As a priest and pastor I am often called to spend time with people as they discern the voice and the will of God in their life. I have about twenty lay people for whom I provide spiritual direction. In addition, I am sometimes approached by people who are facing a critical time in their life (e.g., a family crisis, an important career decision, discerning a vocation) and would like careful guidance as they discern the best course of action or the best decision.
Thank God that many of the faithful are actually trying to learn what He would have them do. Too many people run off and make big decisions about things such as marriage or a major career move 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? Is there at least a structure to follow to be reasonably certain of the right course of action? Are there any ways to learn how to recognize the voice of God and distinguish it from our own voice, the voices of others, or even the voice of the devil? There are, of course.
While many great spiritual masters have written far more eloquently than I about 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 journey. The list of principles I offer here is by no means complete, but I have compiled it based on my study and experience as a parish priest dealing with ordinary members of the lay faithful. For a far richer treatment of the topic of discernment I recommend Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment.
Let’s begin with a definition of the word discernment. Many people use discernment as a synonym for “deciding,” but it is a richer and deeper concept that, while related and antecedent to it, is distinct from it. The goal of discernment is to see beyond the external manifestations of something and to probe its deeper significance.
The word discern comes from the Latin dis (“off, or away”) + cernere (“to distinguish, separate, sift, set apart, or divide. Thus, to discern is to sort out what is of God and what is of the flesh, the world, or even the devil. Discernment is something that ought to precede a decision and aid in making it.
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 others are admixed with things not of God, things which must be sifted or separated out.
And so we come to some basic norms or principles that I humbly offer, not as a spiritual master but as a simple parish priest. These principles are most often applicable when discerning a course of action, but many can also be applied in determining whether the promptings and urges we sense in our walk with God are truly from Him or just from us.
1. State in life – There are many different states in life, some temporary, some long-lasting, and some permanent. We may be single, married, a priest, or a religious. We may be young or old, healthy or frail. We may be a student, a parent, a worker, a boss. We may be 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 woman might sense a call to spend extended hours before the Blessed Sacrament. Of itself this is surely a fine thing, but what if she is the mother of four young children? Would God ask this of her? Probably not. Perhaps one hour would be more in keeping with her state in life. On the other hand, a single woman might be free to do this; it might even be part of her understanding her vocation to the religious life. Other things being equal, it is more likely that this call is of God in the latter case.
State in life helps to do a lot of sorting out. A priest is not going to hear from God that he should leave the priesthood and marry the woman in the front pew. A feeble, elderly man is not going to hear a call from God to walk the 500 mile El Camino de Santiago in Spain. We can be fairly certain that such notions are not of God. Calls that seem to be in keeping with one’s state in life are something to remain open to.
2. Gifts and talents – People have different combinations of virtues, talents, gifts, and skills. In discerning the will of God regarding a course of action or accepting an offer/opportunity, we ought to carefully ponder whether it makes good sense based on our skills and talents.
God has equipped each of us better for some things than for others. I am a reasonably good teacher of adults, but I am not at all good with young children. Thus, when offered opportunities to teach or preach, I am much more open to the possibility that it is God’s will if it involves presenting to adults. If I am asked to address young children for more than a few minutes, I am quite certain that God is not asking.
In this stage of discernment, we should ask, “Is what I am being asked to do, am considering doing, or want to do, a good match for the gifts and talents God has given me? Does it make sense based on what I am equipped to do?” God does sometimes want us to try new things and discover new abilities, but it is more typical that He will ask of us things that are at least somewhat in the range of the possible based on our individual gifts.
Age can be a factor as well. Young people are often still in the process of discovering their gifts and talents and should be more open to trying new and challenging things. Older adults are more likely to discern God’s will a little closer to their current, well-known skill set.
3. Desire – That desire can be a principle of discernment is a surprise to some people. We are often suspicious of our desires—and not without reason. When it comes to most things in the realm of moral law and doctrine, our desires and feelings are largely irrelevant and should not be used to discern God’s will. For example, that we should not commit adultery remains the clear will of God no matter how much we might desire it. That Jesus is God is true no matter how we feel.
But when it comes to deciding among various courses of action that are each good (e.g., marriage and the priesthood), feelings and desires do matter and may help to indicate God’s will. When God wants us to move in a particular direction, He often inspires in us some level of desire for it. He leads us to appreciate that what He wants for us is good, attractive, and desirable.
Therefore, learning to listen to our heart is an important method of discernment. For example, a good activity might be proposed for us to do but we feel no joy or desire to do it. Such feelings should not necessarily be dismissed as mere selfishness or laziness. It is possible that our lack of desire is a sign that it is not God’s will. On the other hand, we might experience a joy and zeal to do even things that are challenging; such desires can help us to discern that God has prepared us and wills for us to do that very thing. Hence desire is an important indicator in deciding between courses of action that are good. Ultimately God’s will for us gives joy.
4. Organic development – This principle simply articulates that God most often moves us in stages rather than in sudden, dramatic ways. Although there are times of dramatic change, loss, and gain in the life of most people, it is more typical for God to lead us gently and in stages toward what He wills for us.
In discernment it is valuable to ask, “Does this 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 progressing 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 caution about “biggie-wow” projects and “out-of-the-blue” rapid changes. It is better to ask, “What is the best “next step” in my life?”
While sometimes “life comes at you fast,” God more often works through slow, steady, incremental growth, and asks us to be open to changes that make sense for us as the best “next step.”
5. Serenity – When God leads us, the usual result is serenity and joy. In my own priestly life, I have at times been asked to move from one assignment to another. At such times there was great sadness, because I had to say goodbye to people I greatly loved. Yet when it was God’s will that the time had come for moving on, in spite of my sadness I also felt a deep inner peace, a serenity.
Serenity should not be underestimated as a tool for discernment, because pondering change is stressful, even frightening. Beneath the turmoil of weighing 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. Amid the stress that often surrounds making important decisions, being able to sense serenity is more difficult; hence, we ought not to jump to the conclusion that serenity is lacking. Sometimes we must wait a while to sense serenity’s still, small voice. When it is present we have an important indicator that this is God’s will.
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 have the last word in any decision.
One may go through the first five principles and feel quite certain of a particular course of action, 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 think that God was telling him of a fourth person in the Godhead and that he should build an altar and spread devotion to this fourth person, we would rightly conclude that she was dead wrong.
God’s revelation trumps every other principle of discernment. Were a wayward priest to think that God had summoned him to found a new Church featuring more “up-to-date” teachings, it would not matter that he thought he desired it, it comported with his state in life, it matched his skills, it was an organic development for him, and it gave him serenity. Sorry, Father; you’re overruled. God is saying no such thing.
On the other hand, one might hear a call from God to be more faithful in prayer or more generous to the poor, and in response go through the five principles of discernment above before arriving at this last one. While Scripture and Church Teaching may have little to say on the method of prayer or the amount of money to be given, surely such notions are in keeping with God’s revelation and would not be overruled by it. One could confidently proceed to discerning when/how to pray or how much to give and to whom alms should best be directed.
Disclaimer – These principles should not be read as absolutes (except perhaps for the last one). They admit of limits and distinctions. They are merely principles to guide further reflection. In a brief post such as this, not everything can be fully said. You may wish to use the comment section to add some of your own thoughts and distinctions. Second, while not every principle applies to every situation, as a general rule these principles ought to be used together. It would be wrong to apply just one principle and think discernment complete. In general, they are all part of a process and their evidence should be considered collectively.