More so than other practices, Discernment is not something we try to do to enrich our lives or draw closer to God. Rather, it is a basic function of our storied existence, driven by our own internal narratives. Because of this, we necessarily find ourselves in positions where decisions great and small need to be made.
Unlike most other practices of the Christian faith, the question here is not whether or not we will practice Discernment, but rather how well we will do it, and how intentionally we will cultivate it. The challenge is not so much to articulate a vision for Discernment so much as to find out what truly Christian Discernment looks like.
That is why I chose Discernment for a research paper I wrote for my seminary program this semester. It’s essential to human life and being. This is also why I want to share many of the lessons I learned along the way of writing this paper and putting into practice. And so today I’m starting a new blog series exploring this Christian practice of decision-making, also called Discernment.
But first, a couple of definitions: when someone thinks of “Christian Practices”, they might immediately think of “Spiritual Disciplines”. As I have learned, this isn’t necessarily the case. A “Practice” is a way of living that is distinctly Christian, or flows out of the Christian experience and community. They are lived out and embodied rhythms of human existence. Spiritual Disciplines might help cultivate these practices, but they are not themselves the practices.
In the case of this series, “Discernment” refers to the Christian practices of trying to gather a sense of what God would have us do in those situations where there is not clear guidance in Scripture or other “objectives” sources of guidance. The idea is that Christianity has embedded within itself a not only the truth that God has desires for how we live our lives, but that we have a need to rely on His Spirit to discern that desire and live in that way. So Discernment is the process of trying to make decisions “Christianly”.
Discernment is the human story
Christian Practices (especially Discernment) are not arbitrary or artificial constructs placed upon humanity. They are emergent events, arising out of fundamental and essential human needs, desires, and limitations. Our souls are larger than our embodiment. We are story. Philosopher Lars Svendsen, summarizing Paul Ricoeur, writes:
“to be a self is to give an account of a self through a narrative of who one has been, who one will become and who one is now. To tell this narrative of oneself is to become oneself”.
The Harvard Business Review takes this further: “’Life is the sum of all your choices,’ Albert Camus reminds us. History, by extrapolation, equals the accumulated choices of all mankind.”
In short, to live is to bear the need for Discernment and making decisions.
Humans have the intuition that they inhabit a story larger than the sum of their own parts. They feel the weight to live it well, but they also feel their own limitations and finitude. This means we need guidance in order to live our stories, to tell our stories, to attribute our stories, and to therefore “become ourselves”. We need Discernment to become humans in the fullest sense.
This dynamic can seem abstract and esoteric, but it’s essential to this need to live a story well, discern its paths, and then tell that story in order to fulfill tasks along the way that speak to something greater than ourselves. To bring beauty, goodness, or justice into the world. To bring healing to the hurting and speak truth to power.
Cultivating the practice of Discernment is necessary to discern the real and tangible needs of the people, communities, and world around us as well as discerning how and whether to act in light of those needs. Discernment is a primary way God molds and forms us into a People for the World, which is precisely what our intuitions say we are meant to be in our fullest selves. Seventeenth-century theologian John Owen, when writing about the Spirit’s role in Discernment, says:
“The Spirit of Christ reveals to us our own wants, that we may reveal them unto him…. no teachings under those of the Spirit are able to make our souls acquainted with their own wants–it’s burdens, its temptations. For a soul to know its wants, its infirmities, is a heavenly discovery. He that has this assistance, his prayer is more than half made before he begins to pray.”
For the Christian community to practice Discernment is to address the human need to grow into our God, our world, and our selves.
So come with us on this exploration of Discernment: its history, individual components, communal aspects, theological foundations, and applications. As with any of my series, the posts will be spread out over time, so be sure to check back, or just bookmark this page.