Discernment is much more than mere decision making; it is, first of all, a habit, a way of seeing that can permeate our whole life. As it makes clear in John 9, it is the movement from seeing things merely from a human perspective to seeing from a spiritual vantage point, continually looking for evidence of the work of God in order to join him in it.
Discernment is a quality of attentiveness to God that, over time, develops into the ability to sense God's heart and purpose in any given moment. We become familiar with the tone, quality, and content of God's voice. We notice how God is present for us in the moment. We wonder, Where is God unfolding his work of love and redemption? and What is my most authentic response?
As Danny Morris and Chuck Colson wrote in Discerning God's Will Together, "As important as the practices of discernment are, it would be improper to list them before the habit of discernment, because if the Holy Spirit has not been welcomed into the life of the discerner, practices of discernment will be empty and impotent. The habit of discernment constitutes a way of being, by which we are steeped in spirituality as a way of life…the habit of spirituality precedes the practices of discernment."
Cultivating the habit of discernment means we are always seeking the movement of God's Spirit so we can abandon ourselves to it. Sometimes abandoning ourselves to the will of God is like floating down a river: we relax and allow the current of the river to carry us along. At other times it is more like trying to run the rapids or ride a large wave: we must keep our body and mind attuned to the dynamic of the water so we can ride it to its destination rather than being toppled by its force. Either way, we do not set the direction or the speed of the current; rather, we seek the best way to let the current carry us in the direction God has for us.
Testing the Spirits
Another crucial aspect of discernment is what Scripture calls "discernment of spirits" (1 Corinthians 12:10) or "test[ing] the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). The discernment of spirits helps us to distinguish the real from the phony, the true from the false, in the external world but also in the interior world of our own thoughts and motives. As we become more attuned to these subtle spiritual dynamics, we are able to distinguish between what is good (that which moves us toward God and his calling upon our lives) and what is evil (that which draws us away from God).
Ignatius describes the inner dynamics of discerning the spirits as consolation and desolation. Consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our authentic self. We may experience it as a sense that all is right with the world, that we are free to be given over to God and love, even in moments of pain and crisis. Desolation is the loss of a sense of God's presence; indeed, we feel out of touch with God, with others and with our authentic self. It might be an experience of being off-center, full of turmoil, confusion, and maybe even rebellion. Or we might sense our energy draining away, tension in our gut or tears welling in our eyes.
Consolation and desolation are not mere emotions. They are visceral, in-the-body experiences that precede emotion or affect, alerting us to truth that is sensed and known in the inward being before we are conscious of it. For instance, you might be going through something very difficult—perhaps the death of someone close, or quitting a job, or ending a relationship that is not good for you. There certainly is sadness or fear and concern about the future. But underneath these emotions, you might also identify a deep sense of wellbeing—"the peace that passes understanding" (Philippians 4:7), God's presence comforting or leading you. This is consolation.
It can go the other way as well. You might experience something that seems good to you or others—a promotion at work or an advantageous relationship. But deep inside you sense anxiety, disease, dread. You sense that you will not be able to maintain the truest aspects of yourself. This is desolation. Your body knows and is telling you something your mind doesn't want to know or may not be ready to know yet.
This aspect of discernment, says Ernest Larkin in Silent Presence, "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."
An Invitation to Choose Life
In Deuteronomy 30 God addresses the whole company of Israel through Moses and says, "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Verse 19).
God's will for us is generally to do more of that which gives us life (Deuteronomy 30:11-20; John 10:10) and to turn away from those things that drain life from us. Furthermore, God points out that the wisdom that enables us to choose life is not something we will find outside of ourselves—in heaven or across the ocean—but that this knowing is very near to us; it is in our mouths and in our hearts for us to notice and observe (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
In the New Testament Jesus says, "I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10 ESV). Many of our smaller decisions and most of our significant decisions—even decisions that require us to choose between two equally good options—involve the ability to notice what brings a sense of life, freedom in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17), the peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7).
These inner dynamics need not be attached to anything that is particularly momentous; in fact, they might seem relatively inconsequential until we learn to pay attention and trust what they have to tell us. That slight tension headache we get as we interact with a particular person or the aspect of our job that is inordinately draining, the life-giving energy we feel in the presence of art and beauty, the sensation of being "in the flow" when we are engaged in a particular activity, the feeling of peace we notice as we walk into a particular building or space—these are experiences of "life" and "death" that we can be attentive to and receive guidance from.
The opportunity to choose life is ours—in the day-to-day choices we face as well as in the larger decisions of our lives. This opportunity is there for us in our personal decisions and in the leadership decisions that affect many others. When we make it our habit to notice and respond to that which is life giving, we are in touch with what is truest about God, ourselves, and our world. Then, when we are called upon to make larger decisions—even in the leadership setting—we can draw upon all of the understanding and awareness we are gaining to inform our decision.
Taken from Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright 2012 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.