Discernment: Making Choices and Decisions
By Herb Robles
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Whether to take a new job, move to another home, commit to this ministry or that ministry, or whatever, we wish to make the right choice. To help us make life's choices we have a process called discernment to help us listen to the voice of God from within us. St. Paul tells us about this in 1st Corinthians 2:9.
...the things that no eye has seen, and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him! These are the very things that God has revealed to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths or God. After all, the depths of a man can only be known by his own spirit, not by any other man...
We will need a means to reach into that spirit within us whet her we discern by ourselves, as a group, or with a guide, for ultimately we are the ones who read our own spirit, we are the one gifted with free will, we are the one who makes the choice. Much of the writing on discernment looks to St. Ignatius of Loyola as a guide since he developed the steps for making a choice in his Spiritual Exercises way back in the 16th century. These are his steps:
- STEP 1: Bring to mind the choice
- STEP 2: Pray for an objectivity or indifference.
- STEP 3: Beg God to bring to mind what we ought to do
- STEP 4: List the advantages (pro) and disadvantages (con)
- STEP 5: Come to a decision
- STEP 6: Turn to God to confirm the decision (peace)
Let us review these steps in more detail so that we understand what they mean and know how to do each stop in a practical way.
Step 1: Bring to mind the choice
It may seem obvious "to place before my mind the object about which I wish to make a choice", but oftentimes we go into a form of denial by hiding the real decision to be made in our subconscious. Ignatius says:
First Point. This is to place before my mind the object with regard to which I wish to make I choice, for example, an office, or the reception of a benefice, or anything else that may be the object of a choice subject to change.
It is a good idea to put this choice in writing. Often this will bring clarity, keep us from jumping from thought to thought. Try to write the issue down in one sentence. This may be the first time we really see the choice clearly. "A problem well stated is half solved".
It would be helpful to start a journal of our thoughts as we proceed through discernment. Try to write down our feelings and emotions particularly. Whenever we discover a strong emotion, go back to it, probe it, find out why it brings on such a strong feeling.
Step 2: Pray for objectivity or indifference
We are asked to eliminate any bias we have by being indifferent about the outcome or choice that will be made, If we are fearful of one pole or the other, we have already made the choice in our mind before we begin to decide! Many feel that by opting for indifference, the worst things will happen to them, they will surely have to make the most painful choice, or an impossible choice. Yet this is really a case of suspending judgment until the results come in. We are praying for freedom of choice, for our free will to be manifested.
This "letting go" is not easy, but the acknowledgment that there is something we don't already know is essential for growth.
There is a basic sequence in modern problem solving whether it be for art, science, business, education or whatever:
- Define or state the problem
- Create solutions (option)
- Judge or select the desired solution
It is imperative this sequence be followed without exception. We must never, never, ever, try to create solutions before we have stated the problem (as our grammar school math teacher told us, "State the problem!"), and we must never judge or prejudge (select a choice) before we have finished the creation phase (that is be indifferent so that all the alternatives can be exposed), Ignatius puts it as follows:
Second Point. It is necessary to keep as my aim the end for which I am created, that is, (the praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul. Besides this I must be indifferent, without any inordinate attachment, so that I am not more inclined or disposed to accept the object in question than to relinquish it, nor to give it up than to accept it. I should be like a balance or equilibrium, without leaning to either side, that I might be ready to follow whatever I perceive is more for the glory and praise of God our Lord and for the salvation my soul.
Ignatius described this indifference in another manner when he added a First Principle and Foundation to his exercises:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him. Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, long life to a short life. The same holds true for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.
Step 3: Beg God to bring to mind what we should do
We should always ask God to help us to do what we're about to do. Before we pray ask, "Lord help us to pray". Before we discern, ask, beg the Lord for guidance, that we can really do this thing right, that we can place the Lord's values properly, that we can understand and assess the matter property. Ignatius says:
Third Point. I should beg God our Lord to deign to move my will, and to bring to my mind what I ought to do in this matter that would be more for His praise and glory. Then I should use the understanding to weigh the matter with care and fidelity, and make my choice in conformity with what would be more pleasing to His most holy will.
This prayer is also ongoing throughout our discernment process. Since prayer is merely being in the presence of God just as we would be with any of our friends, the prayer involves all the styles we display when with our friends. For example we may talk, listen, cry, laugh, just sit, complain, work, play, waste time, share, or the myriad of symptoms friends show. In the case of discernment, just allow a discreet tine for prayer at the beginning, even if it seems fruitless, and retain that touch with God as we go along, listening carefully to the thoughts that come to us in our imagination, feelings, emotions, and through others.
Step 4: List the advantages (pros) and disadvantages (cons)
Simply assess the facts. Study the issue, gather and ponder all the information we can. Be open in looking at all considerations, don’t filter out some.
The simplest way is:
- Take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the center, vertically from top to bottom.
- Write "PRO" at the top of the left column, and "CON" on top of the left column.
- Begin listing all the advantages of making one choice under the "PRO" heading. Write down every advantage which comes to mind whether important, likely, practical or not! Again, don't filter out any thoughts. The important thing is to get out as many advantages as we can. Some will have clarity only later. Leaving any thought in the subconscious places it out of reach.
- Next, do the same with all the disadvantages we can think of, listing them under the "CON" heading. We can also do PRO/CON listing with a friend or support group.
Don't expect the finished sheet of paper to work like a mathematical analysis where the answer is totaled up at the bottom. What it will do is bring the whole matter to the consciousness, enable us to see the issue more clearly, to see aspects we had ignored, and got rid of our tunnel vision, which keeps us from seeing all possibilities.
Just look at the PRO/CON list for awhile, then put it away for awhile, then look at it again after you've slept or gone to a party, or walked at the seashore. This "alternation" principle is very valuable in modern problem solving techniques. Alternate between thinking about the issue, and not. Alternate between thinking about it alone, and with another or a group.
Try putting our self completely into the PRO or the CON as if, in our imagination, we've really made that choice. Just observe the feelings and issues that come. Try to add them to our list of PRO/CON.
Fourth Point. This will weigh the matter by reckoning the number of advantages and benefits that would accrue to me if I had the proposed office or benefice solely for the praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul. On the other hand, I should weigh the disadvantages and dangers there might be in having it. I will do the same with the second alternative, that is, weigh the advantages and benefits as well as the disadvantages and danger of not having it.
When working with another person, a spiritual director or helper, or with a group, remember their role is not to make the decision for us or give advice as to what decision we should made—the choice must remain with us! A nun torn between two choices for a job in her ministry, asked a friend for assistance. The friend, thinking the nun was overly troubled and only needed any kind of decision for relief, recommended one of the choices, and gave her logical reasons why it would be best. It was the wrong choice! Fortunately after two years the nun had another opportunity to take the job she had passed up.
The helper may just be a listener, or someone to help identify the pros and cons, to clarify the factors, to reflect with us—not to decide for us! A helper is biased as well, but another person can help to identify our own biases so we may see them clearly, so they're not subtly influencing us from behind the barricade of our own subconscious.
Ignatius also has a "Second Way of Making a Correct and Good Choice of a Way of Life" with its own steps. Some of it would be a useful process at this point:
- Imagine what we would tell another we'd never met making this same choice for the greater glory of God and the perfection of their soul.
- Imagine what decision and action we would follow if we were at the moment of our death.
- Imagine we were in the presence of our judge on the last day and what decision would we then wish we had made.
In all of these steps we must not be afraid to look at all the truth and facts and not to be afraid to consider alternatives in our imagination or on paper. We have not made a decision by merely looking at some issue or imagining what an alternative would be like. In order to be stronger, we must often “wrestle” with God to encounter the truth and to understand it and to know what God is like. Those who wrestle with God as Jacob did end up being the strongest:
And Jacob was left alone. And there was one that wrestled with him until daybreak who seeing that he could not master him struck him in the socket of his hip, and Jacob's hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him. He said, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” But Jacob answered, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He then asked, '”What is your name?” “Jacob,” he replied. He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have been strong against God, you shall prevail against men.
If we merely accept the decision which comes to us without probing it, without feeling the disturbance underling it, without knowing the basic choice we are really making, we may miss a great opportunity of our life. Decision making is the next step.
Step 5: Come to a decision
Fifth Point. After I have gone over and pondered in this way every aspect of the matter in question, I will consider which alternative appears more reasonable. Then I must come to a decision in the matter under deliberation because of weightier motives presented to my reason, and not because of any sensual inclination.
We may arrive at this decision step prematurely due to time restraints imposed by someone else such as a contract renewal date, or "Let me know by next Friday," or we may reach this stage by discernment (as a result of the process, the choice now becomes clear).
Often, however, we may reach this step without a clear choice being evident. What do we do?
Doing nothing is a very good option even if there is a time deadline. By doing nothing we mean leting the issue incubate quietly, even if only for 5 minutes. If we have no discernable decision it is most likely that we haven't listened to ourselves. Find a quiet place, relax, sit quietly, or walk peacefully, or read reflectively. Observe the thoughts which come to mind casually, and particularly our feelings.
If we are troubled, look inward to discover why we are troubled, probe for the source of that troubled feeling. Abba Dorotheus, one of the Desert Fathers wrote in the 7th century, "But the chief cause of being troubled is that we do not blame ourselves." What he meant was that anytime we are troubled we must look inside ourselves, because nothing from the outside can make us feel troubled, only some motive in our self. Often just by discovering that motive, the trouble disappears.
I have seen the wicked in his triumph towering like a cedar of Lebanon, but when next I passed, he was not there. I looked for him but he was nowhere to be found.
The gift of discernment is like this. Some shadows are erased, so that the beauty of a good decision begins to shine through the haze of conflict and fear. In discernment we merely look inside ourselves for this to occur.
An alternative to doing nothing and incubating the decision is to review all that we have discovered during the preceding steps, such as our PRO/CON list, but to do so with complete detachment or indifference, as if we were looking at what someone else had done. Before doing so try to be in relaxed prayer.
Another alternative is to describe or show the PRO/CON list to another person, and to clearly state the original issue to them. Ask them not to make the decision for us but to ask us probing questions about it. Not to give us advice but to challenge us in our understanding.
Another technique, called Synectics, is to make the familiar strange, or the strange familiar. Use analogy, metaphor, or fantasy to imagine this decision in another set of clothes so we observe it without our personal bias. Imagine this decision actually happening to another person, or change the decision happening to us so that it looks different, or we are different. "How would I resolve this in my kitchen?"
Know when to walk away from this problem. Let it rest. We may be digging the same hole deeper and deeper, instead of discovering new holes in which to strike paydirt.
Spend some time in contemplation with scripture. Just reflect on a short passage or phrase. God often talks to us "between the lines". For example:
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us Lord, we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid...”
Why are we afraid? Why do we sense God is asleep? Why do we feel alone and abandoned in our decision? Perhaps in reflecting on scripture we may discover our real fears and consequently be able to resolve them because we see them as they really are. Perhaps we feel abandoned because we are afraid to disclose to another that we have problems or we have difficulty in trusting another. Perhaps in our quiet reflection we see the choice we must make, we make it, and we feel the peace the disciples felt when the tempest was calmed.
Step 6: Turn to God to confirm the decision (peace)
Sixth Point. After such a choice or decision, the one who has made it must turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord, and offer Him his choice that the Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it if it is for His greater service and praise.
The manner in which to confirm our choice is good in conformance to God, is to look for a symptom of this. The symptom we have is a sense of peace. Peace means there is a harmony, a calm, an absence of disagreement or disturbance. It means we are no longer troubled so that means we have gone past the blocks and shadows within ourselves, and we see clearly, and the stress has vanished.
But peace is also a symptom of a pure gift from God, it is the affirmation of God's presence. So we look for this peace or maybe just a relative peace if the issue is complex.
If we are not feeling at peace but have selected a decision choice, we may ask God that if this were not the right decision for us, may we feel troubled by it. On the other hand, if this is the correct decision for us, may we have a sense of peace about it. Then we should be observant for the events and feelings which occur. For example, if we suddenly run into one obstacle after another, perhaps we should take the hint.
A woman was very troubled by her job. One night her former boss, the vice president of a large company, phoned and asked her to take her old job back, saying he was "tired of the dummies they keep sending me." He offered to bridge the five years of service since she had left him, so that she would have full benefits, vacation, and retirement. When she called a friend to ask what she should do, the friend asked if she had been praying about her job. When she said she had, the friend asked if she needed a brick wall to fall on her!
Intuition, which may not have been reliable at the beginning of the discernment process, is now sought out! Psychologists have discovered that our choices may be subtly but strongly biased before we have been subjected to objectivity and gathered all the facts. For example, we are naturally biased against change to our established patterns or against choices which are expressed in negative terms of risk rather than opportunity, such as, "losing our job" as opposed to "taking a new job". We tend intuitively away from a choice stated in terms which imply we risk losing something. But after the process of the first four or five Ignatian steps, it is precisely to the intuition we look for insight.
Ernest Larkin, O.C. wrote, "If we pray, God will come." This is true in discernment. Our problem is we have come to believe that God only talks to holy mystics and that he only talks in a voice from the heavens. But God talks to us in very ordinary ways, often in our imagination and emotions, often through others. Since we distrust our emotions, we tend not to confirm those ordinary intuitive thoughts as being God. But that is precisely how God relates to us. Bernard Shaw, in his play St. Joan, has Joan of Arc describing what her "voices" are like to a military commander. He reacts, "They come from your imagination." To which Joan replies, "Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us."