Whether it be along my own life journey, or in providing counsel to another concerning his or hers, there is a fundamental question at the heart of every decision that begs a response. That is, “How do we know if we are doing God’s Will?”
What is discernment and how do we achieve that, especially with so many avenues to consult, between our friends & family, TV personalities, self-help books, etc? I found a well-rounded Christian definition on Tim Challies’ blog, who authored, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment: “Discernment is a process of prayerful reflection which leads a person or community to understanding of God’s call at a given time or in particular circumstances of life. It involves listening to God in all the ways God communicates with us: in prayer, in the scriptures, through the Church and the world, in personal experience, and in other people.”
I appreciate Challies’ approach, but I’m quite enamored by the hands on approach of Catholic Apologist, Peter Kreeft. He provides some excellent insight in a piece ironically entitled, “Discernment”. He posed the central question, which is: “Does God have one right choice for me in each decision I make?”
After laying out the basics, Kreeft provides these five general principles of discernment of God’s will. In utilizing these guidelines, the beauty resides in that there’s nothing to lose, only wisdom to gain. These apply to all questions, and therefore to anything you may be discerning as well. Kreeft’s guidelines are as follows:
1. Always begin with data, with what we know for sure. Judge the unknown by the known, the uncertain by the certain. Adam and Eve neglected that principle in Eden and ignored God’s clear command and warning for the devil’s promised pig in a poke.
2. Let your heart educate your mind. Let your love of God educate your reason in discerning his will. Jesus teaches this principle in John 7:17 to the Pharisees. (Would that certain Scripture scholars today would heed it!) They were asking how they could interpret his words, and he gave them the first principle of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation): “If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would understand my teaching.” The saints understand the Bible better than the theologians, because they understand its primary author, God, by loving him with their whole heart and their whole mind.
3. Have a soft heart but a hard head. We should be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” sharp as a fox in thought but loyal as a dog in will and deed. Soft-heartedness does not excuse soft-headedness, and hard-headedness does not excuse hard-heartedness. In our hearts we should be “bleeding-heart liberals” and in our heads “stuck-in-the-mud conservatives.”
4. All God’s signs should line up, by a kind of trigonometry. There are at least seven such signs: (1) Scripture, (2) church teaching, (3) human reason (which God created), (4) the appropriate situation, or circumstances (which he controls by his providence), (5) conscience, our innate sense of right and wrong, (6) our individual personal bent or desire or instincts, and (7) prayer. Test your choice by holding it up before God’s face. If one of these seven voices says no, don’t do it. If none say no, do it.
5. Look for the fruits of the spirit, especially the first three: love, joy, and peace. If we are angry and anxious and worried, loveless and joyless and peaceless, we have no right to say we are sure of being securely in God’s will. Discernment itself should not be a stiff, brittle, anxious thing, but—since it too is part of God’s will for our lives—loving and joyful and peace-filled, more like a game than a war, more like writing love letters than taking final exams.
I recommend you reference the source below, as the whole article Kreeft wrote is so thought provoking. His last paragraph really is the lynch pin for discernment: “God, in giving us all free will, said to us: ‘Your will be done.’ Some of us turn back to him and say: ‘My will is that your will be done.’ That is obedience to the first and greatest commandment. Then, when we do that, he turns to us and says: ‘And now, your will be done.’ And then he writes the story of our lives with the pen strokes of our own free choices.” Not only is that a powerful image, but a balanced approach toward discerning God’s Will.
The Archbishop of Caterbury and a theology professor at Oxford, St. Edmund of Abingdon (1180-1240) wrote a reflection worthy of concluding my ponderings herein. St. Edmund was neither afraid to lead a life uncommon nor to speak the truth at any cost, as one of his first official acts was to threaten King Henry III with excommunication. The following are St. Edmund of Abingdon’s thoughts on God’s will:
God’s Will is Holiness
A perfect life is a life of honor, humility, and love,
and an honorable life is to will to do God’s will.
Before doing anything, ask yourself if it is God’s will:
whether it is thinking in your heart,
speaking with your mouth, seeing with your eyes,
hearing with your ears, smelling with your nose,
tasting with your tongue, touching with your hands,
walking or standing, lying or sitting.
If it is God’s will, then do it with all your might.
If it is not God’s will, then die rather than do it.
If you ask me, “What is God’s will? I will answer:
“God’s will is that you become holy.”
Discernment by Peter Kreeft can be found at: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/discernment.htm