What is Discernment and How is it Done?
By Theresa Blythe
One of the questions most frequently asked of pastors, spiritual directors or pastoral counselors is “How do I know what God is asking of me in any given situation?” It’s the question at the heart of Christian spiritual discernment. The bad news is that we can never be completely sure—even when we think we are. God is Divine Mystery and we must not ever think we have Divine Mystery “by the tail.” The good news is that this question has been asked by Christians for centuries and some of our ancestors in the faith have left for us some excellent guidelines and helps for discerning God’s will in any given situation.
Christian spiritual discernment is listening to the Holy Spirit’s movement in our thoughts, emotions and bodily reactions and then using that information to weigh and sift possibilities as we make choices in alignment with the Spirit. That’s my definition.
True discernment is always done in hindsight. We pray, listen, evaluate, sift through possibilities and then we act---only finding the “fruit of the Spirit” later. Discernment is not finished when we make a decision. We only determine our best assessment of God’s will after we seek confirmation of that decision, asking ourselves and God, “was that, in fact, where You were leading?” If you are seeking absolute certainty about a decision by working through a discernment process you are likely to be disappointed. But if you are longing to be in deeper relationship with God by working with God, on a “trial-and-error” basis, to make faithful choices, then you are likely to find Christian spiritual discernment meaningful
There are different processes one can use for discernment, although using a process is not what makes this effort discernment. Here is one list of tips I sometimes use helping people discern their life’s work (sometimes referred to as vocational discernment):
- Pray daily for the path to be revealed. Cultivate a desire to know what God wants for your life. Ask God to help you be open to however God leads you. Use the prayer practice of the Daily Examen to learn, over time, how God moves in your life. This two-part prayer involves noticing daily where you feel deeply connected to God and where you feel disconnected. Keep a journal of these moments so you can detect patterns.
- Sit in prayer with the question “What do you desire for me, God?” Sit in silence for at least part of your prayer, waiting for a word, phrase or image to form. You may also spend time exploring your own desire, since God works in and through desires planted in our hearts.
- Listen to your intuition. Imagine your thoughts descending to your heart. Become very still and listen to your breath for a few moments. What is your gut feeling about how God is leading you? How does your body feel? Do any images come to mind? Allow your intuition to have a say.
- Speak to a trusted person about your discernment. Many people go to spiritual directors when they are deeply in discernment around a call. You may have a wise friend that you trust. Or a mentor. Ask them about the gifts they see in you.
- Convene a circle of people you trust to help. Quakers in discernment sometimes ask for a Clearness Committee—a circle of people who sit in silent prayer for a period of time and then ask honest, open-ended questions about the focus person’s discernment. They are not there to give advice, only to assist in listening to the Spirit.
- Try on your choices. One tool for vocational discernment is to take your options and imaginatively “try them on” for a short period of time. Spend one day imagining that you made one choice and then spend another day imagining you made another choice. Which day’s imagination exercise felt more like a fit for you?
- Take the leap. Sometimes we just don’t know what we are called to do or be in life until we live into it. All discernment requires that we finally make a choice. After living into our choice we can then do more discernment. Does it feel like we are on our true path? If not, don’t despair. Spend more time in prayer and continue the work of discernment. God is with us regardless of the path we choose.
Most of all, discernment is an adventure. Trust that God meets you where you are and will take you where you need to go on this adventure. I look forward to our class on discernment where we will explore this adventure together.
Teresa Blythe is a spiritual director, writer and spiritual formation educator. An ordained clergy in the United Church of Christ (UCC), Teresa serves as Director of the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction and is the founder of the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction in downtown Phoenix. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.