Discernment in difficult times

Written by Josiah Piett

Recently, my wife Kara-Lee and I found ourselves in a time of decision-making. Our landlord told us unexpectedly that we needed to leave our house. We found ourselves at a crossroads where we both felt deeply uncertain about what to do next.

Discerning through unclear circumstances is difficult for a few reasons. Most of us don’t want to make a mistake that’s going to harm us or those around us. We don’t want to make a decision that is going to limit, trap, or restrict us.

Many of us have probably made decisions in the past that we regret. I know Kara-Lee and I have. These old decisions and any negative impact that came from them can have a major influence on us in our current decision-making process. We also all have deep longings such as safety, security, significance, comfort, pleasure, and power which impact the decision we make.

This brings us to our first lesson for discerning in difficult times. It’s more difficult to make decisions with your eyes open than your eyes closed. When we choose to stay on the surface of the decision, we choose with our eyes closed. This often means choosing the path that either brings the least resistance or offers us more fulfillment in whatever deep longing we value most.

In her book Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality, Margaret Silf has a helpful diagram where she shows how we can go from the surface of an issue to the core through different types of questions. I want to use her tool as a guide for us in how we can discern in healthier ways.

We begin by reflecting on surface questions. What are the details surrounding this decision? What are all the options or opportunities presented? What are the potential pros and cons of each option? How will each option impact my relationships (with God, myself, and others)? What do the people I trust say about these decisions? Is there anything about this decision that could go against my values?

These are all great questions to start the process of discernment. I think many of us stop here. For those who are followers of Jesus, we might take one further step to pray and fast as well but many don’t go deeper than that.

Going deeper requires how questions. How am I feeling through this process of reflection? When I was reflecting were there moments of peace, fear, or despair? In the decisions themselves, how do I feel if I were to imagine myself making that decision?

Paying attention to our emotions can help us understand how we’re reacting, giving insight into where we’re being led. Pay attention to your memories as well. Does this remind you of decisions you’ve made before, or maybe a decision someone else in your life has made? How might this memory be impacting your decision-making?

Our emotions don’t dictate our decisions, but they do help us describe and discern deeper.

Our emotions are not our enemy in the discerning process. They can become one of the most important companions through it. 

Finally, we can discern on a core level. The core level is the place where we find our self-understanding (as it relates to our identity). This self-understanding can influence our decision-making. How does your identity shift (either positively or negatively) through the decisions you’re discerning? For example, if your identity is rooted in your role as a teacher and now you find yourself having to make a career decision, this will influence you deeply in your ability to discern.

Or, as another example, some of us long for intimate relationships and we are willing to sacrifice so much of ourselves to experience them. Others of us equate our value to God and others based on what we do for them. Therefore, our decision-making can be deeply impacted and influenced based on our self-perception of whatever decision leads to greater performance.

In other words, let’s say someone has the choice between a career they love and one that’s more blatantly mission-focused but doesn’t fit their personality as well. So many well-meaning Christians choose the mission job due to their desire to receive God’s approval (which for them is in what they do for Him). And this trumps how God designed them to live.

Being able to discern our core longings and how they are being met in the decision at hand is probably the most difficult task but the most important and rewarding. We can then bring what we discover before the Father—through the Son by His Spirit—and in so doing find deeper healing and transformation. This allows us to make decisions in liberty and not captivity.

Discernment is difficult, but when we submit ourselves to that process there is a gift of deeper intimacy with God and dependency on Him that is truly profound.

Josiah Piett is a house church pastor and podcaster living in Niagara Falls, Ont. Read more from the “Digging deeper” column.