The word “discernment” is like the word “vocation.” We hear it and immediately think of the priesthood or religious life. We think discernment is something specific and set apart. We do this even though we know that God is calling all of us. Yes, we are all called to a life of holiness, and some of us live that out by taking specific vows. But discernment is not only about hearing God’s call in the “big picture” decisions of lives. It is a much broader practice of becoming attuned to God’s call as it manifests in our everyday lives.
The word discernment itself means to “sift.” It’s a process of sifting through moments, interactions, and emotions like thousands of tiny grains of sand, looking for the flecks of gold that clue us in to God’s will for us.
Emotions and Discernment
It’s easy to recognize God’s call in our rightly-ordered feelings of passion, excitement, joy, and fulfillment. It’s like what everyone says about falling in love—you just know.
More difficult and less enjoyable is learning to pay attention to our negative emotions. When these arise—and they arise in us all—we would rather set them aside or bury them. The last thing we want to do with our negative emotions is sit in the midst of them. This is why silence is so challenging for many of us.
Using Negative Feelings in Discernment
It can be a temptation to repress negative feelings, to chastise ourselves for even having them. Yet, if we choose to pay attention when these feelings strike, we may find that they are a great source of wisdom to us. They can teach us much about ourselves: our needs, our desires, our longings. As St. Augustine prayed, “Oh Lord, let me know myself; let me know you.”
Here are five examples of ways to discern God’s whisper through our negative emotions.
Envy is a valuable tool because it speaks to us about our desires for ourselves. When we feel sadness at the good fortune of a friend, it is because we desire something of that for ourselves. Rather than fostering feelings of resentment towards those whom we envy, we should look inward and ask ourselves what it is that that we wish we had.
To become attuned to our deepest desires is to become aware of the passions that God has placed within our hearts. Our talents and passions are gifts that God has given to us to live out the call for which he made us. The more we can embrace the way the Creator has made us, the more we can embody the vision of vocation articulated by St. Catherine of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
Strong feelings are good indicators that there is something important hiding underneath. When we experience particularly intense feelings of aversion, such as being “turned off” by certain types of people, these feelings often tell us more about ourselves than those whom we are tempted to avoid.
When we experience a very strong emotion, we ought not simply react. Rather, it is a sign to pay attention! Instead of avoiding a person or situation that stirs up these feelings within us, we should ask ourselves why we feel this way. What provokes us to such strong emotions? When we close our ears uncritically or prematurely, we might miss a message God wants to speak to our hearts. If something provokes feelings this strong, it is likely a message that we deeply need to hear.
When we compare ourselves to others, especially those whom we admire, we feel small. What do I have to offer the world compared to what they have already given? This is not the voice of the Lord. If we are faithfully following His call for us, then it is not up to us to judge the merits of our work. We cannot even know its impact or the plans He has for us.
As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “God does not call us to be successful, but faithful.” He asks for our five loaves and two fish. We are called to offer them, not to multiply them. If God is calling us to use our gifts, who are we to decide whether our impact is worthwhile?
Feelings of overwhelm and anxiety are necessary reminders of our limitations. In the face of the many tasks that require our attention, these feelings prompt us to attend to our own neglected needs. These are needs we might otherwise choose to overlook. We must care for ourselves because we cannot serve from an empty vessel.
In these moments, it helps to pause our work and simply choose joy. Have a cup of tea on the porch. Tickle your kids. Read your favorite blog or take a walk and listen to a podcast. Have a dance party. When we return to our work, the to-do list will be just as long, but we will not be the same. We will be refreshed and ready to tackle our important work with renewed energy and focus.
The need to belong is among our deepest human needs. There is a great deal of vulnerability when we encounter a new community, whether it be after a move, changing parishes or jobs, or joining a ministry. Uncertainty, loneliness, fear that we will not be accepted can all be barriers to offering ourselves in relationship.
Rather than focusing on the ways we feel unwelcome or withdrawing entirely, we can ask ourselves, “What do I have to give to this community?”
When we shift our focus off of our own insecurities and onto filling the needs of others, we can encounter them with joy. The practice of hospitality itself makes us feel at home.
Bringing (and Feeling) It All with Him
God is present always, nearer to us than we are to ourselves. If we sit with the darkest parts of ourselves, our eyes will adjust, and we will begin to recognize that God sits there with us. When we invite God into the midst of our negative emotions, we can learn to see ourselves as He does, in the light of His mercy. If we do, we can grow in patience with ourselves, with our own humanity.
Negative emotions are a part of the human experience. Even Jesus felt sadness and anger. Following in His footsteps does not mean stamping out these parts of ourselves, but faithfully sifting through them, holding on to what is of God, and letting the rest fall through our fingers.Using Negative Feelings in Discernment #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Samantha Stephenson spends her days loving her husband, chasing after her children, and trying to find God in everything from diapers to dishes. A voracious consumer of books, blogs, and coffee, she holds degrees in theology and bioethics. You can find out more about her here.