December 18, 2022 Essay: Joseph—Symbol of Discernment

Dec 12, 2022

When Joseph discovered Mary’s pregnancy, we can imagine him being bombarded with voices competing for his attention. His betrothed’s voice might have sounded a mixture of joy, anxiety, and fear. After all, they both knew the child was not his, and this shocking news could make her look like an adulteress and he a cuckold. His family’s and community’s voice might have been one of perplexity. “Why did you wait until now to tell us? And besides, you two haven’t completed the marriage ritual yet.  What’s going on here? Is there something you’re hiding?” The voice of his religion was loud and clear. “If the child isn’t yours, your fiancée is guilty of a capital crime. Turn her in.” Perhaps Joseph prayed with the words of Psalm 85 as he lay down to sleep on that fateful night: “I will listen to what God the Lord says, he promises peace to his people.” Joseph’s role models for us discernment—he listens for the voice of truth, and he acts.

Like his ancestors-in-faith Abraham, Jacob, Joseph (the patriarch), Solomon, and Daniel, Joseph receives in a dream the wisdom and guidance he needs. We notice that this dream-sent voice, the voice among all others he chooses to obey, is one of compassion and mercy. It calls him to preserve, not take life. It is gentle and counsels a loving response to the extraordinary circumstances that have come upon him and his betrothed.  It is a voice that says, “God is with us;” that says, “I, your God, am here.”

“How do I know which is God’s voice?” We will inevitably confront this question as we journey on the path of faith. St. Ignatius Loyola tells us in his rules of discernment, “It is characteristic of God and his angels, by the motions they cause, to give genuine happiness and spiritual joy, and thereby to banish any sadness and turmoil induced by the enemy….”  Joseph discerns the voice of God because it is inviting, relational, freeing, compassionate, loving, wise, receptive, allowing, unlimited, intuitive, creative, inspired, peaceful, connected. This is a voice that says, “Do not be afraid.”

Some voices can easily be mistaken for God’s because they sound like what some forms of religion have taught us that God is like—demanding, perfectionist, moralizing, and stern. We could interpret Joseph’s story as a warning that such tones—loud, aggressive, possessive, shaming, judgmental, fearful, opinionated, intrusive, dominating, limited, rationalizing, controlling, restrictive, conventional, anxious, defensive, and separated—are not of God. If it feels like a hammer blow, if it would do violence, if it moves us away from love of God and neighbor, it is not of God. As the prophet Elijah discovered, God will not be found in the “earthquake” or the “fire” but in a soft whispering sound.

When Joseph receives the grace of God’s guidance, he takes the final, crucial step of discernment—he acts. When we receive insight, there might arise an energy of resistance that wants us to file away rather than act upon the wisdom God has given us. Perhaps acting will upset others, or will take us in a new direction, or will defy voices we’ve been taught to unquestioningly obey. This final step of discernment, action, can be the most difficult and harrowing. Joseph showed us the way when “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” The great spiritual writer and teacher Henri Nouwen described discernment this way, “To discern means first of all to listen to God, to pay attention to God’s active presence, and to obey God’s prompting, direction, leadings, and guidance.”

As Advent draws to a close, we are invited to become more still, silent, and attentive, as did Joseph, to the voice that shines like a light in a dark place, “until the dawn and morning star rises in our hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

— Brian Pinter, Pastoral Associate