This book review on The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit by Gordon T. Smith (2003) was originally written in fulfillment of a BGST course, ECF 504: SPIRITUAL RETREAT EXPERIENCE: NATURE, PURPOSE & DYNAMICS in 2009. I strongly recommend the book for Christians who want to better understand how they can discern God’s voice and call in their lives.
I choose to read the book by Smith, Gordon T. (2003). The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit, because I only have a very vague understanding of discerning God’s voice. In critical decision-making milestones in my life, a lack of proper discernment had resulted in negative consequences and detrimental effects in my spiritual life. This inadequacy thus prompted me to explore, understand, and hopefully apply a more comprehensive and holistic exercise of spiritual discernment.
This book discusses how we may discern the voice of the Holy Spirit in our Christian spiritual formation.
The first portion of the book deals with the necessity and basis for discerning the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Besides establishing a strong Scriptural and theological basis in chapter 1, the author also drew upon the spiritual traditions of Ignatius, Wesley, and Edwards, emphasizing the necessary components of good discernment common among the three: the posture of humility, the vital roles of affections and critical reflection, and the evidence of joy, in discerning the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.
It is noteworthy that Smith kept a delicate balance between various polarities of extremes, such as reason and affection, knowledge and experience, Scripture and tradition, individual and the community of faith, without exalting one and compromising the other.
The second portion of the book focuses on the four ministries of the Spirit, namely, the assurance of God’s love for us, the conviction of our sins, the illumination of our minds, and the Spirit’s guidance during times of choice.
In chapter 8 “The Character of our Prayer”, Smith explained how our prayer could be ordered in four spiritual disciplines as a response to the Spirit’s four ministries: thanksgiving, confession, meditation and silence.
The third portion of the book describes the application of spiritual discernment in specific contexts: vocational and moral discernment, spiritual direction, and communal discernment.
Personal Reflection and Response
A fuller appreciation of discernment in the varied Christian traditions
My initial response to the book was that I gained a fuller appreciation of the rich Christian traditions in the discernment of the inner witness of the Spirit, particularly of traditions different from mine (Baptist).
Prior to my reading, I was largely ignorant and even skeptical of the Catholic tradition. Reading about Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and what it teaches about discernment, I was impressed by its practicality and profound insights. The imperative to act upon decision only in consolation and not in desolation was particularly instructive. Ignatius defined ‘desolation’ as the emotional orientation that diminishes faith, hope and love, in which one does not feel connected to God.
Looking back, I identified certain key events in my life in which an important decision was made in states of desolation, and the outcomes were spiritually disastrous. If I had learned to wait until there is genuine consolation before I decide, perhaps the decision would be one I feel more at peace with.
God’s unconditional love as the remedy
How can I remedy the brokenness of my past mistakes? In chapter 4, Smith wrote that the first of the Spirit’s ministry of witness to us is the assurance of God’s love for us. Smith could not have stated it more emphatically,
“Nothing is so fundamental to the Christian journey as knowing and feeling that we are loved. Nothing. This is the basis for the whole of what it means to be a Christian. There is no other foundation on which we build. It is from the experience of God’s love that we know the grace of God and live out every other dimension of our Christian faith.”Smith, Gordon, 74.
I believe I belong to the category of Christians who have little problem with acknowledging total depravity but find it near impossible to accept the unconditional love of God!
Smith based this aspect of the Spirit’s ministry in Romans 5:3-8, expounding how the objective fact of God’s love demonstrated through the crucifixion (v.8) was actually appropriated experientially in v.5, where “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”.
It was this exposition that called me to experience anew the ‘pouring forth’ of God’s love. Smith’s assertion that God’s love is the very basis and foundation for our spiritual formation hits me right on the spot. It is never my piety that win the love of God; it is the love of God that inspires, sustains, and ultimately perfects my piety.
To recognize this and appropriate it by faith liberates me from my legalistic tendencies and frees me from the compulsion to affirm my self-worth through ministry performance and Christian service.
There were times when doubts about my standing before God crept in due to sin, spiritual negligence or ministry failures, but the bedrock of God’s love had held me secure through them all.
How God’s love transform our experience of repentance
It was also insightful in how Smith placed the second aspect of the Spirit’s witness—the conviction of our sins—after the first. We can face the darkness of our hearts honestly only because we know we are fully loved by God. This affected my spiritual formation in several ways.
Firstly, it dispels the myth of moral perfection in this present life.
I used to measure the quality of my spiritual life in quantitative terms of how many days (or weeks) I have abstained from a particular sin that entangled me at that time. When I failed or gave in to temptation, the consequent despondence and guilt sank me into spiritual depression and led to more wanton sins. Such is the result of measuring spirituality by morality.
Knowing that God loves me even as He convicts me of sin gives me the assurance that I can indeed turn to Him where I had fallen. It also liberated me from a narrow definition of spirituality, as I become more aware of the complexity of sin in my life and my need for God’s grace to live in godliness.
Second, Smith emphasized how our discipline of confession should not seek a laundry list of every knowable sin, but to turn from one sin at a time (p. 99).
This principle is very new to me, as I often struggle with the worry that if I left out some significant sin, my repentance is not thorough and thus unacceptable to God. Consciously turning from one area of sin at a time is both realistic and spiritually liberating. There is a profoundly deep sense of spiritual transformation in that area of my life as the prayer and meditation of the day was focused on it.
Third, any guilt that is accompanied by a sense of condemnation is not of God
I often struggle with guilt and the inability to discern whether it is from God. Smith offered this simple principle: any guilt that is accompanied by a sense of condemnation is not of God, primarily based on 2 Corinthians 7:9-10.
Though the principle is simple, the varied sources of false guilt made it difficult to discern. We could easily experience such guilt as a satanic attack, emotional manipulation by others, and failure to live up to our own ideals. Coupled with my tendency to be judgmental of myself, false guilt is easily a daily staple.
It is thus necessary for me to view my guilt in the light of God’s love set forth by the Cross of Christ—in Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1).
What I gradually come to appreciate is that since God’s love is unchanging in its intent and purpose to mold me into the likeness of His Son (Romans 8:29), I should respond to whatever convicting guilt that identifies a genuine sin in my life with humble submission.
The outcome of such a spiritual discipline—which is really an exercise of faith in God’s forgiveness through Christ—is actually an unspeakable humble joy, that God has forgiven and is forgiving me. It is amazing that such joy turns me away from persisting in sin, which would be the case if I wallow in my guilt and self-disappointment.
The 4 ministries of the Spirit’s witness
In the chapter on “The Character of Our Prayers”, Smith made a helpful consolidation of the four spiritual disciplines in response to the four ministries of the Spirit’s witness: thanksgiving, confession, meditation, and seeking for guidance for this day (p.167-168). This provides a structure to order our prayer life and even adapted to a day of prayer.
Personally, practicing this order in my prayer had been a challenge for me, as I was frequently distracted by loose thoughts and daily affairs.
Here is where the discipline of silence interspersed throughout this order of prayer is helpful. I find that, when I chose to observe silence after a segment of prayer such as thanksgiving, I can better recollect my thoughts to focus on Christ.
This spiritual discipline is also a continuation of what I learned during my retreat. Appropriating silence during prayer does help my spirit to lift up my heart to the Lord in personal worship and submission, instead of focusing on mere words and requests.
Discernment in Spiritual Direction
Finally, in the chapter on “Spiritual Direction, Pastoral Care and Friendship” Smith applied the lesson of discernment in the context of spiritual direction.
He distinguished it from mentoring and counseling, emphasizing the witness of the Spirit in determining the course of conversation in spiritual direction.
The role of a spiritual director is likened to a “fellow traveler” (p.212) who enabled another to respond to the initiative of the Spirit.
Smith followed up by applying the ministry of spiritual direction to friendship: co-discernment based on acceptance, truthfulness, and encouragement.
This fresh perspective on spiritual friendship is transformative in my spiritual formation. It is a chapter that moved me to reconnect my spiritual formation with the community of God.
At this point in my writing, the Lord had led me to identify key spiritual friends in my life and to make a conscious effort in cultivating these spiritual friendships. Such relationships provide the context of community for my spiritual formation so that I can be honest about my spiritual journey, and also learn to encourage another friend in his own journey.
I discover that spiritual conversations are qualitatively different from ministry-driven, task-oriented ones because I am better able to listen to the spiritual contours of my friend’s life and how God is leading him.
The application of the familiar verse “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17) for me now extends beyond simply Bible knowledge and ministry expertise; it now includes the sharpening of each other’s sensitivity and attentiveness to the voice and direction of God’s Spirit.
Since spiritual formation is ultimately the initiative of God, the capacity to discern His inner witness to us through the Holy Spirit is essential. If we fail to discern the effect of God’s work upon our lives, we fail to grow spiritually in the way He has intended.
Smith’s book, The Voice of Jesus, thus provides a timely and accessible resource for evangelical readers to strengthen this aspect of spiritual formation. In centralizing the focus on discerning God’s voice, rather than specific spiritual disciplines, the personal nature of our spiritual relationship with God is well-emphasized.
Although the book covered several valuable and relevant aspects of our spiritual formation, perhaps the most personally relevant portion was the second one, where the four aspects of the Spirit’s inner witness was clearly expounded and logically sequenced.
Smith introduced the spiritual disciplines of thanksgiving, confession, meditation, and silence as responses to each of these aspects. This is sound and practical theology—it is not spiritual disciplines to “get to God”, but to respond to the work God has initiated in us.
Only then do these disciplines find their proper place; only then does our discerning response to the voice of our Lord be one of humble joy and God-centered certainty.
Smith, Gordon T. (2003). The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press
This post is part of my column on Book Reviews, where I share some of the insights gleaned from my reading. Feel free to check out the other blog posts on books that have influenced me significantly.