Mark Fairweather Tall
10 Tips for Spiritual Discernment
“I’ll pray about it and get back to you!” Have you ever said this? I certainly have. There are times when people have asked me if I would consider a particular role, or someone has asked me to comment on a particular situation. Rather than rushing in with an answer it seems wise to take some time, pray and try to discern how God might be leading through the Holy Spirit. Of course, that is right and good. But as I do a question looms in my mind… How do I really know that I am discerning God’s will? Is there ever a danger that I am simply giving it a bit of time before I make a decision based on what I want or what I think is a good idea?
Richard Rohr said, “Most people do not see things as they are; rather they see things as they are.” And that means it is possible to think we have got things right when we haven’t really. Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). He also challenges the people of Judah, God’s chosen people, with the words: “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear…” (Jeremiah 5:21). Jesus reserved many of his sharpest challenges to those who claimed to understand God when they clearly didn’t. One example of this is in the story of the healing of the man born blind in John 9. This is a chapter all about the ability to see or not see. By the end of the chapter the one who started blind can see both physically and spiritually. The religious leaders who could physically see remain spiritually blind. Some Pharisees understood that Jesus might be questioning their ability to see: “What? Are we blind too?” They asked. Jesus said, “if you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim to see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:41). Add all of this up and I wonder, how can I be better at truly discerning the will of God?
Of course, that is a big subject and well beyond the scope of an article like this, but let me give ten steps that some might find helpful in the process of spiritual discernment:
1) Admit to God that we aren’t as good at seeing and understanding as we need to be. Discernment begins when we acknowledge that we lack the wisdom we need.
2) Ensure we are giving proper time to God outside of seeking to understand His will on a particular issue. We need to be worshippers of God; we need to be bringing praise to Him and giving God Him proper attention. Praying and reading Scripture is vital. This helps us begin to hear the one true Voice and distinguish it from the other ‘voices’ that clamour for our attention.
3) Examine ourselves – we need to take responsibility to honestly reflect on what is going on in our hearts. We ask ourselves questions about how our attitudes might be shaped by pride or selfishness or self-advancement? If we aren’t growing in self-awareness we are opening ourselves up to the deceitfulness of our hearts. Confession is important during this step.
4) Recognise that spiritual discernment is more than decision making – it is a way of life. There isn’t a moment when we don’t need to be following the path of spiritual discernment. That means following steps 1-3 daily.
5) As we come to make a particular decision we need to honestly pray before God that we will become indifferent to all ideas but His. We ask to be free of all that would hold us back from hearing from God. For example, we may naturally be risk takers or risk averse. We need to pray that whatever our natural tendency is, it won’t override the voice of God.
6) Do as much research as possible. Seeking to discern God’s will is not an alternative to being informed from a human perspective. We simply bring what we find out before God and this helps us in our prayers.
7) Pray for wisdom – well, that almost goes without saying, except that it is too important not to say!
8) Listen to the feelings in our heart. Sometimes particular suggestions bring a life-giving excitement and enhance our desire to praise God. Sometimes they weigh heavily upon us and the very thought leaves us tired. If we are practicing the earlier steps regularly, we can learn to understand this as the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Ignatius described this inner dynamic of discerning the spirits as ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’.
9) Listen to others. We can share our decisions with others whom we respect for their faith and wisdom. We need to trust their opinions and not simply ask with the expectation that our decisions will be ‘rubber stamped’. This requires great openness and humility.
10) Finally, having made a decision, before acting on it, bring it back to God. Tell God that you believe this is His will, but ask Him to make it very clear if you are wrong… and give Him enough time to do so!
This 10 step guide is not intended to be exhaustive. I offer them as one who genuinely wants to discern God’s will and would love to be better at it. Are these steps the only way or the best way? I don’t know for sure. Tell you what… I’ll pray about it and get back to you.