Six Principles of Discernment

As a priest and pastor I am often called to spend time with people discerning the voice and the will of God in their life. I have about twenty lay people in spiritual direction. There are also times in other people’s lives, where careful guidance is necessary, either due to a crisis, or simply to a moment of decision about career, about vocations, or some other significant event.

And thank God many of the faithful are actually trying to learn what God would have them do. For, too many people run off and make big decisions about things like marriage or major career moves without asking God. It is always refreshing when someone says, “What would God have me do?”

How to discern in moments like these? Are there any rules, or at least a structure to follow in being reasonably certain of what course of action to take? Are there any ways to learn to how to recognize the voice of God and distinguish it from my own voice, the voices of others, or even the voice of the devil? There are of course.

And while many great spiritual masters have written far more eloquently than I of the art of discernment, I would like to offer a few things I have learned in my own discernment, and in walking with others on their own journey. What I offer here is by no means complete, and others will add, distinguish and write more profoundly on these than I. But these principles I have collected based on my study and experience as a parish priest dealing with ordinary members of the lay faithful. Take what you like and leave the rest. For a far richer treatment of the topic of discernment I recommend Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment.

Let’s just begin with a definition of the word discernment. Many people just use discernment as a synonym for “decide.” But discernment is a richer and deeper concept that, while related and antecedent to “deciding” is distinct from it. The goal of discernment is to see beyond the mere external dimensions of something, and to probe to its deeper significance.

The word discern comes from the Latin dis- “off, or away” + cernere – “to distinguish, separate, sift, set apart, divide, or distinguish. Thus, to discern is to distinguish or sort out what is of God, and what is of the flesh, the world or even the devil. As such, discernment, in its root meaning is something that ought to precede decision and aid it.

Thus as we discern, either a course of action or simply whether what we think or “hear” is of God or not, we must often admit that, while some things are purely from God, it is also the case that there may be other things admixed, things not of God, which must be sifted or separated out. Discernment regards these sorts of things.

And so we come to some basic norms or principles that I offer, humbly, and not as a spiritual master, just as a simple parish priest. These principles are most often applicable to discern about a course of action, but many of them can also apply to discerning the promptings and urges that the faithful often sense in their walk with God, and which cause them to wonder, is this of God or just me?

Disclaimers. – None of these principles should be read in an absolute sense. They all admit of limits and distinctions. They are merely principles that guide further reflection. In a brief blog, not everything can be said about them, and you may wish to use the comments to elaborate some of your own thoughts and distinctions. Secondly, while not every principle applies to every situation, as a general rule, these principles ought to be used together and in tandem. It would be wrong merely to use one principle, and think discernment is complete. Generally these are all part of a process and their evidence should be considered collectively.

Principle 1 – State of life. There are many different states in life, some permanent, some long-lasting, some only temporary. We may be single, married, a priest, a religious, young, old, healthy, or fragile in health. We may be a student, a parent, rich or poor. Being clear about our state in life can help us discern if a call is from God or not.

For example, a young woman may sense a call to spend extended hours before the Blessed Sacrament. Of itself this is surely a good and fine thing. But what if she is the mother of four young children? Would God ask this of her? Probably not. Perhaps one hour will be more in keeping with her state in life. On the other hand a single woman, may be free to do this, and it may even be a part of her learning of her vocation to the religious life. Other things being equal it is more likely we can be open to this call being of God in her case.

State in life helps to do a lot of sorting out. A priest is not going to hear from God to leave the priesthood and marry the pretty woman in the front pew. An elderly and feeble man is not going to hear a call to go to walk the Camino in Spain, etc. We can be pretty clear that such notions are not of God. Yet other calls that seem to be in keeping with one’s state in life are something to remain open to, and apply other principles that follow.

Principle 2  – Gifts and talents – It is a clear fact that people have different combinations of virtues and talents, gifts and skills. In discerning the will of God, regarding a course of action, or of accepting an offer or opportunity, we ought to carefully ponder if it will make good sense based on our skills and talents.

God has surely equipped us for some things and not others. I am a reasonably good teacher of adults, I am not a good teacher of young children. Thus, in being offered opportunities to teach or preach, I am much more open to the possibility that God wants it, if it is for adults. If I am asked to address young children for more than 5 minutes, I am quite clear God is not asking.

Hence we do well to ask at this stage of discernment to ask, “Is what I am being asked to do, or what I want to do, a good match to the gifts and talents God has given me? Does it make sense based on what I am equipped to do?” And while it is a true fact that God does sometimes want us to try new things, and discover new abilities, it more usually the case that God will ask of us things that are at least somewhat in the range of the possible, based on our gifts.

Age is something of a factor here too. Young people are often still in a process of discovery as to their gifts and talents, and should try more new and challenging things. Older adults are more likely to discern God’s will a little closer to their current skill set.

Principle 3 – Desire – Desire as a principle of discernment surprises some people. We are often suspicious of our desires, and not without reason. When it comes to most things regarding the Moral Law and Doctrine, our feelings and desires are largely irrelevant, and should not be determinative of understanding God’s will. For example that we should not commit adultery remains the clear will of God, no matter how we feel about. That Jesus is God is true, no matter our feelings.

But when it comes to discerning between various courses of action that are both good (e.g. marriage and priesthood), feelings and desires do matter and may help indicate the will of God for us. For when God wants us to move in a direction of something good, he most often inspires some level of desire for it. He leads us to appreciate that it is good, attractive and desirable.

Learning to listen to our heart therefore is an important way of discernment. There may, for example, be a good thing proposed for us to do, yet we feel no joy or desire to do it. Such feelings should not be wholly dismissed as mere selfishness or laziness. It is possible that our lack of desire is a sign of a “no” from God. On the other hand, we may experience a joy and zeal to do, even things that are challenging, and these desires too may help us to discern that God has prepared and wills for us to do that very thing. Hence desire is an important indicator, among others, in deciding between courses of action that are both, or all, good.  Ultimately God’s will for us gives joy.

Principle 4 – Organic development – This principle simply articulates that God most often moves us in stages rather than in sudden and dramatic ways. While it is true, in most lives, there are times of dramatic change, loss, and gain, it is more usual for God to lead us gently and in stages toward what he wills for us.

Hence, in discernment, it is valuable to ask, “Does this change…, does this course of action, seem to build on what God has generally been doing in my life? Is there some continuity at work if I move in this direction? Does moving into the future in this particular way make sense based on how and where God has led me thus far?”

It is generally a good idea to exercise great caution about “biggie-wow” projects and “out of the blue” rapid changes. It is better to ask, “What is the next best step in my life?”

While it sometimes happens that “life comes at you fast,” God more often works with slow, steady, incremental growth, and asks us to be open to changes that make sense for us as the “next best step.”  Discernment will respect this as a general principle, though not an absolute law.

Principle 5 – Serenity – When God leads us, the usual result is serenity (peace) and joy. In my own priestly life I have at times,  been asked to move from one assignment to another. At such moments there is great sadness, since I had to say goodbye to people I greatly love. And yet, when it is God’s will that the time has come for moving on, in spite of the sadness, I also feel an inner peace, a serenity.

Serenity should not be underestimated as a tool for discernment. For it often happens that to ponder change is stressful, even fearful. But beneath the turmoil of difficult decisions, we must listen carefully for a deeper serenity that signals God’s will.

If serenity is wholly lacking, if there are no consolations, but only desolation, we should carefully consider the possibility that the proposed course of action is not God’s will. To be sure, in the stress that decisions often bring, being able to sense serenity is more difficult, and hence we ought not quickly conclude it is lacking.

Sometimes we must wait a while to sense serenity’s still, small voice. And when it is present we have an important indicator that this is God’s will.

Principle 6 – Conformity to Scripture and Tradition. – Some may think that this principle should be at the top of the list, and you are free to put it there. But I prefer to say that the Word of God and the teachings of the Church has the last word in any decision.

For it may well be that one goes through principles like these and feels quite certain of a course of action or of an insight. But the final and most important step is to be sure that our insight or conclusion squares with the Lord’s stated revelation in Scripture and Church Teaching.

If a person were to strangely think God was telling her of a fourth person in the Godhead, and that she should build an altar, and spread devotion to this fourth person, we will rightly and surely conclude she is dead wrong.

God’s Revelation trumps every discernment in the end. Were a wayward priest to think God had summoned him to found a new Church featuring more ‘up-to-date’ teachings, it does not matter that he thinks it comports with his state in life, matches his skills, is an organic development for him, and gives him serenity. Sorry Father,  you’re overruled. God is saying no such thing.

On the other hand, it may be one hears a call from God to be more faithful in prayer, and more generous to the poor and has gone through the discernments above. And, while Scripture and Church teaching may have little to say on the exact way of prayer, or the precise amount of money, surely, as a general principle, such notions are in keeping with God’s revelation and would not be overruled by it.  One can confidently proceed to discern how, and when to pray, or what amount and to whom alms should best be directed.

Just a few principles for discernment. Remember the disclaimers above. They are to be considered together and held in balance. They are also not understood in an absolute sense, (except perhaps the last one) and may admit of exceptions and distinctions. Take what you like and leave the rest. Add to them if you like. Comments are open.

Here is a sermon excerpt in which I developed the last principle in a context wider than this article. For the context of the sermon was not discerning between various good options, but rather the discernment that distinguishes God from the idols and errors of this world.

23 Replies to “Six Principles of Discernment”

  1. The natural outcome of discernment is surrender and obedience. God has to work through you and not the other way around.

    In the conversations I have with good Protestant Christians, they inevitably admonish me about works…because they honestly believe that we have a works based salvation. That’s really what they have been taught. Inevitably, they try to correct me through scripture that deals with salvation through Faith. When they tell me that their works are done through Faith, I ask them “You’re doing works out of Faith ?” And they say “Yes”.

    I end up reminding them that we don’t really exist individually any more post Baptism because we died in Christ and rose in Christ and He should be in control of our lives. We shouldn’t be doing anything but cooperating and allowing Him to work through us.

    If only I would quit rearing my ugly head and cooperate fully with Christ and let His will be done on earth, in my life, as it is in heaven…I guess that’s what taking up my cross daily and following Him really means.

  2. It seemed like several of the categories come under the virtue of prudence, which makes sense. Prudence is the natural way that God communicates to us good decisions. God gave us the use of the reason and expects us to use it when making decisions! It’s reasonable to think that when an action is imprudent it probably doesn’t come from God. Of course, we are called to a super natural end to which it is beyond the power of prudence alone to direct us. We are often called to go beyond want seems naturally prudent: to fast, to give alms, to accept the Cross and false accusations, and to love our enemies. Hence, we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit which help conform us to God’s will by inspiring not to act according to our own prudence, but according to God’s prudence. The gift of counsel is especially important to pray for because it enlightens our minds in practical matters with God’s counsel, His advice.

  3. State in life: it would be helpful to have a list of states of life with the options which are open for a transfer to another state in life. For example (correct?):

    Layman –> priest
    Layman –> deacon
    Married layman –> deacon
    Single layperson –> religious brother, sister, monk, nun
    Single deacon –> priest
    Religious man –> deacon or priest
    Woman –> consecrated virgin
    Widow/Widower –> avowed celebate

    and so on…

    What else should we consider? For example, changing from being a medical doctor to an elementary school teacher or from a college professor to a DRE, and so on? How does current career status figure into discernment?

    1. I like your list. It helps to lay out possibilities as clearly as possible. One thing you appear to have overlooked is single layperson –> married layperson. There is a shortage of vocations to marriage in the Church, also.

      1. Indeed. I’m married, so I sort of rambled out a list of OTHER vocations. Thanks. 🙂

  4. Excellent post, Msgr. Especially point 3 about desire because I suppose it is real easy for a Christian to fall into a trap of, I want something for myself, therefore its a sleazy motive, so I need to stop wanting it.

    One thing I would add (I don’t know where it fits) is to submit your discernment to a spirtual advisor. After St. Paul’s revelation at Damascus, he didn’t just skip off and start preaching like some self-appointed fundamentalist; he went (as ordered) in search of the Church. I suppose this is a roundabout way of saying to those discerning a call to Holy Orders is to burn it in your brain that such a call is dual: Interior and exterior. Interior is essential and the beginning, but exterior (that is, Church approval) is the final word. I only say this after years of discussions with sour people who claim a call to priesthood but are married, women, or even male and unmarried but utterly unsuited to priesthood.

  5. Thanks, Msgr. Pope, this is helpful, especially the “organic development” point, though of course they all pertain to my current discernment. I’m serving at a Catholic charity in China right now, and I’ve been contemplating going on for a Ph.D for several years, and it seems this is next best step given all these points, so I’m planning to take steps in that direction. Please keep me in your prayers.

  6. I think Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s teachings on discernment, based on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s teaching, is helpful:

    Also, this audio series on discernment by Fr. Paul Hoesing, again based on St. Ignatius, is helpful:

    It’s labeled as discernment for men wondering if God is calling them to be priests, but the principles therein could be applied to any discernment context.

  7. Our parish priest addressed this topic on Pentecost. One of his points was directed at parents making decisions about what their children should be allowed to do or to have. On the way home, my husband C, daughter c, and I discussed the homily.

    Me: It’s good to know that when we tell c “no” that we can say the Holy Spirit said so.
    c: That is NOT what Fr D said
    C: Is TOO. He talked about parents not letting their kids do stuff.
    c: That was just for SOME things
    Me: Those were just EXAMPLES. You can pray for guidance on ANYTHING and that means about stuff you ask us for.
    C: If I keep walking past Game Stop it’s really the Holy Spirit
    c: It is NOT and you CAN’T use the Holy Spirit as an EXCUSE
    Me: Can TOO
    c: *wail*

  8. Thank you for this valuable blog post, Msgr! As someone who is is the midst of serious discernment, I can’t begin to express how much this helped me. Unfortunately, I still have a long way to go! Your prayers would be greatly appreciated.

  9. i thank God for using your teaching to amend chattered life and give hope to those confuse in life may God bless yo amen

  10. What I have trouble discerning is when to act on a difficult situation vs when to accept and endure a difficult situation. I tend often to wait and endure as that is more conforming to my nature, but many times I do wonder if God is simply waiting for me to act but I am too scared to do it.

  11. Another possibility that I see is whether the task is of a long term commitment or a one time contribution. For instance when you say that you don’t teach children well, so you shouldn’t be a teacher of children, I would tend to agree as far as a long term commitment goes but, there are ways that virtually anyone can contribute a lesson to fit in as a benefit in the children’s overall education.
    The first thing to ask would be whether it was in harmony with the valuable learning process which is given by committed teachers; as opposed to being a distraction or a source of confusion.
    One way is to tell one’s story without egotism or glorification of exciting (but negative) life phases. It’s regularly advised to mention briefly how difficult it was in a struggle to overcome problems so as not to mislead the students into thinking that there’s an “easy way out” which could set them up for discouragement. Also to conclude with evidence of how improvements were of so much benefit that the struggle was worth doing.
    It seems that many schools are becoming more receptive to speakers from such backgrounds as Alcoholics Anonymous, ex-convicts who found salvation and others who have found a way to live in the solution with true serenity.
    I imagine, as another possible instance, that many priests could tell how their religious education transformed them gradually and how fulfilling a response to their calling has become. There may be only a few in the audience who need such a message but, what does it matter if they are one of several or one of a thousand?

  12. Really loved the post and especially the video. We need all priests to get up in the pulpit and say this kind of thing. The money line for me was, “none of them died for you.”

  13. Thank you for this list. Ever since we were received into the Church, we find that we can’t live the way we used to, but the realization is always incremental. Every time I think we’ve made some progress in some area of our lives, there is something else I realize that needs attention. Every time we want to make a change, God is right there to help us along, opening doors. There is a great sense of peace in our lives, even though there’s also been a lot of upheaval. He has given us dramatic signs and graces (healing, opening doors I would’ve never have imagined) but I see His loving Hand in our daily lives. No matter what I ask for, in the end I end up asking to help me obey and do His will.

    A most blessed Feast of Corpus Christi to you, Father. We returned home a couple of hours ago from a Solemn High Mass and truly I felt as though I got a taste of heaven.

  14. thank you for this. this will truly help me a lot in my discernment at the moment. God bless.

  15. Excellent piece. I have three words that over the years I feel are important to living a productive life. Discernment is the first of the three. That is how I found your website. I Googled the words Discernment Key to Life. You did a wonderful job and I especially liked the part where you mentioned peoples different skill sets. Its important to stay grounded and you did a good job. I also like the little addition at the end stating for grace for young people as they try things to see what they like.

    The only part I didn’t like was the very end where you start giving Fail examples. If a person wants to build an alter and starts saying these things they are wrong. It’s a judgment and cheapens your whole essay imo. At the end you want to finish strong not end with judgement examples.

    For the record, I get it. But to say another’s life choice is wrong makes the assumption you know the design of it all. It leaves you no room for ” wow, I never imagined that…”. That’s your problem, you lack imagination. You cant imagine a scenario where that person building an alter and spouting nonsense could possibly work out for their favor, in God’s favor or in yours. Who knows, maybe that person is going to learn something valuable from their failure. I say if they are not affecting you or blocking your path then the correct response is The Dude Abides. This is my belief which happens to be the second of my key life words. I cant tell you the third. I’ve already said too much.

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