I have spent a fair amount of time trying to understand the discernment process and help others execute this spiritual practice as well. My dissertation was on the psychological aspects of discerning the vocation to ministry and I frequently present on the topic at conferences and workshops. I approach this practice from a psychological and spiritual perspective. To fully grasp discernment there are a number of questions to reflect upon in a prayerful way. First, we need to ask ourselves what gifts we have. We need to be sure we know how God has blessed us because these gifts are the instruments God uses to accomplish what he wants to do through us. Are we good at writing? Do we teach well? Maybe we’re good with our hands or show artistic skills with wood and paint. Recognizing your gifts helps you identify how God equips you for kingdom work. He wouldn’t ask someone struggling with public speaking to be a great preacher. He might ask a great leader incapable of speaking to lead, but if speaking is important in that role he will provide someone who can help (Think of Moses and Aaron). If God has called you to do something he equips you for it. Too often people think God will give them special powers from outside of their current talents to do kingdom work. More often God works from within the individual and uses their gifts to accomplish what needs done. Sure, God can work outside the natural order, but more often he builds upon natural processes to do supernatural things. This is the sacramental perspective of the Christian faith allowing Christians to believe God’s grace builds upon our nature (See Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on this). So the first thing to ask is “What are my gifts?”
The second question to ask yourself is how God wants you to use your gifts. If you’re good at listening to people and enjoy helping them discover their potential you have a couple of options. Perhaps you might be a good therapist. Another option might be to become a school teacher or pastor. All of these are paths allowing you to use the gifts God has given you. To know which of these paths to follow requires prayer, reflection, and envisioning yourself in any of these roles. Allow God to speak to your spirit and see if you can identify which of these paths are most fulfilling. Think about what it might be like to do the work you feel called to even when it’s tough and doesn’t pay well. Is it something you still want? Do you still feel called to be a part of that profession, environment, and community? Are you willing to suffer in order to execute what you believe God is asking of you? These questions help you know more clearly if God is asking you to fulfill a particular role.
To answer the above questions we need to accurately assess what we’re able to do, how we might feel doing it, and how well it can be done. Psychologists have known for some time people are miserable at self-assessment. David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University has done research demonstrating people overestimate their abilities more than accurately assess how well they perform on particular tasks. In fact, the less seasoned a person is regarding a task the better they think they can do it. One of the key reasons psychologists attribute this overestimation is a lack of accurate and honest feedback from others. Most of us don’t like telling someone they’re not as good at something as they think they are. That type of honesty requires an intimate relationship many of us don’t foster with one another. That’s why the final requirement of discernment is having someone you respect and trust share what they think God is asking of you. To discern God’s will in your life well, You want someone who can be honest and give you a good assessment of your skills. You want someone who can speak into the discernment process and give you an honest and accurate assessment of how God has gifted you and how well you use those gifts. It’s only through this trust and knowing what this friend is sharing with is done in love that you can have a more accurate sense of your gifts and how they can best be used.
So how can you facilitate proper discernment? Let me summarized what we just covered. First, care for yourself in a holistic way. Care for your body, your mind, your emotions, your relationships, and your spirit. God speaks to the whole person, not just one piece of who you are. Secondly, reflect on how God has gifted you so you can be aware of the talents the Lord wants you to use for building his kingdom. If God has called you to do something he will equip you for it in one way or another. Third, after identifying your gifts reflect on how God wants you to use them. Imagine yourself in a number of scenarios and see which speaks to the meaning and purpose of your life. Lastly, and most importantly, allow your deepest spiritual friend and advisor to speak into what you believe God is asking of you. They will help keep you from overestimating your talents and provide you with an anchor to keep you from straying too far from reality.
By following these steps we can have a better sense of God’s will in our lives and our ability to accomplish it. The key is not confusing God’s will with our own psychological processes, proclivities, and illusions as well as identifying evil inclinations Satan whispers in our ears. Our own psychological processes can be as confusing as the whispers of Satan so be intentional about your discernment, allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you, but realize it us through these natural processes that God will do supernatural things. Allow yourself to be his instrument!