I was in Adoration on retreat at age 16, tears running down my face while I asked Jesus if I should be a nun. “Just tell me,” I begged, with fear in my heart. “I just need to know!”
Thankfully, the good Lord knew I did not need to know that information at age 16. What I needed to know was not my future state in life, but how to know Him better in the present.
5 Common Mistakes in Discernment
It’s easy to get confused about discernment. If you’re anything like me, you may have spent time in youth groups, on retreats, or in bible studies only hearing about “discernment” in relation to religious life. In other words, “Are you discerning your vocation?” was often insinuating, “Are you thinking about becoming a sister?”
Later on, in college, the idea of discernment also spread to dating. “Are you discerning marriage together?” friends would ask.
No one talked to me about discerning my life.
1. Limiting the scope of discernment
That’s the first common mistake in discernment: relegating it to one particular question and thinking you don’t need it after that. Religious sisters still discern. Married people still discern. Consecrated singles still discern.
Discernment isn’t something that stops once you enter a permanent state in life. Discernment isn’t just about your “vocation” in the formal sense. Discernment is about having an ongoing conversation with God about all the decisions of your life. This includes, of course, big questions like entering a convent or getting married—but it also includes questions of work, family, friendships, and things like how we spend our time and money.
2. Failing to dialogue with the living God
Notice the word “conversation.” Sometimes we make the mistake of treating discernment like it’s one big game of “guess what God is thinking.” We act like God is a magic-8 ball: ask your question, shake it around in prayer, and get an answer. Then, we act like we’re robots instead of humans with the gifts of intellect and free will. We just want God to tell us exactly what to do and we’ll do it without thinking.
But that’s not how God created us to work. He’s not a magic-8 ball and we’re not robots. In 1985, John Paul II spoke directly to young people about this question of discerning life, explaining that we are both called to take responsibility for our lives and to seek the guidance of God’s will.
A human being is a creature and at the same time an adopted child of God in Christ: he is a child of God. Hence during youth a person puts the question, "What must I do?" not only to himself and to other people from whom he can expect an answer, especially his parents and teachers, but he puts it also to God, as his Creator and Father. He puts it in the context of this particular interior sphere in which he has learned to be in a close relationship with God, above all in prayer. He therefore asks God: "What must I do?", what is your plan for my life? Your creative, fatherly plan? What is your will? I wish to do it.
In this context the "plan" takes on the meaning of a "life vocation", as something which is entrusted by God to an individual as a task. Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom, and at the same time is determined by various circumstances of an interior and exterior nature. Examining these circumstances, the young person, boy or girl, constructs his or her plan of life and at the same time recognizes this plan as the vocation to which God is calling him or her. // Dilecti Amici, 9
The whole of our life, and what we do with it, is both a gift and a task. It is both given by God to us and done by us. Discernment is an interactive, creative process. It’s not about guessing what God is thinking. It’s about entering into an ongoing dialogue with Him.
3. Forgetting to take action
This dialogue happens in prayer of course. Prayer is absolutely essential to discernment. But so is action. Too many of us make the mistake of letting a particular question remain hypothetical. We spend so much time with it in our heads that it’s real to us, but it isn’t actually something we can discern.
Discernment is always practical. You can’t just think and pray about going to medical school. You have to actually apply and see if you get accepted. You can’t just think and pray about marrying that guy you saw at daily Mass. You need to actually get to know him.
4. Not considering ourselves
And that’s another big mistake: we try to discern without taking stock of what we know about ourselves, practically: our circumstances, our gifts and talents, our particular tendencies. We try to discern generically what is best, instead of what is best for us right now. This is what John Paul II was talking about when he explained that our lives are influenced by “circumstances of an interior and exterior nature.”
The Saints' lives are full of stories like this. Saint Gianna really wanted to be a missionary in Brazil. Being a missionary is great, right? Better than being a doctor in your hometown... or at least that’s how she felt. But a wise priest reminded her that she didn’t do well in the heat. Her health wasn’t really suited to doing mission work. Instead, she struggled through medical school, became a doctor, got married, had children, and eventually became a Saint through giving up her life for her unborn child.
Her missionary desire has certainly been fulfilled in Heaven!
5. Misunderstanding desire
Desire is a tricky thing in discernment. 16-year-old me had a desire to love Jesus and some mixed-up ideas about how to do it. I was petrified that Jesus would ask me to be a nun specifically because I didn’t really want it. In other words, I just assumed that whatever I wanted, God wanted the opposite. I didn't think I could ever trust my own desire.
Certainly when we want something evil or sinful, God doesn’t want that for us! But when we want something good (like wanting to be married), we don’t have to automatically assume that it’s forbidden. God wants good for our lives and He wants us to flourish as his children. Discernment helps us sort out what’s going on with our desires for good things and surrender them to the Lord. In other words, we don’t have to make the common mistake of automatically rejecting our desire for any good thing; instead, we can discern those desires through conversation with God and practical action.
Keep the Conversation Open
Would sixteen-year-old me have been better off knowing that she would get married, but only when her age had doubled? Probably not, and God knew that. He used my desire to love Him to lead me on a long journey of conversation with Him. My desire to know my permanent state in life kept me close, and helped me develop the habit of dialogue with Him, so that when I finally did make vows, I would want to continue that conversation––about everything and anything in life.
Kerri Christopher (MA, STL) is a writer, speaker, and Life Consultant. After spending years researching and teaching on topics like the feminine genius and work-life balance for women, she realized she wanted to serve women practically. Now she offers consulting to help people learn to discern well so they can live with purpose and peace. You can find out more about her here.