There were many times in my life that I fervently hoped that God would communicate with me by sliding a 3×5 card under my bedroom door. On the card would be God’s explicit directions for me on what to do next. I suppose today it’d be more appropriate to wait for a text message. Either way, that was my first idea of what discernment was all about. Okay God, now what? Tell me.
However, discernment is more nuanced than that. Discernment is about finding a way forward when God has placed something on your heart, but it also can be a way of life. There are many definitions of discernment. At its most basic, it is a process of discovering God’s activity, movement, and direction in our lives.
If we use that definition as our starting point, we already see that discernment is not simply a decision. It is not one course of action over another. Rather, it is an ongoing process that occurs on many levels, sometimes simultaneously. A hallmark of good discernment is movement from confusion to clarity.
Due to the ongoing nature of it, discernment is open to the work of the Holy Spirit, to testing and to change. In order to be open to the Holy Spirit, we must notice what God is already doing in our lives and in the lives of those around us. When we step back from the daily rush from one appointment to the next, from one project to the next, from one place to the next, and take time to reflect, what do we see? What do we hear? Having done this we also must take the time to be in conversation with others, to test if what we have heard or seen is congruent with their sense of it. Finally we must also be willing to recognize that discernments can change. As elusive as the whole process is, in the end, discernment is sturdy. It will stand up to testing and to the passage of time.
It is also important to recognize that discernment involves more than prayer and holy conversation. Discernment is also revealed through our life circumstances. God does not call us into something new to the detriment of relationships that have been important to us. That is not to say that being called to something new will not be without pain or disruption. It may well be. However, our life circumstances might dictate that now is not the right time or there is not the right place. In the same way, discernment is sometimes revealed through an honest look at where we have already been. How have we seen God at work in our lives in the past may shed light on what God holds for us in the future.
As we intentionally engage the practice of discernment, we begin to recognize that we have developed a community of trust, a deepening of our own faith and a growing sense of God’s leading. We begin to understand that we are not only seeking discernment but rather living lives of discernment. In the words of Henri Nouwen, discernment is “a life long commitment to ‘remember God,’ know who you are, and pay close attention to what the Spirit is saying today.”
The Rev. Canon Martha Ishman is Rector at St. James, Titusville, and Canon for Mission Development and Transition for the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.