"Discernment is not trying to figure out what God is thinking.
It is trying to receive what God is giving."
-Fr. Greg Carruthers S. J.
Discernment is a prayerful process of observing the movements of one’s heart, while, like a detective, being attentive to the sources of those movements. When we use the process of discernment to ask God to reveal His will for our lives, this is called vocational discernment.
It is useful to think of a vocation as the primary relationship that frames our exclusive gift to God and His Church. It is not the activities inherent to the vocation, which sometimes lead people to rule out a given state of life. Rather, vocational discernment is an act of discovering who God made you to be. It is your deepest identity as the once-in-eternity creation you are.
What we want for our lives can sometimes leave God, the author of our very nature, out of the picture. We fear that He will call us to a life of misery, and out of this mistrust, we keep matters in our own hands. Thankfully this is a lie, for Christ came that we may “have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The Old Testament confirms this: when we “delight in the Lord, He will give us the desires of our hearts” (Psalm 37:4). The other lie inherent in this mindset is that we are bound like robots to drudge through the chains of a permanent state of life. This is not so. God respects our freedom. He gave it to us. No matter what vocation He invites us to, we are welcome to say yes or to choose otherwise. If we are not free to commit to a vocation—possibly due to a lack of maturity, an exaggerated fear, or an addiction—we need to grow in freedom before we can make a vocational choice.
We can now safely conclude that God wants us to be happy—the life-giving kind of happiness that is deep and lasting. This begs the question then: what makes us happy? We find temporary enjoyment in worldly pleasures, but where is lasting happiness? Secular research confirms the Church’s teachings on this: It is in self-giving that we come to know the enduring joy God longs us to have. Deep and lasting happiness can be found within our vocation, and it is in that self-gift that we can experience the fulfillment we seek. There is no satisfaction without rigor, and it is the sacrifice of an exclusive gift of self that provides it in spades.
dis · cern
To perceive that which is obscure.
To distinguish something with difficulty.
dis (apart) + cenere (separate)
With this right understanding of happiness in mind, the following points have proven helpful to many through the path of discernment:
First and foremost, an authentic Christian vocation is always rooted in being a disciple of Jesus. Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning “to call.” Our vocation is a calling from God, the author of our souls, so it is He who designed us for it, and He who reveals it. It is in getting to know Jesus and modeling our life after his that we can know God’s will for our lives. Life with Christ grows in prayer, in reading the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. These practices provide the grace needed to pursue our vocation.
Second, awareness of our gifts and weaknesses can show us which vocations are possible for us. God has already endowed us with a certain nature, and the grace of our vocation should build upon it. It is important to listen to our hearts, paying attention to those activities and relationships that give us the most peace and joy, for they may be the promptings of the Holy Spirit showing us ways to creatively respond to God’s call. Discernment is aided considerably by active involvement in the Church—in different parish ministries, in Bible studies, in volunteer work—because trying out various means of service can reveal the gifts of the Spirit within us.
As for the gifts we do not yet possess, and the many sins we’ve already committed, know that God works with what we have and who we are today. He is the master of bringing goodness out of darkness. Look what He did with original sin! He brought the greatest good—the redemption of Our Lord Jesus Christ—into the world. Most of sacred scripture is one story after another of humans turning away from God. We need only look at the lives of three early saints, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, to see that God is not thwarted by human failure.
Discernment is best done in company. One’s pastor, friends, family, and fellow parishioners can be helpful sources of insight. They can see things about us that we can’t see as easily. As the discernment progresses, a spiritual director is often necessary. The whole of Heaven is waiting to intercede for us all, so call upon the Saints often.
Two final points: no one is told exactly what to do with his or her life; and discernment is not a vocation. Our vocation is a gift made in faith. If we knew exactly what God wanted or what would make us most happy, there would be no leaps of faith, no dynamic relationship with Our Lord based on love and trust. There comes a time when we have to take a risk and try something. God can do much more with mistakes than He can with inaction.
Articles on Discernment
Our monthly Discernment Newsletter features articles relevant to the discernment process. Back issues are posted here. If you'd like to subscribe, enter your email address in the box below.
September 2018: Discernment Rules from a Jesuit
October 2018: Signs of a Priestly Vocation
November 2018: The Role of Prayer in Discernment
November 2019: The Four Voices in Discernment
December 2018: Overcoming Fears of the Priesthood