Godly Decision Making
We must understand the dynamics of discernment
At some point we are faced with a decision that requires us to make a choice in which we are aware of our desire to discern the will of God in the matter. Now we discover that discernment is also a spiritual practice that does what all spiritual disciplines do: it offers us a concrete way of opening to the activity of God beyond what we can do for ourselves.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to outline the practice of personal discernment in detail, I will describe several dynamics of discernment that can be practiced personally in such a way as to prepare individuals for discernment at the leadership level.
The prayer for indifference. The first and most essential dynamic of discernment is the movement toward indifference. In the context of spiritual discernment, indifference is a positive term signifying that “I am indifferent to anything but God’s will.” This is “interior freedom” or a state of openness to God in which we are free from undue attachment to any particular outcome. There is a capacity to relinquish whatever might keep us from choosing God and love, and we have come to a place where we want God and God’s will more than anything—more than ego gratification, more than wanting to look good in the eyes of others, more than personal ownership, comfort or advantage. We ask God to bring us to a place where we want “God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else” so that we can pray the prayer of indifference—“Not my will but thine be done.”
Coming to a place of indifference is no small thing—especially if we are facing a decision in which the outcome really matters to us or we have a vested interest in it. It is even harder in a leadership setting where egos are on the line, where posturing and maneuvering is the norm and territorialism lies right under the surface of our polite prayers, words, and handshakes. In fact, indifference is not something we can achieve for ourselves. Just like everything else that is of significance in the spiritual life, God must accomplish this for us—which is why all we can do is pray and wait for it to be given. And God cannot give us indifference apart from our offering ourselves to him in the discipline of detachment.
A question that can help us identify where we need to be made indifferent is, What needs to die in me in order for God’s will to come forth in my life? or, Is there anything I need to set aside so that I can be open to what God wants? There are times when the answer requires death to self so the life of Christ can be born more fully in us. It is a spiritual death in which we lay down our own will in order to embrace God’s will.
When we know we are not indifferent and cannot accomplish indifference for ourselves, the prayer for indifference may take us into a period of waiting. All we can say to God is, “I know I am not indifferent. I know that part of me still clings to my own agenda. If I am to become indifferent, you will have to do it in me.” This period of waiting may feel very dark. But strangely enough, it will also feel deeply right—like we are right where we need to be.
The prayer for wisdom. The movement toward indifference is the threshold between two worlds—the world of human decision making and the spiritual practice of discerning the divine will. In this waiting room of the soul we are made ready to pray the second prayer—the prayer for wisdom: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (James 1:5). Since we have died to our need to be wise in others’ eyes or to prove ourselves according to human standards, we are finally ready to ask for God’s wisdom and receive it.
It is crucial that those of us who want to become more discerning learn to grapple with this part of the process—to be able to recognize places of unfreedom where we are inordinately attached to a particular outcome rather than being indifferent to anything but the will of God. This is mature spirituality, and we will not be able to lead from this place of self-awareness and openness to God in a leadership setting if we have not practiced in our personal lives.
Notice without judging. Another dynamic of discernment is the ability to notice everything pertinent to the situation—both external and internal—without judging, at least at first. Most of us are accustomed to observing the obvious as we make decisions—circumstances, the clear meaning of pertinent Scriptures, the advice of wise Christian friends and the wisdom contained in our faith tradition. These form the basic framework for our Christian living, and it is assumed that we are making decisions within this framework, especially at the leadership level. That is discernment 101.
The more complex the decisions facing us, the more we must move beyond the basics of discernment to considering inner dynamics, which are harder to notice and interpret. We learn to listen to the stirrings of desire, to distinguish our true, God-given desires and calling from externally imposed “oughts” and “shoulds” and the compulsions of the false self. We are willing to pay attention and give credence to consolation and desolation. These dynamics are much more subtle, yet they give us clues as to what choices will nurture the life of Christ lived in and through our most authentic selves.
In addition to paying attention to that which is conscious, discernment calls us to pay attention to any unconscious matter that comes up as well. It could be truth that slips out in honest conversation (before we have a chance to edit ourselves!) or that presents itself to us in dreams.
One of the things that always strikes me about the Christmas story is the prominence of the role of dreams. God was very active in communicating through dreams—with Joseph in particular. And Joseph was obedient in responding. If Joseph had ignored his dreams as unworthy of consideration, or if he had willfully refused to obey what he heard in those dreams, the Christmas story would have unfolded very differently.
There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that God has given up on speaking to us in dreams. In fact, in my work as a spiritual director I often encourage people to pay attention to their dreams because when we are asleep we are less ego-defended and more able to receive a prompting from God that is beyond what our cognitive faculties can accept. Of course the content of dreams and how we interpret them is still subject to other aspects of a disciplined discernment process, but they are worth paying attention to nonetheless.
All this to say, the will of God is manifest deep within, where the Spirit dwells and bears witness with our spirit about things that are true (Romans 8:16). A profound life orientation is revealed in our deepest desires and consolations, when we are able to get in touch with them. These usually have something to do with our calling—the very purpose for which God created us. This is a passion or a burden that is uniquely ours and cannot be set aside without doing damage to ourselves and to our relationship with the One who has called us. This is true for churches and ministries as well. Discerning leaders stay in touch with the calling and charisms of the community they are leading, learning to be humbly confident in making decisions consistent with who God has called them to be—as individuals and as a group.
Seek spiritual direction and greater discernment of spirits. Spiritual direction is a key component to a lifestyle of discernment for leaders. It is tempting to think that once we have done a little reading on discernment and once we have practiced a bit, we don’t need any help with discernment, but this is just not true. In fact, there is an even greater need for spiritual direction as we progress in the spiritual life.
Ignatius describes a time when the evil one uses a new tactic—“deceptive spiritual consolation that is not of the good spirit and [that] will lead, if followed, to spiritual harm”—in his efforts to deceive mature Christ-followers.
Father Tim Gallagher describes it this way: “A point may come on the spiritual journey when persons who deeply love God must be aware of, understand, and reject certain attractions toward good and holy things that, if undertaken, would distract from different good and holy things to which God is genuinely calling them. . . . Holiness of life, even great holiness of life, does not eliminate the need for discernment of spirits; rather, it is precisely goodness of life that calls for the greater discernment of spirits found in Ignatius’ second set of rules.”
Most leaders at the very least we need a wise spiritual friend in whose presence all inner dynamics can be attended to without bias. As Thomas Merton so wisely states, “[The spiritual director’s] function is to verify and encourage what is truly spiritual in the soul. He must teach others to ‘discern’ between good and evil tendencies, to distinguish the inspirations of the spirit of evil from those of the Holy Spirit. A spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him.”
It is ironic that sometimes, as we progress in the spiritual journey, we convince ourselves that we are beyond needing spiritual guidance, when in reality, that is actually the time when the evil one switches tactics and we need spiritual counsel more than ever.
Gather and assess information. Another dynamic of discernment is the ability to ask good questions and to allow those questions to help us gather data and gain perspective. These are not necessarily questions that will get us the answers we want; rather, they are questions that will elicit the deeper wisdom we need. A good question has the power to throw open a door or a window so that a fresh wind of the Spirit can blow through.
There are many questions that help us reflect spiritually on the objective facts and also gain insight into the deeper dynamics of the situation. At different times, different questions will resonate and help us attend to the different ways God’s will is manifest in and through our circumstances and in the inner, spiritual dynamics that are present. The following are some questions that leaders who want to become more discerning can learn how to ask and reflect upon honestly. The experience of interacting with such questions in more personal matters prepares us to frame better questions at the leadership table and to reflect on them honestly with others as well.
• Direction and calling. How does this choice fit with the overall direction and calling of God on my life? Is there a word or phrase that captures my sense of calling these days, and will this choice enable me to continue living into my calling?
• Consolation and desolation. Which choice brings the deepest sense of life, inner peace and freedom (John 10:10; Philippians 4:7; 2 Corinthians 3:17)? As I consider moving in this particular direction, is there a growing sense of wholeness, authenticity and congruence with who I am in God?
• Desire. What is my deepest and most authentic desire relative to the choice I am facing? What is my response when Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you? What is it you seek?”
• Scripture. Is there a particular Scripture that God is bringing to mind relative to this choice? What is it saying to me?
• Life of Christ. Is this choice consistent with what I know about the mind and heart of Christ and his loving, redemptive purposes in the world?
• Character growth and development. What is God doing in my character and spiritual growth, and will this choice continue to nurture this growth? How will this direction nurture the fruit of the Spirit in me—particularly the fruit of love, which is at the heart of our Christian calling and the litmus test for what it means to be truly Christian.
• Love. Given the primacy of love and unity in Christ’s teachings, what does love call for in this situation?
• Clarify perspective. It’s hard to see the whole field when we are mired in the details. Take a step back to look at the larger patterns of what God is doing in your life. Which choice fits the larger patterns that are already in motion? Take a step forward—to your deathbed. If I imagine myself on my deathbed, which choice would I wish I had made? Does this choice value what is eternal and permanent, what holds the deepest value, rather than what is transient and impermanent?
• Community. How does this choice fit with others’ observations of who I am and what God is doing in my life? Am I willing to open up every facet of this decision to a trusted spiritual friend or director for their wisdom and insight? Is there anything in the overall tradition of the Christian faith that might inform my decision?
Cultivate solitude as a time for listening to God around these and similar questions. Jesus himself set aside times of solitude for intense prayer and listening at important choice points in his life. The very beginnings of his public ministry came as a result of listening to the voice of his Father affirm his identity as the beloved Son (Matthew 3:13-17). Matthew 4 describes how he was driven into the wilderness to struggle with subtle temptations regarding his calling. In Luke 6 we observe Jesus’ choice to spend the night alone in prayer before making his decision about who he would choose as his disciples—certainly one of the most important decisions of his life in ministry. Luke 22 describes another night spent in solitude, when Jesus struggled mightily with his calling to go to the cross; he did not stop until he had wrestled all the way through it and was ready to do the will of God.
Since Jesus, who was already so intimate with God, felt the need for solitude relative to discerning and doing God’s will, it is certain that we need it as well. We only want people at the leadership table who practice solitude and silence as a place for hearing God’s voice relative to decisions they face and who are open to incorporating this into their leadership discernment as well.
Identify and work with options. At some point in the discernment process a way forward starts to become clear. There may even be a couple of options that seem equally good. Go ahead and identify those as clearly as possible and even improve them or combine them into one option that combines the best of both. Now God invites us to make a choice—at least privately—and to once again rely on the inner experience of consolation and desolation by seeking inner confirmation. We can take some time to live with our choice privately and see whether there is a sense of rightness about it, a sense of being in harmony with oneself—the person God created me to be and I want to be. We can take several days to walk around as if we have made a certain decision and notice where there is the greatest level of life and sustaining energy. (If there are two equally good options, walk around for a few days as if you have made one decision, and then do the same for the other.)
While you are walking around as if you’ve made one decision or the other, notice, What is the truest and most authentic expression of the Spirit in and through my life at this time? It is important to be able to recognize where this peace and consolation rests. Is the ego part of me at peace because I am choosing something that will keep the ego in control? Is the fearful part of me at peace because I am choosing a path that keeps me safe and secure? Or does this peace reside in the deepest, truest part of me—the part that has the capacity and willingness to be completely given over to God?
Do not let yourself get pushed to make a decision until you have had the opportunity to do this. The restraint that individuals learn to practice in their personal lives pays off when the pressure to rush things along becomes intense in the leadership setting.
Abandoning ourselves to God. Ultimately, discernment is about being completely given over to God in love and allowing that love to guide everything. It is about knowing God so intimately that we can tell what he wants just by turning our hearts toward him. It is about trusting God so much that all we want in this life is to abandon ourselves to the goodness of God’s will. It is about valuing God’s will so much that we will wait until we feel we have discerned God’s will before taking action.
This presumes a great deal of experience with the dynamics of discernment—that we are allowing God to purify our desires, dismantle the false self and draw us into the kind of intimacy that puts us in touch with what is truest within. It presumes a willingness to submit to the most penetrating questions, testing all decisions to see if they square with our experience of being “at home” in God, where we are living in total surrender to that ultimate goodness we have come to know and trust. It requires absolute commitment to doing the will of God even before we know what it is. It is here that we prove ourselves faithful in the smaller things of our own lives so that God can entrust us with the “much” of leadership. This kind of leader is the only kind you want on the “bus” that everyone has decided to ride—the “bus” of pursuing the will of God together.
Taken from Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright 2012 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.