Discernment: A spiritual gift with a surprising goal
Discernment is an essential spiritual gift available to all of us.
I was at the funeral of a friend’s father recently. He was a good and faithful man. Successful in business with a family who loved him and myriad others who benefitted from his kindness and generosity. He loved life and he loved God, and when the priest asked the family what their father’s one goal was, they shouted in unison: “TO GET TO HEAVEN!”
It sounds a bit old-fashioned nowadays to talk about “getting to heaven.” Is that our motivation when we are deciding what school to attend, what job to take, what vocation to embrace? Well, I would argue, yes, but it might not seem that obvious, so let’s explore a bit more.
With each choice we make, we are shaping who we are and who we want to become. From early on we are encouraged to make good choices and to appreciate the consequences of bad choices. “Patrice, when you wouldn’t share your toys with your sister, that hurt her feelings. Was that a nice thing to do? Do you want to be a selfish person. Of course not!” And so it goes through our teens and 20s and beyond. Our choices shape us and reveal what is important to us. Whether it is the choice to offer your extra cookie to a friend; the decision to pick a field of study where you think you can have a positive impact on society; or the plan not to take a job far from home, so that you can be there to help care for your aging parents. All these choices big and small tell the world something about who you are and what motivates you. With each choice, in essence, we are making ourselves more or less lovable. And let’s face it. We all want to be loved—by ourselves, by others, and by that ever-present being we call God, who is Love.
The problem with all the decisions we face in our lives is that the right direction—that proverbial good choice—is not always clear. And that’s where discernment comes in.
Straight from the Spirit
Discernment is used a lot in vocation circles. The term describes the process someone goes through to determine where God is calling them, what is truly their heart’s desire, and whether vowed religious life would suit them.
But discernment is actually an essential spiritual process available to all of us for any occasion that calls for us to make a choice or assess a decision we’ve already made. It is the ability to understand and perceive the good and true, the wise and holy, and the world as it is and should be.
Discernment is another name for the package of gifts that come from the Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe—that provide the necessary ingredients for pursuing loving actions and responses. Discernment is what helps us to know that we should apologize for our sharp tone or careless conduct. It also helps us to see red flags in decisions we are about to make. When my cousin got engaged shortly after her mother died and set the date for the wedding less than six months out, we all saw what she didn’t want to see. We hinted that perhaps it might be good to wait. She intentionally avoided examining what she knew in her heart was true. She was acting out fear and grief. Not a good motivation for any decision, let alone a major life commitment.
Particular and personal
Most of us instinctively know some of the essentials to making wise choices: be honest with yourself, consider the pros and cons of your actions, seek the counsel of people who know you and have your best interest at heart, look for confirmation within yourself and among others, choose what seems right. But each person’s approach to discernment is actually as unique as the individual. Ask a group of spiritual directors, counselors, or vocation directors, What is discernment? and the compiled answers will fill a huge white board—I know this from personal experience!
It turns out the way a person discerns their next best step at major junctures or in their daily choices has to do with personal and spiritual preferences, personality type, gut instinct, and grace. If you are like Saint Ignatius you need a specific and defined process. If you are more like Saint Francis you need to feel your way through a decision and its aftermath.
You’ve seen it in the classroom or on the job. One person sees the big picture and doesn’t fret the details; another needs to ask dozens of questions before they are confident of passing the test, or completing the project on budget, or whatever the desired outcome. Both ways of proceeding have strengths and weaknesses built in. Discernment is what helps you see the pitfalls in your own approach and adjust your actions accordingly. It also helps you appreciate that not everyone thinks like you.
Know thyself is a start
Thus, self-knowledge is key to making wise choices. We have many spiritual classics to guide us in self-understanding, such as the writings of Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas à Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Merton, and the list goes on and on. We also have popular personality tests and even some online quizzes that can give us insight into who we are (and, no, “What Disney character are you?” doesn’t do the trick). Appreciating our strengths, weakness, fears, and motivations helps us determine what may block or assist us in our decision-making.
I watched a friend take a job that required extensive travel, public speaking, strategic thinking, and quick decisions. She did not enjoy doing any of these things and was not particularly good at them either. It is one thing to want to stretch yourself, it is another to make yourself and those around you miserable trying to be someone you aren’t.
Dealing with the bad
So what happens when we make a bad choice? Well, that’s where discernment comes in again. Deep down we can know a choice isn’t right for us by virtue of the fact that we desire to be happy—not in a selfish, shallow way—but in a joyful and loving way. If we are feeling empty and sad about a decision we’ve made, then chances are the choice wasn’t a good one for us, or at least some aspect of the decision needs to be honestly and carefully re-examined.
When I was a sophomore in college, I came home at October break and announced to my parents that I wanted to drop out and start again the following fall, I assured them that I had given the decision a lot of thought. But, in fact, the more we talked, the more it became clear to them, and eventually to me, that the problem was I was behind in my studies and didn’t think I could catch up. So I thought it was better just to quit and start over. That “quit and start over mentality” ends a lot of marriages and religious vocations as well. It wasn’t school that was the problem, it was wanting a social life and wanting to be a triple major. Something had to give. In the end it all came down to time-management—something that continues to be a struggle for me. I am glad my parents helped me honestly address those existential questions of what is my heart’s desire and what will give me joy. I didn’t want to drop out, I just needed to get all my papers written, which I did—five 10-page papers over Thanksgiving weekend! But it came at the cost of missing out on turkey dinner with the family.
Invite God to weigh in
Far and away the most essential step among the many steps available to us for making informed and wise decisions is the need to invite God into the conversation—before, during, and after every choice we make.
With each prayerful request for God to be with us, watch over us, and bring us guidance, we sharpen our skills in the art of discernment. Following Jesus’ advice becomes second nature: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). No matter the question: what to study, where to work, how to serve, who to love, what to commit to, who to vote for, what to fight for, through the practice of discernment you will know to bring your request to God to find clarity and peace in your decisions. And the more you invite God in, the more you will have confidence that the answers will come and your choices will be well made.
In whatever unique way we make the choices that shape who we are, we all have one underlying desire: to live joyful lives and be loved now and forever by the one who calls us to love—our loving God. Or kicking it old-school: Our goal is to get to heaven!
- Tune into your prayer life
- Embody your decisions
- My portable prayer life
- Unravel the mystery of your call
- Religious life today (infographic)
- Religious vocation or family?
- Heaven help you in your discernment
- Call within a call: Your vocation and a career
- VOCATION PRAYERS
- 8 questions and answers to your prayers Read More
- Find your spirituality type quiz
- FAQs: Frequently asked questions about vocations
- Celibacy quiz: Can you live a celibate life?
- Resources for older discerners or those with physical and developmental differences
- About Vocation Network and VISION Guide