What is ‘discernment’, really?

In the circles I move in, I often hear the term “discernment.” We ask people to discern before they make major decisions. We hear people saying that they are discerning what programme to study, what job to take, or whether they should marry. We hear people saying that they are discerning their mission or personal vocation. It is wonderful that so many people are trying to discern God’s will in their life, but sometimes I wonder how many of us really are equipped and ready to discern. How many of us know what genuine discernment actually is?

What I have observed is that there are many well-intentioned Christians who attempt to discern God’s will yet do not realise that they are not actually practising what the saints and the spiritual masters of the Church mean by “discernment.” This is not for lack of sincerity on their part. For some, it is because they do not know what discernment actually is (and isn’t). For others, it could be because they are not yet equipped or ready for a genuine discernment of God’s will in their lives.

There is a big difference between asking God to bless me in the way I have chosen to serve him and choosing to serve in whichever way He invites me to out of love for him. To know whether I am doing the former or latter requires a great deal of self-awareness and willingness for ever greater purification of motive. There are many devout Christians who nevertheless fail to realise that they are often doing the former even when they think they have ‘discerned’.

Genuine discernment does not happen ‘out of the blue’. It is not fortune-telling. It is not like a slave following his master’s orders out of fear or blind obedience. It is not magic. Neither is it simply an exercise in logical reasoning. Discernment is the process by which we come to know what is in God’s heart and discover to our amazement that it is what is in our own hearts as well. Discernment is a loving and attentive listening to the One we love more than anyone and anything in the world so that He can unveil for us our deepest desires – the very desires that He had planted. Discernment is the wonderful process of letting God dream His dream in us and finding that He has made us co-dreamers with him.

That is why St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that we need Holy Indifference as a prerequisite for discernment. This indifference, far from a lack of caring, is the state of being so confident in God’s love and desire for my greatest happiness that I no longer have any need to grasp at what I think will give me happiness. It is a state of total humility where I lay to rest my own thoughts of what is a better way and ask, instead, to be lead by the Lord.

When a soul embarks on a genuine process of discernment, it is always the case that he or she will grow in intimacy with Christ and mature in faith and love. This is because the goal of discernment is not making the right decision per se (or avoiding the wrong one) but growing in knowledge and love of the Trinitarian God and of our self. As we deepen our knowledge of our Beloved and increase our trust in him, we become better at knowing his heart and more inclined to choose what he wants for love of him. Significantly, our choosing what Christ wants is not one of resignation, fear, or obligation. Instead, our choice will be experienced as one of great joy because as we grow in intimacy with God and our inner self, we find that what he wants is truly what we want too.

A husband who loves his wife will constantly desire to know her better so that he can give her greater joy. A wife who loves her husband will not seek to know her husband’s preferences only for the “big decisions” but in every little detail of daily life. She would delight in serving him because his happiness is more important than her own. Sure they might get it wrong sometimes, but their trust and love for each other build because they see the desire in their spouse to love them well. With time and experience, they will come to know each other so well that they can accurately predict what will bring the other the greatest joy. Still, it is never the choice per se that has ultimate importance but their love for each other.

Discerning God’s will is meant to happen in a similar context of a deeply intimate and loving relationship. If we find ourselves obsessing and stressing over what the right choice is, it may be wise to defer the moment of decision and focus instead on our relationship with God. In prayer, we will be reminded that God already knows us perfectly and intends to bring us to our greatest happiness. When we focus on the hand that God is extending out to us, we will remember that we need not know the way; we just need to take God’s hand and follow wherever he leads us.

The Missionaries of God’s Love (MGL) priests and brothers have created an adorable and helpful video resource to introduce what discernment is. Do check out their 4-part Discernment for Dummies series (linked below):

Part 1: What is discernment?
Part 2: Falling in love with Jesus

Part 3: Surrender
Part 4: Listening

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