Spirit-Filled decision-making: the way of discernment for individuals, councils, and communities.

Life can be messy.  The path ahead is not always clear.  In such moments, we can be left with the daunting task of having to decide what course of action to engage in, which path to follow.  Sometimes it’s a decision between A and B.  Sometimes it’s a decision to act or not act.  Sometimes there are multiple variables to consider.   These decisions can weigh upon us.    What is the best way to make these decisions? How much emphasis do we place on our ‘gut feeling’ as opposed to a more rationalist and intellectual approach?  Where does the wisdom of those who have gone before us come in to play?

On top of all of this, Christians add another layer to their decision making.  We are not simply concerned with discerning what is ‘best’, or deciding what we believe to be the correct solution; we are concerned with hearing the voice of God.  In addition to all the structural considerations to how we make a decision, there is the spiritual matter of how we hear God’s voice.  What does God say about the matter at hand?  What is the difference between God’s voice and my own?  How can I know the difference?

How do we make decisions in a spirit-filled way?  How do we value our own intellect and feelings, yet recognise that ultimately we are concerned with God’s intellect and God’s feelings?  Are there things we can do, questions we can ask, that may aid us in recognising the Spirit’s promptings in our decision-making?

Sadly, the art of discernment, or spirit-filled decision making, is not something that we speak about in church circles very often.  We drift into a functionalism that treats God’s will as that which best fits into Roberts Rules of order.  God’s will is simply the will of the majority.  It’s fast, its logical, its uncomplicated. But does God always bless the loudest voices?  How does this fit into the scriptural dynamic of God choosing the weak and foolish to shame the wise?  Similarly, discipleship lessons rarely speak about discernment.  The Christian life is too often focused strictly on doctrinal matters, and not the messy reality of living out faith doctrines in the intricacy of life.

In a world that is so complicated, and changes without notice, the task of discerning God’s voice in our decisions is more pressing than ever.  Thus, I offer five considerations by which we can prayerfully approach the decisions we make.  I write ‘prayerfully approach’, because I don’t want to suggest that quickly answering these five questions will mean we have made our decision prayerfully, or have rightly discerned God’s voice.  Discernment takes time.  We hold matters in prayer.  We search the scriptures.  We talk to mentors, advisors, and spiritual friends.    It takes a humble willingness to hold a matter before the Lord, and to wrestle with the ‘unknowing’ for a period of time as we engage in discernment.  The larger the decision is, the more time in prayer we should take.

Firstly, where am I in this matter?  Seeking God’s voice in decision making is not a convenient way to avoid our own thoughts, or the need to investigate the matter thoroughly.  The appeal to God’s voice is not an argument for ignorance.  The first step is being true with ourselves.  What do we think and feel about the matter at hand?

This is more than just figuring out the result I would like to see. The recognition of what we think and feel about the matter also calls us to uncover why this might be the case.   What about ourselves do we bring into this decision?  Ultimately, we are asking ourselves “If it were up to us, what decision would I make?”  This may seem like we are rushing to the end of the matter, but we aren’t.   We simply cannot lay our will before God, asking for God’s direction and guidance, if we are unaware of what our own will is.  Probing the depths of the self may provide important revelations into what insights we bring to the matter, or what biases colour our perceptions.

Secondly, where does God lead me to comfort in this decision?  St. Ignatius talked about ‘consolations’ in the art of discernment – the feeling of assurance of God’s presence and plan.  As we seek God’s voice regarding any matter, we seek to find that place where God provides comfort and assurance.  Is there a sense of peace about a particular decision?  Do we feel settled in a course of action?

Intuition is key here.  God gave us our emotions to help us feel our way through life.  There may be times, where like Christ, we are moved in our inward being toward a certain action.  Such feelings of peace and contentment over a matter is not intellectually based.  We may not even know from where it comes from, or even how to describe our ‘gut-feeling.’ Sometimes our feeling of comfort is just that. . . a gut-feeling, a response of faith that causes us to discern a way forward.   Just because we may not be able to write such a feeling out in a three-point argument doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention to feelings God may be prompting in us.

Thirdly, where does God lead me into discomfort?  The flip side of consolations are desolations.  These are the feelings that we, somehow, are drifting from God’s plan and presence.  Just as in our comforts, we may not even know why we feel our discomforts.  We may simply be responding to a feeling deep down in our souls.  Yet if we are trying to make a decision from the stand-point of faith, and if we actually believe that God will lead us and guide us, then such a feeling should be acknowledged and listened to.

Discomforts may not point to a complete denial of a certain outcome.  Feeling uncomfortable about a decision doesn’t necessarily suggest that God is against a certain decision.  Rather, Discomforts may signify that there is something in the matter that still needs to be addressed.  A discomfort can be about how a decision is being made, and not about the result.  Discomforts may also speak to the effects, the motives, or even the timing of a decision.  Therefore, taking the time to pray about the matter at hand is important.

Fourthly, what action(s) does God wish to bring about in this decision?  Decisions are never mere intellectual exercises. Decisions effect life.  As such, making a decision from a spiritual standpoint has implications on how we live faithfully.  It calls us to embody the kingdom of God in a certain way.  At times, these actions may be easy to discern, at other times, the actions resulting from our decision may be less clear.

When the actions God wishes to bring out from a decision are relatively unclear we have yet another discernment to undergo.  It may be good to go back to look at comforts/discomforts.  Is not knowing an action actually a form of discomfort?  If we don’t know a precise action, yet feel comforted about a decision, does this mean we called to make a decision in faith, trusting that the actions will be revealed in due time?  Teasing this out in our lives is never a simply matter.  This matter must be held in prayer.  Deciding not to move ahead with a decision at this point, because the actions are unclear, is not a failure in discernment.  We act on God’s time-frame, and we trust that God will lead us appropriately.

Fifthly, what are the implications of this decision?  Decisions always reach beyond ourselves.  We must consider the wider scope of our lives, and the people with whom we live and work.  Sometimes our decisions hold ramifications beyond our own thoughts on a matter, or how we ourselves treat a certain subject.  What does the decision mean for how we relate to those around us?  What message do we embody as we live out the decision?

For example, a decision to move to closer to family may bring the need to reconcile a previously strained relationship.  A decision to take a new job may mean we step away from a ministry we love. Thinking more broadly, others may become upset, resentful, even hurt about decisions we make – as good or positive as we may feel the decision is.  The prayerful consideration of implications helps us recognise that the way of Jesus is not necessarily the path of ease and tranquility.  Christ calls us to bear the cross, to walk through the dark valleys, and to ‘scorn the shame for the sake of the hope set before us.’  Ultimately what we seek is not a decision based on blind faith.  We open our eyes to the real-life ramifications of following the way of Jesus.

None of these considerations outweigh the other.  While it may be useful to go through them in order, in many ways, each consideration flows in and out of the other.  Considering the implications of a decision will naturally inform our feelings of comfort and discomfort.   The reality of comfort and discomfort with further influence the actions we are willing or not willing to take.  It is for this reason that the basis of spiritual decision making is humility and prayer.

If life for the individual can be messy, then life for a community of faith can be messier still. It is not just one person who makes a decision.  The community, gathered together in faith, is tasked with living out the mission of God.  This is a task that all people (we hope) take seriously.  Yet we cannot ignore the fact that member in the community may disagree – sometimes vehemently.  Two individuals, going through the five considerations about the same subject, may come out with two opposite decisions.  How does this occur?  Is this as simple as saying the other side just didn’t hear the voice of God?

Community discernment is not opposed to individual spirit-filled decision making, or the five considerations mentioned above.  The community is made up of individuals, and therefore it is important that all individuals in the community engage in the considerations.  Just as we cannot appeal to ‘the will of God’ as an excuse for ignorance, neither can we abdicate individual responsibility to the mere will of the majority.  A community only functions when each person values their role as a member of the community.   Given the task of decision making then, a community is a body of people who passionately embody a willingness to seek God’s voice together.

This sense of togetherness brings forward some key matters to consider as we engage in communal discernment.  In community, not only are we seeking the will of God corporately, we are also concerned with embodying the love of Christ to each other.  In community, a decision should never be reduced to ‘this side versus that side.’  While individuals or groups may differ in opinion, there should be an acknowledgement that all are united in seeking God’s will for the community.  This means that we live, pray, and make our decisions, in a spirit of peace, humility, and love.

As a community, there are a few additional considerations that will help us embody this spirit of love and humility.  Again, all of this presupposes that we spend time in corporate in prayer, bible study, and fellowship.

Firstly, we seek indifference.  Indifference doesn’t mean that we do not care about the result of a decision, or that we don’t have an outcome we want to see.  Remember, the first consideration is ‘where am I in this decision?’  Each individual voice, individual perspective, and individual sense of comfort/discomfort is to be valued an honored.  Yet as a member of community, we cannot decide that our comfort/discomforts are normative for the entire body.  In humility, we recognise that others in the community may have the opposite thoughts and feelings than we do – and those are just as valuable, Godly, and honorable as our own.

Given the fact that a community may not think or feel the same way about any decision, indifference calls the community to seek the will of God.  It takes bold humility to lay down our personal agendas.  Laying down our agenda is not the same as denying our voice.  However, in community we never seek our own will.  When members of a community walk into the task of decision making with a personal agenda, no matter how noble and right that may be, we move away from place of seeking God.  We must constantly echo Christ’s words of ‘not my will but yours be done.’  Indifference means that, ultimately, our first concern is that God’s will is known and followed.

Secondly, we own results.  We can never deny that we have passions, desires, and dreams.  When approaching decisions, in even the most spirit-filled way, we must recognise that there may be certain results that we want to see take place.   Indifference is not about negating the individual will, it is about laying it down willfully and humbly, so that we can take up the will of God.   In similar fashion, seeking God’s will as a community does not deny the individual desires and will of individual members.  This does not, however, give us licence to disregard the discerned decision of the community, simply because the result went against what we would have decided had we been in charge.

When individuals choose to act in contravention of that which the community has discerned through prayer, discussion, and finally vote, it severs the very fabric of community.  In such an action, the individual choosing to disregard the decision steps outside the community, rendering judgement upon it.  By such action, he or she declares the message “I am only a community member insofar as the community agrees with me.”  To be clear; this does not mean that one must agree with, or even like, the decision that had been rendered by the community; Individuals may grieve over decisions made.  However, the messiness of community is also one of its strengths – not everyone agrees with each other.

There is a deeper issue at play, however.  When an individual, or group of individuals, choose not to bear the results of a community’s discernment, one declares that they were never an active part of discernment in the first place.  To go into any decision, having settled in one’s mind what one will do or not do given such and such an outcome, is to deny the very spirit of indifference in which one is to approach matters of discernment.  It is to make decision making a matter of pushing forward an agenda, an execution of personal will.  Thus, the community at large simply becomes something to manipulate for personal agenda.  This may sound harsh, but such a triumphing of one’s personal decision works against the humble spirit of self-giving love by which we embody community.  To truly and authentically lay down our wills before God, one must actively commit to living out the results of the decision regardless of what occurs.  Obviously, if such decisions contravene legality, or amount to personal harm or injury upon another, such decisions are to be invalidated by good conscience and moral behaviour.  However, in such extreme situations, why would one wish to remain in such a wayward community anyway?

Thirdly, we hold decisions lightly.  The quality of a community’s decision is only seen over time.  We must recognise that there have been instances in our own history, and in the history of the community to which we belong, where wrong decisions had been made.  Furthermore, the community may have made such decisions in the full belief that they were being faithful to the will of God.  Wrong decisions have been made prayerfully, based on the current understanding of scripture, and out of a humble desire to follow the way of Christ.  Yet in hindsight, after years of growth and further prayer, such decisions were clearly seen to contravene God’s desire, and were appropriately overturned.

The humility in which we approach discernment as a community means that we recognise that we have not reached such an enlightened status to render human error inconceivable.  Thus, all decisions that are made are continually held in prayer.  Reaching a decision is never the end of the matter.  Rather, even when a decision is made, we hold the matter open before God, continually seeking God’s further guidance and clarification as we move forward in the way we have discerned.  Recognising our fallibility helps us recognise that God’s will is not synonymous with human will.  The infinite God does not always follow linear pathways.  Gods ways are beyond our own.

Could there be a reason, known only by the full revelation of God, whereby the best decisions (in a human sense) are seen to be faulty? Could there be a future learning that will turn all our current understandings on it’s head?  Obviously, such questions are unanswerable.  The point is not to answer such questions, or to figure out what the ‘future learning’ might be; rather, holding open the possibility of discovering of our well-intentioned errors helps to ensure that we do not assume that God’s will is contingent upon our reasoning.  God is beyond us and beyond our councils and forums.  In the end, it is not the correctness of our decisions in which we will be judged, but by the extent in which the community passionately longed-for God’s face and guidance.  As we move forward in our decisions, we ask for God’s blessing and leading.  Yet we also maintain the attitude that seeks out forgiveness for ‘hidden faults’ and unknown sins.

Maintain Community.  Decisions can be hard. They involve one’s heart and soul.  Difficult decisions find people placing personal investment in the matter being discussed by community.  When this happens, the community does not discuss issues, or matters, or points of order; they discuss people and lives.  Individuals in the community see themselves in the discussion, and the results of the decision bear implications in personal lives and histories.  We must remember that unless the community has reached one hundred percent consensus, there will be those who find themselves grieving over the results of a decision.

This speaks to the matter of implication.  In discernment, we seek the implications as they may be played out amid the community.  It could be that the implication of any decision is that the community will become divided and hurt.  Some will rejoice in a decision, others will weep.  This does not necessarily mean that a decision should not be reached, but this is something for which every member of the community should be aware.  How much worse it is when a community is so divided that it will become wounded no matter what decision is made!

When this occurs, we must actively choose to maintain community in prayer, humility, and sacrificial love.  We must give of ourselves to one another.  Those who rejoiced in the decision must seek out those who weep and hear the cries of those feeling lost and rejected.  Each individual member of the community should grieve over the fact that others in the community feel so hurt, lost, or abandoned.  In this way, we embody the fullness of what a community life.  We offer the same radical love that Christ offered to us – a love that enters the messiest of places for the sake of fellowship and grace.

A decision is never a victory.  In the moment of discernment, how the community responds to the decision is paramount.  Will we choose to maintain community? Will we choose to flaunt the ‘rightness’ of our decision?  Will we choose to disregard, discredit, and deny communion with those who decided ‘wrongly’?  How will we embody the love of Jesus to ‘the other’ when after a hard decision, ‘the other’ has a new face?

None of these reflections make discernment easy.  Spirit-filled decision making is an art; while there are lessons to be le learned, and a way to improve, it always be beyond our step by step processes.  In the end, discernment calls us to bend the knee before our Lord and maker.  God leads, we follow.  The path may be circuitous; we may wander in the desert for years, this way and that way and this way back again.  In discernment, however, we never search for the final resolution, only the next step.  What is more, as members of community, we recognise that we do not take these steps alone.  We journey with brothers and sisters who are as passionate, opinionated, flawed, insightful, and precious as we are.  Such a journey may, at times, get messy.  However when we give ourselves to each other, acting in a unified desire to embody Christ’s majestic kingdom, then the messiness of the community just might become beautiful.


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