Discernment as a Spiritual Practice, Part 1: Individual Decisions

I’ve been discovering that the word discernment has come back into the spiritual lexicon.  Although this practice  has an ancient Biblical and monastic history, in modern life discernments are often decisions made using business, educational or emotional paradigms. But for 300 years the Quakers have known that discovering God’s will for an individual or a faith community can be a spiritual experience, a prayer practice that brings hope and joy. Their Bible-saturated  approach, augmented by those other sources of insight and advice, has much to offer us. 

Disclaimer: Most of the content of this series of posts comes from the book Discerning God’s Will Together: a spiritual practice for the church, Danny Morris and Charles Olsen (Alban Institute 2012). 

What is discernment? Dictionaries suggest these possibilities for the meaning of discern:

  • to separate or distinguish 
  • to test in crisis or distinguish good and evil
  • to find the authentic and valuable and to recognise the counterfeit 
  • to see to the heart of the matter 
  • to locate the immediate and particular ways within a vision of the broad and distant landscape (to see the trees in the forest) 
  • to possess immediate and direct insight

A more focussed Christian answer comes from moral philosopher Alasdair McIntyre:  

“Spiritual discernment makes operational our faith that an ever-present guide is present to lead us in the way of truth and love as individuals and congregations.
It opens our sails …. to the spirit whose winds we believe are always blowing and will always move us closer to Christ, closer to one another and closer to the world that God wills.” 

(Alistair McIntyre from After Virtuecited in Discerning God’s Will Together.)

The Bible is full of examples of discernment. The Old Testament portrays YHWH’s abiding presence and concern, and cites various ways God engages the hearing, sight, speech, imagination  and minds of those Hebrews who would know his will. In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles sought God’s will and experienced the leading of the Holy Spirit into what 'seemed good.’

History shows us how  wise Christians  - monks and saints, reformers and nonconformists - developed ways of seeking God's intent. Some of their approaches were sourced in Roman Senates and English Parliaments, rather than from mystics and God-given imagination, but the Covenant promise is always that God is present and self-disclosing, and guides us by His Spirit.

Why would we want to exercise discernment? Because we want to understand and obey God’s will. God is revealed in Scripture and History, and in the character of Jesus the Word. But such wisdom is not always specific to our circumstance. There are times we long to know God’s plans and dreams for us, personally. That is why the Spirit was sent, so we can know God’s will - what Danny Morris calls God’s yearning (DGWT page 9)  - and more closely align with his heart. 

 “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you …...

The Spirit will take what I have to say and tell it to you.” 
(John 14: 26 and 16: 15 )

This graphic is my version of a "reflection pool", with a series of lily pads that represent ten dimensions of discernment that people have found useful over centuries of spiritual disciplines. It was designed for use in congregations, but since the concept was first published by Morris and Olsen in 1997, many individuals applied it in their spiritual searching and found it useful. So the 2012 edition of Discerning Gods Will Together took that into account. It is not the only paradigm, and the book itself introduces others from church history and contemporary writing. But this one is a useful way of scoping out the landscape of how we “do” discerning. You will notice that you already use some of these processes in your own prayer life, without having named them. Others may be new. 

What do you need to discern/decide? It may be something of huge significance, such as embarking on study that will led to a particular vocation, or whether you should marry a specific person. But buying a house, or choosing a school for your kids, or even changing churches can also have life-changing consequences. Using the discernment paradigm for a smaller decision will help embed the principles of the ten steps into your psyche so they come more naturally when you face a big change. 

Like stepping stones, they can be done in a different order, or skipped.

One alternative metaphor for discernment offered by Morris and Olsen is that of sowing a field of grain. The seed is selected - that means having clarity about the territory for discernment. The soil is prepared and the seed is planted - processes of  establishing guiding principles, relinquishing our own pride and prejudice, and grounding in Scripture or Tradition come in to the picture. The cultivating activities include listening to self and others, exploring options, and working on each option to improve it. The parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13: 24ff) is helpful here; as we consider possibilities, there will be wheat and weeds growing alongside each other. They don’t have to be sorted out at the beginning. Then comes the harvesting and winnowing, throwing the seed into the air so that the wind can blow away the chaff. The good seed will be sorted out and we can rest. Good things take time.

My next post will go into more details about how these steps can be applied in a group context.  But here are some useful assumptions to bring to your individual discernment journey. 

Being and Doing. 
The practical tools for discernment can be seen as related to both Being and Doing.
Being is knowing who you are in God, trusting that God loves you and has good intentions for your future (Jer 29: 11) Doing includes processes and practices.  They are meant to be used in a creative mix that is adaptable to different contexts. I think GK Chesterton's metaphor of God’s will as a fenced playground is more appropriate than that of one straight road from which you can easily stray.

Not Withheld
God doesn't withhold grace, play silly games or tease us to test our faithfulness or worthiness to be trusted. God’s will is not static or set in stone. We do not have to sneak up on God or decode a riddle. God is a God who speaks, and doing God’s will is living fully in a profoundly personal and fulfilling relationship of grace. That means discerning his intention is not mechanical or even linear.

Reluctance to ask the God questions
Remember the song - Please don’t send me to Africa! Sometimes people are afraid of God’s will. They fear that if God’s will is done, it will be hard, it will hurt, they will be unhappy. They worry that God’s will is about asking them to do impossible tasks. An uneasy feeling lingers - don’t get too close to God - its not safe. But the God questions may be the most important questions a human can ask. Discovering God’s yearning for us will take into account the uniqueness of how he has made us.
“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, 
so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Ephesians 2: 10)
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking (Harper One, 1993)

Consolation and Desolation
The Jesuit notions of Consolation and Desolation come from the spiritual practice of Examen, another ancient discipline that many today find helpful for spiritual growth. The Examen is what changed St Ignatius of Loyola (1491 - 1566) from a wild soldier to a pilgrim walking barefoot to Jerusalem. He expected that God would speak through his deepest feelings and yearnings, what he called the “consolation” and “desolation” experiences – see  Sleeping with Bread D, SF and M Linn, (Paulist Press 1994).  Today we might say highs and lows, but Jesuits define consolation as whatever helps us connect with ourselves, God and others. Desolation is what disconnects us. The Examen is a daily prayer of reflection intended to help us decide how and where to pursue joy, to seek life. Depending on your temperament, it could have a role in discernment. 

Places of Discernment
Morris and Olsen describe three places of prayer and worship mentioned in the New Testament, particularly in Acts 2: 46 and Matthew 6: 6. The ‘closet’ (inner room, secluded place) offers quiet space to listen for the voice of God. The ‘home/house’ represents a small community in which people know one another's names and stories, and where people trust one another with their spiritual journey. The ‘temple/sanctuary’ is where we go to act out the drama of grace and remind ourselves of God’s mercy and mystery. All three can be places of discernment, though a group discernment will have a different trajectory because of the need to reach agreement, or at least a willingness to go forward in a certain direction. Part Two of this Spiritual Practice guide is aimed at discernment that affects the life of a faith community, but the Quakers know that your fellow believers can also help you in individual matters.

Clearness Committee
This Quaker practice involves asking 3 or 4 people who know and love you to serve you over a period of weeks in your discernment. They don’t make decisions or even advise you; they have to resist that temptation, which is why they need to be mature. They pray, listen, and ask probing questions, not giving suggestions or advocating a particular solution. As you consider together, clarity is expected.
Discernment means we want to know God’s  way. Three postures are needed: 
          • We need to be willing to change our hearts
          • We need to be open to the gifts of the Spirit
          • We need to be ready to seek again, and again; it’s ongoing.

To Ponder: How have I discovered God's will in my life through spiritual practices? How could I use this practice more intentionally?

May God bless you richly as you seek his direction.