The Way of Discernment

This post first appeared in “Ministry Matters” under the title: “Discernment: it’s not just pointing at random verses” on Medium.com

Whenever we aspire to live the Christian life with any intentionality, an inevitable question arises. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know I am making the right decisions? How do I perceive or recognize the specific parameters of how God wants me to live my life? The answer to all these questions is the same: discernment. Discernment is the spiritual discipline through which we listen for, and respond to, directions God’s voice. Simply put, discernment is the process of recognizing God’s will for our lives.

It is important to recognize that discernment is not a routine set of steps. It is not a codified system of checks and balances by which we can streamline our decision-making. Nor are there any shortcuts. One can’t, for example, simply close their eyes and point to random verses, expecting to uncover the fine nuances of God’s plan for their life. That’s not discernment; that’s biblical roulette, and it can be devastating to someone’s faith. It is best to think of discernment as a way of prayerfully relying on God. It is a function of an active relationship with the Lord, one that establishes a certain kind of life. Thus, before we even think about how we discern God’s will for our lives, we should endeavour to cultivate the type of life in which recognizing God’s direction is conducive.

There are three foundations upon which this type of life rests. Firstly, you need to cultivate a sincere desire to live in God’s will. If you are not actually concerned with living the life that God desires you to live, there is no point in trying to discern God’s voice. It’s as simple as that. Or, if you think that God will simply rubber stamp any decision you make, discernment is simply a façade. In order to rightly discern God’s direction for you, you must first desire God’s will above and before all things. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Similarly, in the Lord’s prayer, we are instructed to pray for God’s kingdom and will to be established before we pray to receive our daily wants or needs. We need to root ourselves in the primary longing for God’s ways to be revealed in and through our lives. This is what Ignatian spirituality calls “indifference” — wanting God’s will to be established, whatever that may entail, instead of my own interests, desires or plans.

Secondly, we need to cultivate an active engagement with Scripture. God has given us Scripture as the primary way that we become familiar with God’s voice. Now this doesn’t mean that every answer is written in the pages of the Bible — again we aren’t talking about biblical roulette here. However, by immersing ourselves in the Bible (the whole Bible — not just our favourite verses), we continually grow in our familiarity with the weight and the tone of God’s voice. The continuous engagement with Scripture also aids us in becoming attuned with the kind of things that the Lord may say to us.

Lastly, in order to rightly discern God’s will for our lives, we must establish an ongoing conversation with God, in prayer. We need to learn how to listen to God’s voice — and you only do that by establishing a conversational relationship with the Lord. In prayer, we bring God the matters of our day, the desires of our hearts, and we cultivate a habit of listening through the practices of silence or solitude. An active prayer life helps us identify those thoughts or impressions that are indicative of divine nudging. In prayer we learn to highlight such things and say “there’s a different quality to this”, or “there’s something about this feeling, thought, word, impression that is not just a function of my own pondering.” Jesus indicated that his followers, like sheep before a shepherd, are able to recognize and know His own voice. We become familiar with this voice through the sustained habit of prayer.

If you are in the midst of trying to discern something but have yet to establish this way of life, this is where you start. But let’s say you have cultivated this life of active reliance upon Jesus… what now? What does discernment actually entail?

Keeping in mind that there is no one surefire process of discernment, there are three components of God’s guidance that can be mentioned. In his classic book, The Secret of Guidance,F.B. Meyer refers to these components as the “three witnesses” of discernment. He writes: “The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and with the Word of God.” Circumstances; the inward promptings of the Spirit; and Scripture are the three areas we look to when attempting to discern God’s direction for our lives.

First, circumstances are the particulars of whatever situation you are in right now. Is there anything about the contours of your life, the decision you are trying to make, that speaks to where God is working? Discernment is never done in a vacuum. God is at work in your life. God does speak. In discernment, we want to look at the specifics of our life situation. Meyer also mentions that it is good to pray that God close the avenues or opportunities that are not conducive to God’s way. Ultimately, discernment isn’t like receiving a divine memo. It is about looking for the signs of God’s leading in our the everyday tapestry of our lives.

Second, the Lord often guides us by prompting our inward selves through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will often begin to work with our inner dispositions, we will feel “drawn” in a particular direction. This is why an established lifestyle of reliance upon, and interaction with, the Spirit of God is so important. In discernment we ask our selves questions like: “What is Jesus doing within me?”, “What does my heart say?” and “Where do I feel Jesus drawing me closer to Him? Conversely, is there an option or way that seems to lead me away from God?” Ignatius terms these inward dispositions consolations and desolations, and they provide good insight into how God is leading us. Importantly, you might not be able to fully articulate these internal sensations. However, if inwardly you are feeling one way as opposed to another — and that feeling just wont go away — this can be an indication of divine guidance.

Lastly, we turn to Scripture for guidance. Does the Bible say anything — or give any principles applicable to our situation? Again, this isn’t about finding a certain answer — or pointing to random verses — this is about recognizing that God has provided for us a written voice. And while we may not be able to turn to a specific verse for “the answer”, God does us the scriptural word to speak to us. Thus, the more we are familiar with Scripture, the more we will find it has the uncanny ability to speak into our lives.

Meyer’s emphasis in highlighting these three witnesses is that, in proper discernment, these three components converge. Scripture reinforces our inward dispositions, which help us to recognize God’s movement in the present circumstances of our lives. One always points to the other.

Of course, discernment can be a trying process. There may be a lot of emotion surrounding that our discernment. Also our discernment may impact others. Because of this, discernment can seen as a highly stressful endeavour. To combat this, it is best to keep in mind three remembrances:

  1. Discernment takes time. We live in a world of instant gratification, and so often we want direction at the drop of hat. We turn to God and expect to get the answer within a heartbeat of a moment. Discernment, however, is a way of wrestling with something, and sometimes this takes a while. It may be God wants us to sit with a decision for a time, or possibly God wants other things to be revealed or shown before we get the final direction. Meyer points out that discernment is always about the next step — never the full picture. We are to enter our times of discernment slowly, being willing to receive what God offers, in whatever time-frame that occurs.
  2. Like so many other disciplines, we are to involve others. As you enter discernment, seek the counsel and partnership of a trusted friend or guide — a spiritual director or perhaps your parish priest. If you have come to a conclusion, ask for a sense of confirmation. Although Meyer doesn’t list the community as a particular component of discernment, the voice of the community has an important role in confirming the guidance we have received. Do not be afraid to ask others to help you with this discipline.
  3. Claim grace. Discernment is not only different for each person, it is different in each circumstance. Do not get discouraged if discernment does not appear “easy.” We can, at times, feel an undue sense of responsibility to perfect this practice. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our sense of wrestling with a decision indicates a failure to adequately listen to God. On top of this, one may mistakenly believe that choosing the “wrong” path means will be cast out of God’s good graces for ever. This is simply not true. We trust in grace. We trust that God will work with our frailties. Furthermore, in discernment, as in all of our Christian life, we can trust that God’s love and grace for us prevails over all things.

If we take the time and effort to establish the certain way of life in which discernment is conducive, then I believe we can have confidence in discerning God’s will for our lives. We can have this confidence because, ultimately, discernment is rooted in the fundamental truth that God speaks. Not only does God speak, God speaks to us. We can hear God’s voice. We can know God’s will. May each of us uncover the particular nuances of God’s direction and will for our lives. Amen.


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