Five Steps for Personal Discernment

At certain points in our lives we may be faced with difficult decisions or dilemmas.  As Christians we want God to guide our lives during these times of reflection or re-direction.  Indeed, we have been taught to expect to be guided by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14). These expectations of guidance place emphasis upon religious experience and an abiding interaction with God that engages our senses, our choices, our understanding, our prayer and the collective way in which a Christian community engages with the gospel.

Yet rarely do I hear fellow Anglicans pronounce that they have approached their Christian community to engage in a process of discernment or reach a decision about an important life issue. This seems to be an area where we have lost our ability to provide guidance as the gathered Christian community. So how do we engage with our faith and our collective understanding of the gospel in moving forward with what we believe to be God’s will or direction for some aspect of our lives?

Paul introduces us to a progressive development of the gift of discernment in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The gift of discernment is both a gift given by the Spirit of God for the common good of the whole community and a developed Christian capacity to determine which “spirits” lead toward God and which lead away from God.

So how do we develop this capacity in ourselves and our communities? St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order in the early 1500s, developed a series of Spiritual Exercises called Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. Ignatius’ rules united all of the factors that previous traditions included: good and evil spirits, personal and preternatural influences, thoughts and imagination, and states of affectivity, consolation (meaning any movement of affectivity toward God) and desolation (any movement of affectivity away from God). These exercises were designed to help people come to decisions about where to go and what to do in their lives.  Ignatius believed that God’s desire for each one of us is that we should be at peace and joyful, a state he referred to as consolation or feeling that we are in the right place and doing the right thing.

For anyone who genuinely seeks to do what is right, the Good Spirit would bring enthusiasm, life, strength, encouragement, views of a way ahead, peace and consolation. The Good Spirit would also bring realism, an acknowledgement and sorrow for sin, along with peace as a loved and forgiven sinner called to follow Christ.  The Bad Spirit, Ignatius explained, would bring endless problems, difficulties, doubts, desolation and confusion. When guided by the Bad Spirit, we would feel mired in sin, unchangeable, unlovable and unforgiveable. If we can’t see a future, are weighed down, have no taste for prayer or spiritual things, are rebellious or selfish, encouraged to give up and feeling despair, we are likely guided by the Bad Spirit.

Fr. George Ashenbrenner developed a variation on the Ignatian exercises  to assist us in developing a heart with a discerning vision that can carry us throughout our day.  The exercise is called The Examen of Consciousness and I invite you to give it a try. The process is as follows:

  1. Thanksgiving: we ask ourselves the questions:  What has happened today that I should be thankful for? Do I take God’s gifts for granted? Is my whole life becoming a “Thank You” response to God? What do I find most difficult to be grateful for?
  2. Prayer for the Light of the Spirit: we ask the Holy Spirit for guidance to review our openness to the Spirit during this day.
  3. Examination: we remain in a reflective space, paying attention to the ways in which we encountered God in our day, allowing thoughts about a new awareness of God to emerge.
  4. Response: we allow ourselves to become aware of our sorrow about our own sinfulness but also a sense of deep joy and gratitude that God has offered us victory through Jesus Christ.
  5. Desire to Move into the Future: we allow this part of the examen to flow naturally from all that has preceded. We ask “How do I look toward the future?”  We try to imagine the ways God might call us and how we might respond with greater faith, humility and courage, especially as we experience the Lord’s calling for painful conversion in some area of our heart.  We conclude by leaving the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead, we go straight for the goal. (Phil. 3:13).

May you be guided by the Holy Spirit in all your life’s endeavours.

About the author, Nancy Phillips.