In this insightful and practical article, Ruth Haley Barton teaches us the heart of discernment; “the journey from spiritual blindness (not seeing God anywhere or seeing him only where we expect to see him) to spiritual sight (finding God everywhere, especially where we least expect it.” Decisions shape our lives. While the spiritual gift of discerning the plans and people in our life is important, the relationship we foster with God and the things we learn about ourselves through the process of listening for his voice, is actually the more important thing. Barton shares, “The habit of discernment is a quality of attentiveness to God so intimate that over time we develop an intuitive sense of God’s heart and purpose in any given moment. We become familiar with God’s voice—the tone, quality, and content—just as we become familiar with the voice of someone we know well.”
This reminds me of a lecture I heard in graduate school on the topic of hearing God’s voice—describing this attentive listening akin to a radio frequency we tune into. Not only do we need to be familiar with the tone and message of our Maker, but also that of the Enemy. Once we learn to distinguish God’s voice, it brings such clarity to times when we feel confused or uncertain about a decision and reminds us of our identity in Christ.
One of the foundational building blocks of the discernment process is the belief that love is our primary calling. “Any decision-making process that fails to ask the question, ‘What is the loving thing to do?’ misses the point of a distinctly Christian practice of discernment.”
The author describes two prayers that guide us in the practice of discernment. The first is the prayer for indifference. While we might think of indifference as a negative attitude characterized by apathy and not caring, “in the realm of discernment, indifference is a positive term. It means, ‘I am indifferent to anything but God’s will.’” This interior freedom gives the person a posture of openness, free of any undue attachment to any particular outcome. Barton gives the example of Mary the mother of Jesus as a picture of one who was able to honestly pray a prayer of indifference, as she accepted the holy invitation to carry the Son of God, regardless of the social and relational stigma she must have faced. The world of human decision making and the world of discerning God’s will for our lives intersect at the threshold of indifference.
There are many helpful questions we can ask ourselves on the journey of discernment. “What needs to die in me in order for God’s will to come forth in my life? Is there anything I need to set aside so that I can be open to what God wants?” Ruth Haley lays out a case for gathering and assessing the data so that we can review the information we know, and also open ourselves to the process of what God might be trying to teach us about ourselves. I appreciate her caution here to not treat this as an academic assignment, but rather a spiritual practice filled with invitations from God that nudge us toward clarity in our situation. Different facets of discernment allow for various questions including:
- Direction and Calling: How does this choice fit with the overall direction and calling of God upon my life? Does this choice enable me to continue living my calling?
- Consolation: Which choice brings the deepest sense of life, inner peace, and freedom? (John 10:10; 2 Corinthians 3:17) Is there a growing sense of wholeness, authenticity, and congruence with who I am in God?
- Character Growth and Development: What is God doing in my spiritual life currently, and will this choice continue to nurture this growth?
- Community: How does this choice fit with others’ observations of who I am and what God is doing in my life? Am I willing to open up every facet of this decision to a trusted spiritual friend for her wisdom and insight?
Decisions determined by committee can be helpful but shouldn’t be the only form of discernment we practice. Barton notes, “When we face significant choices that require discernment, we may need to increase our time in solitude so that we have the time and space for silent listening around these and similar questions.” Scripture is full of examples of Jesus engaging healthy rhythms of rest, activity, community, and solitude.
Finally, and arguably most crucial to practicing discernment, is the interior posture. “Discernment requires us to go beyond the basics of Christian living to notice our inner dynamics as well—dynamics such as consolation and desolation.” Consolation the writer defines as “an interior movement of the heart that gives us a sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our most authentic self in God. Conversely, desolation is the loss of a sense of God’s presence. It is a sense of being out of touch with God, with others, and with our most authentic self.” The dynamics of consolation and desolation are subtle, but they give us clues as to whether or not the choice we are considering will nurture the life of Christ lived in and through our most authentic selves. The spiritually and emotionally mature believer takes the necessary time to listen to the soul’s cries of “life-giving” or “life-taking” choices, relationships, and habits.
Questions and resources to increase your understanding of the topic and deepen the practice of communal discernment.
- Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and best known for developing a set of spiritual exercises intended to hone people’s capacity for discernment, defined the aim of discernment as “finding God in all things in order that we might love and serve God in all.” Reflect on this for a few minutes and/or discuss with a friend. How might increasing our capacity to see God in all things, and therefore love and serve Him in all things, help us practice discernment?
- Ruth Haley Barton notes that love is our primary calling, so any decision-making process that doesn’t ask the question, “what is the loving thing to do?” misses the point. Apply this question to a current decision you are considering (vocationally, parenting, friendships, etc.).
- Review some of the questions in this summary and under the section “Gather and Assess the Data.” Consider inviting a friend to speak into an area of your life where you need clarity.
- How much time do you set aside for solitude? Does that practice feel life-giving? Could it benefit from more attention so that you are able to hear the cries of your soul, and the voice of God?
Resource: A favorite podcast from writer Emily P. Freeman explores the topic of discernment in each episode. Check it out: The Next Right Thing Podcast by Emily P. Freeman | Emily P. Freeman (emilypfreeman.com)