What is discernment?
Discernment. The word can sound abstract, hinting at something unknown and mysterious.
I often hear people say things like, “I’m in a season of discernment” or “I’m discerning my next step, or the way forward in a situation or relationship.”
But what exactly does this mean?
Is discernment a fuzzy word that means hoping and praying for a “sign from God” that this the proposed next step is “right?”
As part of my spiritual direction formation, I learned language and practices that helped me understand discernment as spiritual path, practice, and process.
The coursework provided lenses through which to view and study the landscape of a situation and the nature of any decision that might be waiting to be made.
That shifted everything for me, and discernment became far more than a fuzzy term that sounded spiritual, it became a framework, an approach to everyday life, a way of living and being in the world, with tools to engage more actively when something is up or when deciding new directions.
This soulful approach has shaped my daily living and informed my decisions, it has helped ground me in my life with God and paved the way for finding life’s subtle adventures with regularity.
At the heart of discernment is one’s desire for God.
It humbles us and places heart, ideas, and intention in service of the Holy.
It requires contemplative habits woven through the fabric of our daily lives, habits that include prayer as petition, deep listening and reflection, awareness, and surrender.
The most basic questions are:
- Is this of God or not?
- Does this draw me closer to God or further away?
Here are some basic ideas of discernment as a habit or path for spiritual awakening:
Decisions and Discernment Process
A helpful rule for decisions is, “The bigger, the more impactful the decision is for you and others, the longer the discernment process should take.”
Discernment is communal.
I know some people who make major life decisions only in consultation with family, a spiritual director, and a group of long-time friends.
We need circles of support for the big decisions of our lives; people who can help us remember the golden threads that run through our lives and hold things together.
These threads are our most innate callings.
They resonate with our most essential way of being in the world.
Remembering and reweaving these callings can breathe new life into the dryness we experience.
When moving toward a decision, a discernment process actively includes sifting and sorting through details and data to clarify.
Data on a personal level may include feelings, bodily sensations, thoughts that arise or are shared with you, along with simple immediate ‘knowing in your gut.’
Other data comes from our relational contexts including important relationships, organizational life, as well as our connection to nature and the broader created order.
Consider how scripture speaks to this situation or question.
Take time to reflect on perceived potential outcomes if you take this step, and if you do not.
What people will be impacted?
How and in what way?
Will there be a monetary impact?
How might the organization or system respond to this action?
Can you live with these outcomes?
Then wait. Let the tentative decision rest with God.
To stay in the not-knowing is uncomfortable for most of us living in a fast-paced, immediate-results-oriented culture.
The discomfort we feel in waiting with “maybe yes, maybe no” is real.
It invites us to live in an in-between space, trusting the reality of the Mystery we call God.
This is a good practice as it prepares us for the unknown, unconsidered outcomes of our decision and to fully trust that all will be well.
Discern a first step as a test and take it.
Does it confirm the tentative decision or does it seem to say “Stop. Take another look?”
Continue the discernment process until you reach clarity and peace.
Discernment Practices for Daily Life
Prayerfully review your day with a Prayer of Examen, noting graces and gratitude as well as challenges and hard places.
Explore your feelings and responses to the events of the day with compassion and curiosity.
How is God speaking to you in these things?
Keep your spiritual senses open.
Presence and awareness are embodied and invite awakening the whole person.
How might you activate your physicality, heart, and imagination in balance with your intellect?
Find practices to engage your whole self.
I enjoy long walks and yoga, creative expression through art and music, and spiritual reading that connects me to my deeper knowing.
Pause. Notice. Reflect.
To learn more about Christian spirituality and programs offered by the Center for Lifelong Learning, click HERE.
Debra Weir, MA, DASD
Associate Director, Spirituality and Lifelong Learning