Decisions are an inescapable part of life. It’s easy enough to make the split-second decision to hit the brakes when a car in front of you stops suddenly, but there are times in life when making a decision involves actively choosing something significant, even life-altering. At these times, decision-making is less straightforward.
For believers, making significant decisions isn’t just about the practicalities of the process. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with making a list of the pros and cons associated with a particular decision, but we also want to consider what God wants us to do. We need to make a spiritually-informed decision.
A couple of years ago, I took a class on spiritual discernment. It was at that time that I realized I’d never heard the topic discussed in the church I grew up in. In fact, I couldn’t remember ever hearing a sermon on it. I discovered that I had a lot to learn.
As I was taking the course, I was weighing my options for graduate studies. I had recently begun to question my goal of becoming a teacher, and realized that I was not at peace with where I was going vocationally. In the process of re-evaluating things, I discovered something that I fear: the unknown. I wasn’t sure exactly what path to take, or what would be in store for me in the next stage of life, and this was unsettling. Mentally, I thought, “It’s really not that big of a deal. A year from now everything will have sorted itself out.” I quickly discovered while this may be true, this line of thought really did not help me with the process of decision-making.
Discernment is not always an easy process. Personally, I often feel paralyzed by difficult decisions. I examine the pros and cons of making a choice and my brain comes up with all of the different scenarios of what could go right or wrong. I’m like Chidi in The Good Place, completely paralyzed by considering all possible consequences of choosing one option or another (procrastination is often the outcome). It is at these times that I need to remind myself of the importance of trusting in Christ in all things, regardless of circumstances.
Discerning God’s will for one decision was not an isolated event, but was related to the way I was walking with God in my everyday life.
As I learned about discernment, I realized that I needed to examine the state of my spiritual life, including my prayer life, spiritual practices, and relationships as part of the process. All of these things are part of a healthy spiritual life, and cultivating a healthy spiritual life was crucial to the process of making an important decision well. Discerning God’s will for one decision was not an isolated event, but was related to the way I was walking with God in my everyday life.
Part of discerning well involves being attentive and focused on Christ. This is challenging in the age of distraction when we are surrounded by things to do, texts and emails to answer, etc. Learning to be attentive to the Holy Spirit requires creating times when we set aside distractions and ignore our social media accounts, so that we can quietly and attentively listen for the voice of God, in whatever way He choses to speak to us.
One of the most important things that I learned about discernment is that important choices need to be made in community. Gordon T. Smith states, “The community is to us a kind of mirror, not in the sense that we see ourselves reflected in the community, but that we cannot see ourselves except when we are in relationship.” Talking to others helps you see yourself, including your hopes, desires, and fears more clearly as you go through the discernment process.
I sometimes find myself protesting a bit at the idea of relying on the advice of others when making a decision. Being the fourth-born child in my family has made me value my independence and ability to make decisions on my own. And yet, when I have a serious decision to make, I’ve certainly found that the wisdom of friends and counselors has been invaluable to me. Community is just crucial to making decisions well.
Discernment can take time. For me, there was no lightning bolt moment where God spoke and told me exactly what to do, but I don’t think that’s really the point of spiritual discernment. We live in a broken, fragmented world, where our decisions are influenced by a multitude of factors. We are in a constant war within between our own sinful desires and our desire to follow Christ, and examining our own hearts when we are in a time of discernment is critical. Even if some decisions that we’ve made prayerfully do not turn out the way we had hoped, it doesn’t change Christ’s goodness, and He is still at work in our situation. His plan may simply be different than ours.
Even though the process of discernment can be unsettling, I also know Christ is working in me through it. It is an opportunity for self-examination and spiritual growth. And God is always at work in that process.