The word "discernment" suggests faith: to ask God for help in choosing the better option - but only if we have agreed to act on the help that we will receive in a relationship of trust with God. It would be counter-productive to ask God to "show me the better option" and then to treat it as merely "advice."
Trust is founded upon our experiences. For example: God completely understands us and our present concern. God wants to help us make the free personal choice that will bring us towards the fulfillment of our purpose in life. We are not “accidents” but purposefully created in an on-going process. We “count.”
Becoming clear as to what is to be decided is necessary: "either this or that," one issue at a time. It is much more difficult to make a decision while looking at several options at once. For example, it would be quite complicated to try to choose among these: "Shall I seek a new job from within, or look for a new position some place else, or try to make changes in the present position?" Better to come to an either/or proposition such as: "Shall I seek to make a change in my present position or not?" If that question is decided, then a further decision may be needed. The sharper the focus of the question to be decided, the better it is.
For major issues, list the individual factors into "pro" and "con," one side at a time, prayerfully, without “censoring.” Write down your thoughts and feelings relative to only one side at a time. A simple procedure is, for example, to ask God for light and grace to see every possible reason or motive "for" the question to be decided. Do no sorting or evaluating, or considering any of the opposites at this stage. When no additional reason comes to mind, ask God for grace to help and inspire the search for whatever applies to the other side.
When the list is complete, there may be such a strong weight of reasoning on one side that the decision seems peacefully evident. Often the listing has more on one side than the other numerically, but the significance or value attached to some of them may vary greatly. What helps at this stage is to go through the list quietly, and with awareness of each one's "weight" or value. This is highly personal, and wholly appropriate. Some items on the list can be crossed off as truly irrelevant to the process. For example, an "un-censored" reason might have been: "Some of my friends might not like it if I do this." At the point of making a really significant decision, this might not seem worth considering. On the other hand, one item that seemed very minor to our way of thinking may evoke strong feelings. We need to pay attention to such things or they might influence us unduly.
If there is some reason that we notice, one so strong that we can hardly imagine being able to choose the other side, we need to know whether this is an obstacle to our freedom or a brilliant light that gives us our "answer." Fear and disturbance accompany an obstacle; peace and clarity reveal God's hand. One way to gain freedom is to push in the opposite direction of the fear. For example, when I had a decision to make that might require me to risk losing a close friend, I tried to imagine what it would be like if I did make that hard decision. I went through in my mind what steps I would take to implement the decision, including what I would say to my close friend. Once I had seen in imagination that I could actually speak my truth, the fear diminished considerably. I became free to simply weigh all the factors on their real merits and make the real decision from a place of true interior freedom.
When we can calmly look at all the reasons we have on both sides of an issue, it will usually become rather clear which side really is in accord with our values, what will be the better thing to do.
If we are satisfied with our decision, we may wish to thank God, and move to action. If the decision is serious enough we might want to look for some confirmation. One way to do that is to take a day or more in which we go through our normal activities with the supposition that we will go with our decision. Notice what happens during the day. Reflect upon the experiences to see if there is a sense of everything fitting together or not. Then, for a day or longer go through the period of time with the opposite assumption, and notice how things fit together or not. At times there will be a distinct contrast in how the day is experienced as going along more peacefully or with more discontinuities. In terms of faith, this is a way of allowing God to act not just through our conscious acts of listing and considering reasons, but in the world of persons and events where God also works for us and for our good.
In a process that involves our faith we do well to ask God for help and inspiration any and every time it occurs to us to do so. It is God's desire, as well as ours, that decision - making by discernment will not only be a good process but will provide us with the best conclusions we can make at this time.
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The Right Time
In making an important decision, we would like to "get it over with" as soon as possible. Good discernment does not necessarily take much time, but it cannot be forced. If we are still in the turmoil of weighing various considerations, we have not completed our discernment. Everything depends upon our honest trust relationship with God. If we have an immediate deadline, God will help us decide within the limited time we have; if we have more time before we have to reach a decision, we might use it to advantage. When a discernment process is brought to a natural completion, there is an accompanying sense of peacefulness.
When one of our deeper desires becomes conscious enough so that we recognize the need to make a decision, we might want to begin a process of discernment. Often, the matter itself is so significant for us that we are physically distressed until we can make the decision and move on. Though we might be under considerable pressure from within to reach a conclusion, we might at the same time know that we are not yet ready. The very place within us from which the issue arose is still waiting to "give birth" to that which is to come. It is not so much that we need more facts, as it is a matter of waiting for the issue to become more clearly defined, the pros and cons to become more distinct, and - most importantly - for God to work in and through the people, circumstances and environment in which we live.
God also has a way of providing very helpful information to us if we look for signs in the ordinary events of the day. For those who are open to the experience, as we go about our normal tasks, we might suddenly receive a very helpful insight for the decision we wish to make. For example, an unexpected phone call may be the occasion for a new way of thinking about our present concern. Or we might find in reading something unrelated to our decision that we discover a powerful motive welling up within us. It is like looking for a piece of paper in a drawer, and finding something else there that exactly matches another and more vital need. God does this. It is very helpful in making important decisions to be looking for the kinds of surprises that bring us clarity and joy – signs of God’s activity.
The act of writing down some thoughts, feelings and reflections often enables us to determine their relative importance. Writing is also a means of sorting wishful fantasy from deep desire.
The adventure of engaging in a process like this always brings us closer to God.
We Discern but They Decide
We might spend a long time in consideration and prayer, and discern carefully what seems to us clearly to be the better choice, only to have a person in authority decide otherwise. In many situations, we do not have the final say. We might reach a conclusion that we should make a very reasonable change in a procedure, but someone with more authority can forbid or overturn the change. These experiences do not represent failures to discern properly, but they do serve to remind us that the process of discernment requires deep trust in God.
When we use a process of discernment, we can make decisions that are within our capacity to implement. Very often those decisions are about asking or proposing, not necessarily putting into action, a particular course of action. It is important that we be clear with ourselves what we are deciding, lest we set ourselves up for an apparent conflict of faith.
At a deeper level, all decision-making into which we consciously invite the inspiration of God includes our desire for whatever is really better. We believe that God has our best interests at heart, and will bring us to the place that fulfills our purpose for existing. This happens even when other human beings do not agree with our most prayerful and heartfelt decisions. Many of us have found by experience that a disappointing “no” at one time was a door closing one option so that we could find another door opening to a better possibility. When final decisions are in accord with our discernment, it is not because God told us one thing and the decision-make something else. Our freedom and good will, our trust and high-minded intentions are all respected. God can use the decisions of others to lead us to the next step in our lives, always towards what is better, never to what is less good. A process of discernment is really about what we have the power to do or to say, not about the effects of what we choose. Not one moment of time that we spend considering the reasons, and not any least prayer we make in going through a process of discernment, is ever wasted. It is all part of our relationship with God. When we discern but they decide, God draws us safely and securely towards the purpose for which we are created.
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When Peace Is a Sign
"Are you at peace with your decision?" We experience a kind of satisfaction which many of us identify as a sense of peace that goes beyond mere selfishness when any of us chooses what is better rather than what is only more immediately attractive.
Peace as a sign comes freely into our awareness when the practical matters we have been struggling to decide are resolved in keeping with who we are. We experience a sense of agreement between the kind of person we want to be and the particular choice that honestly matches our deepest values. Peace such as this is not an emotion, though we can readily identify the feeling when we experience it. When we have made up our minds on an issue from a perspective of integrity, our decision appears to us as not only reasonable, but also resonates peacefully with our spirit.
When we decide matters in a way that involves our hearts as well as our minds, we engage our spirituality. We operate from a kind of "holy selfishness" when we make decisions that are right for us. We live in a world of relationships, where a truly good choice we make is not just for our benefit, but for all those who will be affected by what we do or say. From this perspective, we can recognize the experience of peace as confirmation from God about what we - with all our limitations - determine in our present circumstances to be the better decision.
We cannot directly cause the experience of peace; peace is a true sign of an inner reality that cannot be faked or forced. When we have successfully concluded the sometimes painful process of seeking the better way to proceed, we can hope to experience in our humanity that peace which is a sign of God’s blessing.
We are all subject to the possibility of self-delusion. When we want something, we can - especially if we are in a hurry - imagine that we are experiencing peace as a sign when we are only relieved at having ended the period of considering various options. We might be so attracted by a particular alternative that our freedom is diminished; we can mistake a temporary cessation of anxious thinking for the gracious confirmation that is given to those who stay with the process of discernment to its real conclusion. Real peace is more than a momentary approval of a decision. It is an indicator about our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. Rules and regulations, commandments, promises, and other external criteria remain important. But when peace is experienced as a sign of confirmation, it is more than the result of matching our behavior with criteria we have used for judging among options. When we make good use of our freedom to choose, the Spirit of God affirms us with peace as a sign of “well done.”
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Whose Decision Is It?
Sometimes, the hardest thing about making our own decisions is getting to a position where we are relatively free from undue influences. We can obtain this freedom to choose by first noticing who and what affects us. When we listen to others, we need to know just how we are hearing – whether to gather good information, or to learn how to please them. If we need to make a decision, we do not want to try to meet some half-conscious expectations about what others might want.
Difficulties arise, from without and from within, that challenge us to be accountable for our own priorities, principles and values. Usually we have some information about whatever option we might be considering, but we also need to know whether the facts we are considering are relevant to our particular situation or are only one-sided opinions that serve some one else’s desires. For example, advertisers want us to choose their products, so they try to maneuver our thinking and feeling to the point where something that we might find mildly interesting or attractive is made to appear as though it meet a significant need. Those who seek power will use wording and language that resonate with basic human feelings, but which do not accurately convey their intentions. Those who want to sway us for their own purposes will use words and images that appeal to sensitivities that are below the level of our consciousness.
The more reflective we are about the influences upon us, the less we can be manipulated by others and by our own appetites. Who of us would want to be forced by our own feelings to act in a way contrary to what we believe is right? Principles and deep desires for integrity and authenticity are hidden from us when we think primarily about how we might look in the eyes of others. Likewise, it is of no real help to ask ourselves only: “What will be the easiest thing to do?” We make good decisions when we ask questions of ourselves that are not just about facts but about our basis for deciding: “What do we really want? What will better match who we are and what kind of person we want to become?”Whatever keeps us in a state of confusion is a great obstacle to good decision-making; a multiplicity of thoughts can keep us tied up inside our minds. We can take just one thought – any of those that are pushing and tugging at us – and judge it as helpful or not. In so doing, we begin to unravel the vague, amorphous knot of thoughts and feelings. Once a start is made, we might be surprised at how quickly we gain perspective. When we seek first a state of basic peacefulness we will soon become able to answer our own questions about the choice we are making. In this way, we take personal responsibility for our lives.
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Certainty in Decision-making
At least once or twice in our lives most of us have had the experience of becoming suddenly and with great clarity aware of a major direction that we should take in our lives. We did not have to consider reasons or motives on one side or the other. Often, we also sensed that God was directly involved in the experience. Who else could enter our thoughts and feelings with something that is was so "right" for us that there could be no room for doubt?
Later on, we might have had doubts. Once the moment of illumination passed, we might have had some contrary impulses, such as to hide the experience from ourselves. Yet, whenever we recalled the event itself, our certainty usually returned.
Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. God, who is creating us continuously, knows the best time to reveal something that is wholly suitable for us. The long-term consequences may include difficulties and challenges, but we will have all that we need to follow through. We cannot know ahead of time how things will turn out, but we can experience surety about how appropriate the path is for us and have a strong desire to follow wherever it leads.
Making a decision that is strongly influenced by God does not mean that it will be accompanied by ease or by fame. But we do find the capacity to pour our energies in a particular direction rather than to reserve ourselves and keep all our options open. It is helpful to recall our special graces or inspirations from time to time, so that we might be refreshed in the original impulse that has much to do with the direction we are taking in life at this moment. Confidence in our earlier decision enables us to see that whatever difficulties we might be dealing with in the present are part of a challenge that we are equipped to handle. Though we are fallible and weak, the impulse was given by One who knows us wholly and entirely, and who supplies us with what we need to live out graced our decisions. Gratitude is the most likely feeling to arise when we bring to mind a particular time when we received certainty in decision-making.
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Randy Roche, SJ