The Art of Discernment

An old friend of mine recently asked me about discernment, about how we can tell what God wants us to do when we find ourselves at a crossroads, when we must make an important decision about our lives.  Is there a “process” for seizing God’s will so we can make the right choice?  Her question got me started thinking about this important part of the Christian life.  I’ll share a little of our conversation with you, praying that you will find some tidbit that will help you determine what God’s will is for your life.

Whether it’s changing jobs, making a significant purchase (that is, more significant than choosing diet or regular pop), planning for retirement, or deciding on various health care options, we all come up against difficult choices in life.  As Christians, we believe that God is involved in our lives—that he has a perfect plan for us, and that if we follow that plan, then we will experience the joy of living in fellowship with the living God.

While there is no neat and tidy five-step process for discerning God’s will, there are some checkpoints to keep us on the right path.  The first checkpoint is Scripture.  The Bible tells us pretty much everything we need to know about life: how to please God, how to treat others, how to conduct ourselves, and how to gain wisdom.  If we could only soak up the message of the Bible, we would be 90% (give or take a few percentage points) along the way to knowing God’s will for our lives.  Spending time familiarizing ourselves with God’s Word will help us focus on our Lord’s voice so we can recognize the same Spirit who authored Scripture when he speaks to us in our hearts.  For instance, if we are tempted to pray to a different god, to cheat on our spouse, to kill someone, or to steal something that is not ours, we know that the answer is automatically, emphatically “no,” because God has already explicitly forbidden these behaviors in Scripture.  End of discussion.  This is how, for many choices, the Bible gives us a clear indication of God’s will.

The second checkpoint is prayer.  There is no substitute for actually closing our eyes, focusing our thoughts toward God and asking him—begging him—for divine wisdom, guidance, and help.  And it even helps to ask someone to pray with you and for you.  The Bible tells us that God relents to persistent prayer.  So we should wear out heaven’s door with our frequent knocking. (See Luke 18:1-8 and Matthew 7:7-8)  But prayer is a two-way conversation in which we need to still our hearts and minds and “listen” for what God might “say” to us in the stillness of the moment.  It may happen as audible words, or simply a feeling or an impression.  But prayer—talking and listening to God—is a perfect way to invite God to interfere with our decisions and to humbly submit to whatever he tells us.

The third checkpoint is holy conversation.  In some ways, we have lost touch with the idea of seeking wise counsel in order to discover God’s will for us.  Some Anabaptist traditions have a robust custom of discernment panels and groups of elders who help people make important decisions.  I once heard a story about Rich Mullins, the famous Christian musician who was also a Quaker (a member of the Society of Friends) and who died in 1997 at the age of 41.  The legend said that at one point in his life and career, Rich wasn’t sure what to pursue next.  So he sought out the counsel of a group of Friends (fellow Quakers) who would guide him through a process of discernment.  And if memory serves, this wise counsel convinced Rich that God was leading him to return to college, which he did.  This is how holy conversation should work.  A mature Christian, or a group of mature Christians, who will listen to you and help draw out your spiritual process—without offering advice, without trying to solve your problems, without judging your struggles—is something to treasure.  Sometimes just talking something through with a friendly ear helps us see things more clearly!

We might cycle through these checkpoints multiple times—praying, consulting Scripture, talking with friends—before we feel like we’re ready to move.  But still, there comes a time when we become the final arbiters of what we think God wants us to do.  And I say that with a deep gulp and a shudder in my inner being.  Because I would guess that most people are like me: we are sinful creatures who tend to choose the easiest way, the least painful way, the most self-gratifying way—the choice that pleases Almighty Me more than anyone else.  But still, when we are faced with a difficult decision, we have to say, in the words of my friend, “God, we think this is what we are hearing from you, but if we’re wrong, please save us from ourselves.”

In his letter to the Roman Christians, the apostle Paul urged them to allow God to be a part of their life-living and their daily decision-making: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2 TNIV)  This is really our life goal as Christians: to discern what God’s will is (and his will is perfect and life-giving, since it is from God!) so that we can do it.  But we can’t discern God’s will if our minds remain enmeshed in this broken, fallen world system that is opposed to its Creator.  But if we are transformed—if our minds are renewed and rebirthed by the Holy Spirit—then we have a better shot at discerning and doing God’s will.

Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God Alone)


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