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.