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Six Principles of Discernment

January 30, 2018

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.

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Comments (10)

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  1. Sirachhero says:

    Msgr. Pope. The most difficult, and at the same time the easiest, discernment for myself was fifteen years ago which was fifteen years after I heard God calling me back to my Catholic faith while in jail.
    Fifteen years ago I was among 500 people gathered to hear a three part talk on Evangelizing. The speaker is an Evangelist who has walked from the most southern part of Chile to far north into canada. Part one was knowing our own faith, has God given us the knowledge to defend our faith. Part two was had God given us wisdom to understand his word. Part three was had God given us the courage to die for our faith.
    We were all asked to discern these things, to discern the last part with much care and if the answer to part three was yes to contact him as God may be calling us to be Evangelists.
    I followed a similar list, as you have given today, yet my heart was not in it as I could not feel any peace with the dying for my faith.
    After two weeks of prayer, and most importantly talking with my Spiritual leader, I knew God was calling me to be an Evangelist and my bride concurred.
    I had a wife and two children to care for and was doing great as an electronics technician.
    I spent one day discerning my career as an electronics technician and had no peace, courage and too much stress. When i told my family of my decision Many thought I had lost it, but my parents said they knew someday I would truly listen to God and spread the word.
    If one truly gives a little effort in discerning they will find God will guide them in life, using them and their gifts for his good.
    My wife and I have never been more happy, peaceful and in love with Jesus Christ. We make half of the poverty level in the U.S. yet have never been in need and we have no stress. The times we are ridiculed and persecuted are some of the most joyful, it is hard to explain the peace that comes over you knowing all will be well.
    Keep spreading the good news as you are a beacon of our Lord Jesus Christs’ love

    Sirachhero.

  2. Frank says:

    Since discerning the will of God in one’s life is almost impossible, i.e., is it really my own will or God’s, Our Lord gives us a way out of the messes we make of our lives. He works everything unto the good of those who believe. That is our only hope for the often wrong, blind decisions and choices we make.

    • Terri says:

      “Since discerning the will of God in one’s life is almost impossible…” ???

      Our Blessed Mother, Mary, discerned the will of God and followed it with her whole heart. Placing absolute trust in God, her “fiat” became the gift of Jesus’ humanity, which He eventually offered for us on the Cross. Indeed, it was the fruit of Mary’s discernment that gives us the HOPE you mention (from Romans 8:28).

      Sacred Scripture itself is the fruit of discernment. Were these authors simply making the “wrong, blind decisions and choices” that you mention? Of course, you know they were not.

      Sadly, your argument is built on sand; waiting to crumble with the first drop of rain.

      I do hope that you will never give up efforts to discern God’s will in your life and pray that you will always have the courage to follow where He leads.

      Will we mess up sometimes? Absolutely. Can and will God draw straight with those crooked lines? Yes, He can… and He will if we let Him. Still, He gave us our intellect and free will for a reason. He expects us to use them and use them well.

      • Frank says:

        The Blessed Mother was an exception because she was without sin. We fallen humans are sometimes led more by self delusion, i.e., thinking we are following the will of God but are actually asking God to follow our own will. I still contend it is almost impossible to know we are doing the Will of God in our lives, with the sole exception of our following the Ten Commandments. Why do you think we pray, “thy will be done” every time we pray the Our Father.

      • Elena says:

        You make some good points but there is a naivete in your argument. Case in point, a friend celebrated her marriage of 30 years by divorcing her husband, leaving the Catholic Church and remarrying outside the church without the benefit of an annulment. She endlessly drones on and on about how happy she is and how God has blessed her. She thanks God everyday for her new wonderful married life and her entrance into the Lutheran Church. Self-delusion?

  3. Marguerite says:

    Discernment is a very difficult area of one’s life to fathom. Unfortunately, even serenity cannot ultimately be a deciding factor in the choices we make. The devil can deceive us with peace until we make the decision, and then our eyes open to the wrong choices we make in life, i.e., places to live, jobs, marriage, etc. and we are left with terrible misery and regret.

    • Terri says:

      You are right. Discernment can be very difficult. I wonder if you’ve ever considered… Could it be that, upon making the decision that brought so much peace, God may now be asking (in a sense), “How much do you want this?” Could He be testing you; asking if you are willing to fight for this.

      I bring this up only because I still find myself experiencing this from time to time in a particular area of my own life… My vocation as married woman. You see, when I was considering marriage, I had not yet come home to the Church. While my fiancé was deployed overseas with the military, I experienced a profound conversion, but I still did not know how to “discern.” So… I did all I knew how to do at the time. I asked God in simple prayer… “Lord, do you want me to marry…? Let Your will be done and not my own.”

      I can’t explain what happened over the next eight months leading up to our wedding day, other than to say that a peace descended upon me and I found myself beginning to fall in love with my fiancé again. My decision was confirmed when my (non-Catholic) husband not only did NOT leave me (after learning of my reconversion and newfound virtues), but agreed to marry me IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH (an act I would later learn took him far beyond his comfort zone). We will be married for 14 years this Fall and, while he is not yet Catholic, he has kept ME Catholic. God has brought us across an unexpected and tumultuous sea of trials, not the least of which has been the Cross of infertility and a difficult, 3+ year battle to adopt our son. We will be married 14 years this Fall and, I must tell you that when a moment of temptation toward misery or regret rears its ugly head (and it still does from time to time), I remember the vow I took on our wedding day and have the sense that God is asking me again, “How much do you want this? Will you fight for your marriage??” My answer (by God’s grace) is, “Yes!”

      I pray that you will experience a time of respite and consolation in His Sacred Heart, so that you can be prepared the next time those moments threaten to renew your own, “Yes!” God bless!

  4. Frank says:

    Thank you for your kind words and your story. God has blessed you in your marriage and led you to adopt a child who needed a home. He brought good out of a heavy cross in your life–infertility. It’s said that God works in mysterious ways. He is doing that in your life and will continue to bless you in many ways. It’s a truism that the faith of converts exceeds those of us who were “cradle” Catholics. You are an inspiration and your faith and trust in the Lord will reap many benefits.

  5. Bernice says:

    My journey began with the Trinity in 1967. I wanted to know God. It has led me to desiring to write a book on my experiences. I’m 87 and write like I talk. I’ve been sharing my writings with 3 or 4 priests. One priest gave me a lot of positive feedback but not quite enough to pursue the writing of a book. I have a deep devotion to the Bl. Mother. The incites I receive are so real and I write a lot of letters to the Editor, and have received a lot of good compliments. I don’t want to make money on the book, I just want others to see what I think has been revealed to me. I would like to find someone who would be willing to listen and guide. me.

  6. Mimi says:

    I am inspired and touched by your life journey. The decision to marry is already a tough choice and is even harder to say “YES” to non-catholic. Indeed, we must trust Him with our entire being.