Summary: At the funeral for her mother, Marlena Graves heard the Matthew 4 story about Jesus sleeping in the boat in a new way. And that frames the book’s discussion about what it means to live a Christ-formed life.
I am currently on a reading project to explore what Discernment means for Christians and how we discuss and teach it. A couple of weeks ago, I asked for suggestions to add to my list of books. An internet acquaintance suggested Bearing God. Bearing God was on my list to read generally, but I had not considered it a book about discernment. So, I picked up the audiobook to listen to during a solo drive.
Too many books are fluffed up to add to the page count, but this novella-length book is exactly right. It has 80 pages of main content, and the audiobook was 2.5 hours. But I think I will put this at the top of my list of short, accessible books on discernment. It is not primarily a book about discernment. It is primarily a book about being a Christ-follower. But the book’s subtext, as well as one of the chapters, is explicitly about discernment. I previously read The Way Up is Down, and I have followed Graves on social media for years. Bearing God fits well with The Way Up is Down. Both are primarily about spiritual formation and how we incorporate spiritual practices into daily life, not adding them as yet one more thing to do.
It also matters that Marlena Graves is a Puerto Rican woman. I have been working on my 2023 reading stats. While I had almost exact gender parity this past year, the vast majority of the books I read were by white authors. Bearing God is a book that explores her life and spiritual walk, and her history, culture, and experience matter to how she perceives the world.
Too many books treat spiritual disciplines as a type of self-help task that will make you a better person. There is some truth to this because I am not sure that spiritual maturity can happen if we do not work on building our emotional, relational, and mental health. The problem with this method is that it easily shifts from “this is good for me” to “I am earning this” or “God owes/needs me.” This is a book of spiritual wisdom.
Several years ago, much ink was spilled about what “The Gospel” meant. Most of the discussion was unhelpful because adding “Gospel” as an adjective mostly seemed to be a marketing tool. Gospel parenting, Gospel gender roles, or Gospel friendship can set boundaries around aspects of our lives and give them the veneer of Christianity. Laura Anderson’s When Religion Hurts You discusses how flattening the complex into simple principles is a standard tool of high-control religious communities. Graves points out that moving toward maturity in Christ should mean moving toward complexity. We have different callings, gifts, and roles, so we respond differently in our discernment. And God seems to have a pattern of doing new things. So, we cannot simply replicate what God has done in one place in another place and expect the same results. But more than anything, this book told the gospel and reminded me of the passion we should have as Christ followers.
As I have investigated discernment more, I have noticed that most discussions on discernment rely on either Quaker or Ignatian principles of discernment. Both are cited here but in a very accessible way. I did not realize until recently that the Society of Friends (Quakers) was initially called The Society of Friends of Truth. What was unique about the Society of Friends is that they relied on seeking God’s direction (discernment) more explicitly. Friends were fond of language like “Guiding Light.” Quaker discernment is very communally focused, even as it uses the language of individualism. There can, of course, be bad discernment, but the nature of discernment means people can and will come to different conclusions, and sometimes we will be wrong, but God is always with us.
The central metaphor in the book is very much in the vein of Quaker and Ignatian thought. When Marlena Graves heard the story of Jesus sleeping in the boat in the midst of the storm, she did not identify with the fearful disciples or the sleeping Jesus; she identified with the boat. Ignatius encouraged people to put themselves in the story as she did here. And Quakers thought about God being in them as they moved through the world. If we are the boat bearing God, we must serve God as he calls. That means that hearing from God and following his direction is central to being a Christian.
As I discussed this with my wife, she brought up the common “God has a plan for you” language of her youth. It was so focused on one plan and one right thing; if we got it wrong, our whole lives would be ruined. This left many paralyzed from acting at all. Good discernment should be about freedom, not constraint. Freedom is a consistent theme here. God is not just about saving us from hell but also working within us to heal ourselves and others.
Bearing God is a book that I will read again once I have completed some more books on discernment. It would make a good small-group study. There are six chapters; the longest is the chapter on Discernment, which is only 22 pages. The other five chapters average about 10-15 pages each.
One last note: I listened to this on audiobook while driving. So I couldn’t take notes. I prefer authors to read their books, especially when those authors are speakers or preachers. Marlena Graves did not read this, and while the narration was fine, I think it would have been better if she had read it herself.