There is a crisis of discernment in the Church.
You might think that I'm going to write that there is not enough discernment. Maybe I'll write that a failure to discern is causing people to miss their vocations.
But that’s not what I’m about to write.
The crisis in discernment in the Church - and it is likely causing people to miss their vocations - is that many people don’t seem to stop discerning.
Is the word discerning itself becoming as nauseating to you as it is becoming to me? Does discernment sometimes seem to mean not letting God decide, but rather hiding from deciding?
I propose, but do not plan to prove, that hiding from deciding is endemic among serious-minded Christians. I do not plan to prove it because I cannot. But it is my experience. You know a couple that has dated for years while “discerning” marriage. You know people who have "discerned" religious communities for years without ever actually contacting a vocations director from even one of those communities. You know people who “discern” which car to buy, which job to take, and which school to attend. You know people who “discern” which furniture is right for their living room. Whether and where to go on vacation. You know people who “discern” whether to use paper bags or plastic. You know you do.
If my experience jives with yours, read on.
Now, first, I am not saying that discernment is bad. Far from it. Only one bad thing can ever happen in discernment that wouldn't happen otherwise. You might never get off the discernment choo choo train. That’s because implicit in the term discernment is the idea that God has a plan, which is true. Drawn from this fact is the unnecessary implication that we only have to sit around, or maybe pray a lot, and wait for him to reveal it. In the meantime, we’re not responsible, not in the driver seat of the life he has given us to live.
What is often missing in our discernment processes is the final closure of a decision and the resulting action. We often don't get to this final decision and action because we often don't know how. Below, I will give some brief pointers for how to make a good decision.
I'm going to propose that we replace discernment in our minds with a two-phase process that includes discernment. In the first phase, we not only discern, but we also decode. Discern and decode. In the second phase, we decide. Discern, decode, and decide. We alternate between the first and second phases as needed. What follows are brief pointers that have helped me up my game for each of these parts of the process.
In my mind, good, healthy, productive discernment is not hand-wringing. I do not wring my hands. The gesture of hand-wringing is one of confused, hopeless inertia. Instead of that, I bring up with God the things that I want help discerning. I do this during my regular prayer routine as part of my regular prayer agenda. If something is burning in me, I jot it down or pray about it where I am.
In this phase, I ask God to enlighten my mind and my heart and to reveal his will to me. I sit with it. I try to be quiet in case he wants to tell me something then and there. And then I move on.
By decoding I mean breaking down the parts of a question and its context. The component parts are things like:
● What am I trying to accomplish?
● What will it cost in time? In money? In opportunities lost? What else could I do with that time or money?
● If I decide yes, what opportunities appear or disappear?
● If I decide no, what opportunities appear or disappear?
● What do I want? What do I want most deeply?
● Am I afraid of anything? Will any option address that?
● Do I hope for something? Will any option address that?
I try to quantify things as much as possible to at least help me weigh equal options. Recently, I was looking for a new Ryanland to move to. Friends chuckled that I weighed an extra bathroom at "5 points" and every extra 2 minutes of commuting as "-1 point". This degree of quantification doesn't suit everyone or every situation. I wouldn't make it definitive. But this system did help reduce two different, complicated things into roughly comparable things. Then it helped compare them.
Notice that decoding is not about objective, external factors alone. Decoding also encompasses the interior, subjective factors of the people involved. Which do I like more? How will my loved ones feel about it?
Getting Out the Goop
Sometimes, these factors don't seem very orderly and organized. How do you quantify two opposing pangs of the heart? What do you do when discernment feels like wading through a lot of goop without ever making progress? Decoding is also about taking all the massive goop spinning in my head or churning in my heart, and writing it down. Write it down? Well, yes. I write it down. Writing the goop down helps me clarify it and helps get it out of my head.
Back and Forth
When I dig into my goop and sort it out, I often come up with more factors that I can organize somehow. As I organize factors, I find underneath them a layer of good. As long as you aren't going in circles, you are actually making progress. You are uncovering new factors and teasing apart concerns previously hidden.
Bring these factors, even the mush, back to your next prayer time. I write it down so I don't forget. Bring it up with God. Lay it at his feet, listen in case he feels like responding at the moment, and then move on. It's also helpful to bring some of the stuff to friends and mentors, depending on the subject matter. I rarely bother bringing my factors and goop to people whom I don't expect to know better than me on the particular topics. It tends to waste time and add confusion.
We labor under a few misconceptions. I want to clear them up. Also, I want to give a few tips on deciding.
Rule Out Sin
You mustn't sin. Don't. It's always a bad idea. The good news is that if you rule out sinning, any option left to you can't be that bad. It is literally not against the will of God. That's what sinning is. So if you rule that out, you can't go to far wrong. God being generous, we can count on him to keep helping us do his will even if we "discern" the wrong thing. This knowledge takes the pressure off me to "get it right". It helps me to think things out, pray, and decide.
Identifying the Default Position
Not deciding isn't a decision. In reality, the omission of a decision is actually a decision to put off deciding. Does that make your head spin? Mine too. The point is that if you don't decide, you kinda are deciding, aren't you. At least call a spade a spade and figure out what this decision is in reality: it's a default position.
It's possible that your default position isn't bad and you can decide not to decide. If you're deciding whether to enter grad school, your default position is not to go, since that is the course of action that requires the least action.
Accepting Limited Knowledge
We have to act with limited knowledge at all times. Most of the time, we have to make decisions with less than perfect information. It doesn't feel too threatening to us. But when there’s a lot on the line, any gap in our knowledge can feel much more menacing.
If you are missing a piece of information and you can identify what that gap is, it might be worth investigating. "How much will a semester of school cost?” or “How much more will I need for my living expenses?" are questions you can find out with some certainty.
Some information is unknowable. Nobody's going to magically appear and say, "Hey, if you spend that $30k, don’t worry. You won't have any better ideas for that money later." This includes God. It's a shocking statement, but the purpose of discernment isn't for God to sneak us a crib sheet with the answers. He made men and women with brains capable of analysis and decision. There is no reason to think he will be happy if we neglect this duty. Remember the parable of the talents.
But be proactive about these questions. Is it knowable? How? Do I need to know to make a prudent decision? Am I holding out for infallible knowledge? Ask them. Answer them.
Backward Reasoning and the Art of Decision
I can't go through all decision-making here. I certainly can't go through how to get prudent. I'm not there yet, but that is what we are talking about here: growing in prudence. Prudence is the virtue whereby we identify the best means to gain the best good, and one way to do this is through backward reasoning.
Most of us are aware of pro-and-con decision making. That kind of decision-making is almost implicit in my earlier idea of quantifying factors to make comparison easier. It's very valuable when deciding between two things, especially in a vacuum. We're not usually in a vacuum, though.
Usually, we have a bigger goal in mind. It such situations our choice is certain - it's the path to success that is not. Backward reasoning helps in these situations. Backward reasoning is starting at the end goal and working our way back to our current situation. Suppose I want to go to grad school. I figure out what has to happen before that can: I have to qualify with good GRE scores. I have to study for the GRE. I have to sign up for the GRE. Furthermore, I need to build my savings.
As the prerequisites for my goal come into focus, I can start prioritizing them and putting them into order. When the way ahead is uncertain, I can do further research. I should pray for guidance and clarity.
I should decide.
I do not say that we have too much discernment in the Church. Not really. We can't. I do think that we have not enough decision in some quarters in the Church. Not enough decision-making, not enough risk-taking, not enough responsibility-accepting. It's not just us in the Church, either. To me, it seems generational. Within Holy Church, we tend to wrap a lack of decision, courage, and responsibility into the terminology we know: discernment. I hope the thoughts above have sparked thoughts of your own. I hope they've given some context and ideas for how we can discern and decide better.