Discernment: What It Does and Doesn't Mean

This year, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to give a decision over to God -- how to discern what God wants us to do, when we have a choice before us. It's one of the more widely misunderstood areas of our practical spiritual life, and I'm still figuring out what it means to live this way. Here are a few things I've figured out about what to expect when I pray for guidance in a decision:


It doesn't mean: You're no longer responsible for your behavior or your behavior's consequences. Prayer is not divination, where you split open the dove before the battle, and then become enemies with Athena if you lose. When we pray about something, that doesn't absolve us from using our brains to figure out what makes the most sense, and it doesn't mean that we don't have to do any mop-up afterwards, if we do make a mess. Sometimes, the biggest struggle comes after the thing that we originally thought was the major event; and that means you need to keep on praying.

It does mean: The Holy Spirit works kind of like MSG, enhancing and heightening the "flavor" of the virtues that you've already worked to develop -- virtues like self-control, prudence, mercy, and self-sacrifice.  After you pray for guidance, you're probably not going to find yourself doing something utterly foreign to your normal nature or inclinations; but you may find that you have deeper reserves of patience than you expected, for instance, or a temporary ability to work harder than you're normally able to work. 

Or it may occasionally mean that God just swoops in and does something amazing and unpredictable, something you really can't give yourself credit for at all.  Sometimes He does that -- who knows how He decides to choose when! -- and all you can do is give Him thanks, and credit.


It doesn't mean: You'll be rewarded with a flood of peace and certainty, and be utterly relaxed and calm about your situation and what you decide to do about it. 

It does mean: You may feel peace, or you may not. But at very least, you haven't failed to try to include God in your decision, so at least you know you didn't go into the battle unarmed. And that is a kind of peace. 


It doesn't mean: You'll suddenly find it easy as pie to do what's right.

It does mean: You may find the difference between right and wrong, or practical and impractical, or suitable and unsuitable, more clear. This could come about when you wake up after a good night's sleep, or after you talk to someone and really pay attention to what they have to offer, or after you pray some very honest prayer to God, without trying to impress Him about how trusting you are. 

Or, it may mean that you'll see more clearly that God will be with you, and will continue to love you, no matter what you choose, and that it's not always a matter of life and death to choose one thing over the other.  Yes, God has a plan for your life, but that doesn't necessarily mean you must achieve a certain number of pre-set obligations labelled "God's plan" in order to win a trophy labelled "Did God's Will." Sometimes it means chilling out, taking yourself less seriously, and learning to be more adaptable in a world that is largely out of your control anyway.


It doesn't mean: Everything will turn out great in some obvious way which you approve of and have earned because you gave it over to God. 

It does mean: You have a much better shot at not completely falling apart if things go splat, because there are often several kinds of victory. Some of these unexpected victories take a longer time to show themselves, and some of them are better than what we originally hoped for. And some of them don't look like victory at all, but are just opportunities for learning more about Jesus crucified. I know. But that's what it means.


Often, when we pray to God to help us choose the right thing to do, we're behaving as if what He cares about the most is that one or the other of His human pawns makes the correct move. But in fact, He cares less about what we accomplish than about who we are, and who we can become, and how close we are to Him. In other words, He loves us, He made us in a particular way, and at the end of the day (and at the end of our lives), that's all He really wants from us, is us.