” everything. In spite of the need in the world that he encountered daily, or perhaps because of it, Jesus often took time in solitude, to rest. As Luke puts it in the fifth chapter of his book, “But now even more the report about [Jesus] went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would [often/frequently] withdraw to desolate places and pray.”

Jesus needed to commune with his Father in order to discern how & what work he ought to do. He simply needed his Father. Dallas Willard once said something to this effect: We often only pray when we truly need God. How often in our work do we recognize we need God? Do we realize we cannot discern without Him? 

As justice workers, we may find ourselves thinking we can do more without solitude, prayer, and discernment. We may think that we have to be constantly on the move, always working, as if we were indispensable to the flourishing of His Kingdom of love, mercy, and justice, when Jesus himself took significant time to be alone with His Father because He needed Him.

Friends, rest. Let God refresh, replenish, and guide us into what He would have us do every day. Let Him guide us into those conversations, situations, and relationships where He wants us to be. We need to be still and listen to Him. He loves us, and He has created us for good works.  But, we must let Him show each of us what those are and how best to pursue them, as we rest in Him daily.