At some point, we are faced with a decision that requires us to make a choice in which we are aware of our desire to discern the will of God in the matter. While it is beyond the scope of this [article] to outline the practice of personal discernment in detail, I will describe several dynamics of discernment that can be practiced personally in such a way as to prepare individuals for discernment at the leadership level.
The Prayer for Indifference
The first and most essential dynamic of discernment is the movement toward indifference. In the context of spiritual discernment, indifference is a positive term signifying that “I am indifferent to anything but God’s will.” This is “interior freedom” or a state of openness to God in which we are free from undue attachment to any particular outcome.
Coming to a place of indifference is no small thing—especially if we are facing a decision in which the outcome really matters to us or we have a vested interest in it. It is even harder in a leadership setting where egos are on the line, where posturing and maneuvering is the norm and territorialism lies right under the surface of our polite prayers, words and handshakes.
In fact, indifference is not something we can achieve for ourselves. Just like everything else that is of significance in the spiritual life, God must accomplish this for us—which is why all we can do is pray and wait for it to be given.
Questions that can help us identify where we need to be made indifferent are: What needs to die in me in order for God’s will to come forth in my life? Is there anything I need to set aside so that I can be open to what God wants?
The Prayer for Wisdom
The movement toward indifference is the threshold between two worlds—the world of human decision-making and the spiritual practice of discerning the divine will. In this waiting room of the soul, we are made ready to pray the second prayer—the prayer for wisdom: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (James 1:5, NRSV).
Notice Without Judging
Another dynamic of discernment is the ability to notice everything pertinent to the situation—both external and internal—without judging, at least at first.
Most of us are accustomed to observing the obvious as we make decisions—circumstances, the clear meaning of pertinent Scriptures, the advice of wise Christian friends and the wisdom contained in our faith tradition. These form the basic framework for our Christian living, and it is assumed that we are making decisions within this framework, especially at the leadership level. That is discernment 101.
The more complex the decisions facing us, the more we must move beyond the basics of discernment to considering inner dynamics, which are harder to notice and interpret. We learn to listen to the stirrings of desire, to distinguish our true, God-given desires and calling from externally imposed “oughts” and “shoulds” and the compulsions of the false self. These dynamics are much more subtle, yet they give us clues as to what choices will nurture the life of Christ lived in and through our most authentic selves.
Seek Spiritual Direction
It is tempting to think that once we have done a little reading on discernment and once we have practiced a bit, we don’t need any help with discernment, but this is just not true. In fact, there is an even greater need for spiritual direction as we progress in the spiritual life.
At the very least we need a wise spiritual friend in whose presence all inner dynamics can be attended to without bias. It is ironic that sometimes, as we progress in the spiritual journey, we convince ourselves that we are beyond needing spiritual guidance, when in reality, that is actually the time when the evil one switches tactics and we need spiritual counsel more than ever.
Gather and Assess Information
Another dynamic of discernment is the ability to ask good questions and to allow those questions to help us gather data and gain perspective. These are not necessarily questions that will get us the answers we want; rather, they are questions that will elicit the deeper wisdom we need.
A good question has the power to throw open a door or a window so that a fresh wind of the Spirit can blow through. Some questions to ask include: How does this choice fit with the overall direction and calling of God on my life? Which choice brings the deepest sense of life, inner peace and freedom? Is there a particular Scripture that God is bringing to mind relative to this choice? Is this choice consistent with what I know about the mind and heart of Christ and His loving, redemptive purposes in the world?
Abandoning Ourselves to God
Ultimately, discernment is about being completely given over to God in love and allowing that love to guide everything. It is about trusting God so much that all we want in this life is to abandon ourselves to the goodness of God’s will. It is about valuing God’s will so much that we will wait until we feel we have discerned God’s will before taking action.
Adapted 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, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-14.