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?
Scripture. Is there a particular Scripture that God is bringing to me relative to this choice? What is it saying to me?
Life of Christ. Is this choice consistent with what I know about the mind and heart of Christ and his redemptive purposes in the world?
Character Growth and Development. How will this direction nurture the fruit of the Spirit in me—particularly the fruit of love? What does love call for? What is God doing in my spiritual life currently, and will this choice continue to nurture this growth?
Eternal Perspective. Does this choice value what is eternal and permanent and holds the deepest value, rather than what is transient and impermanent? If I imagine myself on my deathbed, which choice would I wish I had made?
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 or his wisdom and insight? Is there anything in the overall tradition of the Christian faith that might inform my decision?
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. Jesus himself was very intentional about setting aside times of solitude for intense prayer and listening to God at important choice points in his life. The very beginnings of his public ministry came as a result of listening to the voice of his Father affirm his identity as a beloved son. In Matthew 4, we find Jesus in the wilderness struggling with subtle temptations regarding his calling. Would he carry out his calling according to what he understood from His Father, or would he follow a path that made more sense from a human standpoint?
In Luke 6, we observe Jesus’ choice to spend the night alone in prayer before making his decision about which disciples he would choose—certainly one of the most important decisions of his life in ministry. Luke 22 describes another night spent in solitude, when Jesus struggled mightily with his choice to go to the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane he poured out his heart to God, and he did not stop until he had wrestled all the way through it, becoming certain this was God’s will, and was ready to submit himself to it. If Jesus felt the need for this kind of presence to God as a context for discernment, it is certain that we need it as well.
Seek Inner Confirmation
At some point, the way ahead starts to become clearer. There may even be a couple of options that seem equally good. Now God invites us to make a choice—at least interiorly—and to seek inner confirmation. Again the dynamics of consolation and desolation can be very helpful. We can make a choice inside ourselves first and then take some time to live with our choice privately and notice whether there is a sense of rightness about it, a sense of being in harmony with ourselves—the persons God created us to be and the persons we want to be. If we have time, we can take several days to walk around “as if” we had made a certain decision and notice where there is the greatest level of life and sustaining energy.
During this time we can ask ourselves what the truest and most authentic expression of the Spirit in and through our lives is at this time. It is important for me to be able to recognize in what part of myself this peace and consolation rests. Is it the ego part of me that is at peace because I am choosing something that will keep the ego in control? Is it the fearful part of me that is at peace because I am choosing a path that keeps me safe and secure? Or does this peace reside in the deepest, truest part of me—the part that has the capacity and willingness to be completely given over to God?
If we are trying to decide between two options, we can then take several days to walk around as if we had made the other choice and notice the same dynamic.
Ernest Larkin observes that a mature capacity for discernment
depends greatly on our spiritual and psychological maturity. If we are ambivalent and divided by chaotic emotions and neurotic conditions, our affective states will provide no positive guidance. Our task will be to understand our condition and bring order into our affective life. But as we come to achieve that discipline, in proportion as we die and our lives are hidden with Christ in God, discernment becomes more effective.Ernest Larkin, Silent Presence (Denville, NJ: Dimension, 1981) 13.
Just Do It!
Once we have asked God for wisdom and we are at least clear on the next step in following God’s will for our lives—God rarely gives us more than the next step—there is nothing left but to follow God’s will to the best of our ability. This will involve making plans and working hard to implement those plans, but now all of our planning is done with a sense that God is in it, leading us along, and that we are connected with his larger purposes for our lives.
Discernment is risky, and there are no guarantees; we can never be absolutely sure that we have discerned everything correctly. We are, after all, human. But what we can know for sure is that God is with us. As Thomas Merton prayed,
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself. And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire, and I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and will never leave me to face my perils alone.”Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1956).
Ultimately, discernment is about falling in love and letting that decide everything. It is about falling so deeply in love with God that nothing else matters. It is about trusting God so much that all we want in this life is to abandon ourselves to the goodness of his will. It is about knowing God so intimately that we can tell what he wants just by turning our hearts towards him. It is about loving ourselves and God and others so much that we will wait until we understand what love calls us to and then give ourselves to it, even when it costs us.
Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything else. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evening, how you spend your weekend, what you read, whom you know; what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.Pedro Arrupe, S.J., 28th Superior General of the Society of Jesus.
Practice the Habit of Discernment
Adapted from Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995.As a way of cultivating the habit of discernment in your life, take a few moments in your times of solitude to notice the dynamics of consolation and desolation.
Ask God to bring to your heart a moment over the last few days for which you are most grateful. When were you most able to give and receive love? Which moment seemed to have the most life in it for you? What was said or done that made it life-giving for you?
Ask God to bring to your heart a moment over the last few days for which you are least grateful. When were you least able to give and receive love? Which moment seemed to drain life from you? What was said or done that made it so draining for you?
What wisdom, insight, or further questions seem to arise from this awareness? How might God be inviting you to incorporate into your life more of that which gives you life and less of that which drains life from you?
Thank God for his presence with you during this time and for whatever wisdom, guidance, and questions came.
Ruth Haley Barton is cofounder and president of The Transforming Center www.thetransformingcenter.org, a ministry dedicated to caring for the souls of pastors, ministry leaders, and the congregations they serve. A teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of several books, including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence. This article is not to be reproduced without the permission of the author. For information about reprints or to download this article please visit www.thetransformingcenter.org/newsletters.php