In Catholic circles, the word “discernment” is often thrown around. And with good reason. Making decisions prayerfully and intentionally is one of the best ways we can honor God by our actions. And it remains one of the trickiest processes to define.
What is discernment?
How do I know if I’m making a discerning choice?
Can I discern more than just my vocation? Must I?
How do I discern major decisions with someone else?
Discernment Begins with Trust
Too often, I find that people with the best of intentions go about the work of discerning as though their lives depend on it (and it can absolutely feel that way!).
However, I would encourage us to remember that it is the God of the universe with Whom we make decisions. To imagine that God can only work with the most agreeable and convenient of circumstances is to disregard the very nature of Whom God has consistently shown us to be throughout human history.
For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. // Jeremiah 29:11
Thank God the Spirit isn’t limited by our imperfect understanding or lack of cooperation!
How to Navigate Discernment as a Team
I will not claim to have any particular expertise on the matter of discernment. But I have worked with spiritual directors for years, been married for more than a decade, moved cross-country (twice), and have spent years working with young adults trying to decide what’s next.
I have learned over and again five consistent tools that make the process of discerning God’s will in my own life feel more tangible. Adding another person/group to the process certainly requires more conversation, but can look much the same. These are important questions and points to consider in discernment as a team.
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1. Identify what is at stake.
What is prompting the question at this time? This could mean anything, including: loss of income, desire to more faithfully follow God, dissatisfaction with current circumstances, invitation to something more exciting, and so on.
Next, identify the risks of following through (or not).
2. Take these risks to prayer.
Sometimes our desire not to change can pose as great a risk to our well-being as a giant leap of faith! Tell Jesus about your motivations, excitement, anxiety, and circumstances that have prompted you to come to this metaphorical crossroads. This can be done in a journal, in Adoration, or in your pajamas before bed.
The essential piece is naming the desires of your heart before the Lord and being attentive to the response you receive. Very often you will experience peace and consolation, or the awareness of desolation at which point you will understand that “no” or “not yet” is the response to the change proposed.
3. Mention your plans to those who know you best.
Obviously, if you are making a major life decision, you are going to include your significant other/fiancé/spouse/family. Beyond the basic details, mention your hopes, questions, and the deepest desires of your heart to your best friend, a parent, sibling, or spiritual director. Their response to our efforts can be especially enlightening. Are they delighted by your idea? Inspired and encouraging to proceed? Or are they confused, concerned, or discouraging of your venture?
At the end of the day, they alone do not get final say in the decision (although their role in your life will carry varying weight of opinion and influence). But their read on who and how we are in the world, not to mention their desire for our well-being, is generally spot on. We are wise to pay attention.
4. Sit with it both ways.
Allow yourself some time to sit with both outcomes. For a day or a week, allow yourself the idea of taking the job—how does that feel? For another day or a week, allow yourself the idea of not taking the job. How do you feel about that decision?
Ask yourself which scenario brings greater peace. In discernment as a team, invite the other into this practice.
5. Compare notes.
Lastly, come back to a place of honest conversation with one another. What are the gifts/challenges you foresee in either outcome? What consolation/desolation did you experience in prayer? What input did those closest to you have to offer?
Finally, consider what is being asked of you personally. Courage? Patience? Trust? Compromise? Self-control? Prudence? Self-care?
Whether at this point you know with certainty, or whether moving forward with a decision at this point feels like an act of faith, you can trust that you have prayerfully and intentionally weighed your options and are capable of making a decision.
“God draws straight with crooked lines,” is a phrase I re-visit often when I put mounting pressure on the outcome of a decision that I am ultimately putting in God’s hands. Trust in God’s goodness and regular practice of working “for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28).
Let’s close, then, with a prayer for times of discernment:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
// Thomas Merton
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