This is part two of a seven-part series on discipleship.
In my last blog post, we discussed desire as a key to discipleship and reviewed a number of ways that we can keep the flame of our faith burning. We will now look at a critical spiritual skill to help us to grow as disciples: discernment.
Being a disciple means that we must make the time to reflect upon our lives. Just as Jesus went away to pray and discern who would be his disciples, we must also discern what it means for us to be a disciple and grow in our love for him. Discernment and prayer are at the heart of the disciple’s life. In recent years, the word reflection has been confused with discernment. While reflection is a part of discernment, the skill of discernment is always practiced in a relational context. It is an ancient art and practice that honors God’s will and vision for our lives. Discernment is an interior dialogue with the Holy Spirit, a dialogue that helps us understand how God is calling us to live and follow Jesus. Discernment is not shorthand for “let me think about it,” but instead means, “let me converse with God and listen for his voice and direction.”
So, what are some aspects of discernment, and how can you practice this ancient Christian art in your ministry? Here are five tips.
1. Be open.
Discernment always starts with where we are and what is going on in our lives. We can only listen for God’s will if we are open to where God is leading us. If you have a specific situation in mind, ask yourself how open you are to where God is guiding you in that situation. In your prayers, specifically ask to be open to signs that you might overlook, particularly in times of stress.
2. Name your fears.
When we are truly discerning a specific course of action, we encounter our own struggles and weaknesses. This can feel daunting. Acknowledge your fears by naming them: What explicitly is it that you are afraid of? This is essential in combating your internal resistance. Share your fears with the Lord. (He knows them anyway.) Share your fears with others too. (See #4 below.) If you are helping others in their discernment, create a safe environment where they can feel comfortable in sharing and naming their fears. Sometimes simply naming our fears deprives them of their power.
3. Tune in to the Holy Spirit.
Listening for the voice of God takes time and patience. Just as a radio needs to be tuned to a specific frequency or a GPS device might need a few minutes to lock onto a signal, we need to “tune in” to the Lord’s presence. Of course, this takes time. The best way to do this is in prayer and conversation with the Lord. Set aside time every day to be silent and listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
4. Don’t go it alone.
Speak to a trusted friend or a spiritual director about your situation. Sometimes when we are faced with a problem or dilemma, we are too close to the situation to look at it objectively. Just as we cannot read a book when it is an inch from our face, we can have difficulty looking at ourselves and seeing ourselves as God sees us. Pray about who you might speak with, and set aside some time to follow up with that person. Consult more than one person if you can. If you are walking with someone in a process of discernment, check in regularly with this person. If you have received a word of encouragement or a word of wisdom from the Lord, don’t keep that to yourself, but share that with the person involved. It can make all the difference.
5. Change course if necessary.
Once you have made a decision and have accepted a course of action, move forward and put your trust in the Lord. Evaluate your decision, and if the Holy Spirit reveals new horizons, accept that as an invitation to further discern what that means. Discernment is not a fixed decision; it is a lifelong process and conversation with the Lord. We are, after all, only discerning next steps in our journey of faith.
Discernment is a beautiful jewel in the treasury of our faith, one that will help us grow as missionary disciples. It is a treasure that we can easily share with the world.
What tips on discernment do you wish to share?
In God’s Voice Within, Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ, shows us how to use Ignatian discernment and understand that the most trustworthy wisdom of all comes not from outside sources, but from God working through us.