In my work and ministry with college students, their biggest questions are: Why am I here? How am I gifted? Where do I go next? What should I do with my life? Who am I? Most of us have the same questions — regardless of age or stage of life — and they are all questions of discernment.
For the first 10 years of my journey as a follower of Christ, I associated the word “discernment” almost exclusively with the need to find the “right” path in order to end up in the specific life circumstances that God had in mind for me. Working with that definition, I was skeptical of discernment, because I am skeptical of the belief that God has a detailed life plan for each of us, with each relationship, each job, each destination, each meal planned out, leaving us to figure out which one is “correct.”
But discernment does not start with discerning the will of God for our lives. This facet of discernment is important and good, but it is not the starting place. Discernment starts with discerning the presence of God all around us. We come to know the character, thoughts, and preferences of a person by paying attention to their daily, ordinary words and actions. God is no different. We study to learn about God — just as we might read a biography about a historical figure — but knowing about someone does not equate to knowing them. To know God, we must first discern God’s presence in our lives, in our surroundings, and in our relationships before we can discern and obey God’s will for us. We must ask God, “Who are you?” before we are able to hear the answer to the secondary question, “What do you want me to do?” The good news is that God is eager to be known.
I use these four criteria for my own discernment processes and for helping college students discern where God is in their own lives. These criteria are not a formula for certainty, but are more like the four legs of a sturdy chair that we can be confident (if not certain) will support us as we seek God: (1) the indwelling of the Spirit, (2) the example of the Scriptures, (3) the voice of the community, and (4) the fruits of the judgment.
The Indwelling of the Spirit
Paying attention to the work of God in and around us helps us to know God better. It also helps us to become more Christ-like. As we seek to know God and open ourselves to the Spirit, we not only come to recognize what reflects the Spirit of God outside of us; we also come to recognize the Spirit of God within us. As our relationship with God grows in breadth and depth, we may trust our inner promptings and desires to reflect the character and will of God, too. No longer do we necessarily need to ask God everything and wait for an explicit answer; we can trust — like adult children of a loving parent who has shaped us well — in our own judgments.
However, as broken people, we must constantly maintain a healthy dose of skepticism that what we’re sensing is really from the Spirit of the Lord. This doesn’t need to be a shameful reality. Instead, our own limitations constantly redirect our attention back to the point of discernment: seeking to know God and opening ourselves to be known by God more. Like discernment itself, welcoming the Spirit into our lives and selves is primarily a relational process, so there is no destination to be reached, no moment at which we can claim arrival. There is always the potential for more, which requires a constant, radical openness to the indwelling of God. This is primarily an opportunity to deepen our experience of God; nevertheless, our own deceptive capacities necessitate three other legs of discernment so that we may move forward with decisions in confidence.
The Example of the Scriptures
One of the most important ways we come to know God and discern the Spirit in and around us is by immersing ourselves in the self-revelation of God through Scripture. We read Scripture in part because we want to know about God’s actions in the history of God’s people. We also read Scripture because we passionately love God, and the living nature of the story somehow prompts us to experience and know God’s self. As we immerse ourselves in the biblical story, and as we accept the invitation to participate in that story through the indwelling of the Spirit, we develop an intuition for what God values and where those values are or are not manifesting in our lives.
In cases in which we are discerning a specific path to take or choice to make, we must take the time to measure our inclinations and assessments against Scripture. This does not mean taking isolated verses or passages from the Bible as our “answer” from God. Proof-texting is an exceedingly dangerous method of discernment. Instead, we must look to the overarching themes, values, and principles that permeate the Bible and God’s nature as it’s revealed in Scripture, especially in the person of Jesus. Since even understanding and applying the Bible requires discernment, we clearly need three other legs to stand on in the discernment process.
The Voice of the Community
The third leg is listening to the input of a loving, trustworthy, and intimate community. As members of the Body of Christ, we not only have a responsibility to the community to which we belong, but we also have the opportunity to greatly benefit from the diverse experiences and perspectives of others. As we discern wise, healthy, God-honoring, and neighbor-loving decisions, the voices of those who are farther along in life than we are and who have different gifts than we do can help guide and affirm our decisions, and they can help us execute our decisions once we discern what to do.
Relying on communal voices is a vulnerable process. In an unhealthy environment, relying on others can lead to misdirection at best and abuse at worst. So relational discernment is also necessary to ensure one’s community is qualified and trustworthy: Does the community reflect Christ-like qualities, like love, hospitality, generosity, mutuality, humility, and peacemaking? In the context of a community like this, vulnerability is a gift rather than a liability.
The Fruits of the Judgment
Even with the sturdiness and reliability of the other three legs of discernment, making a decision is never a 100-percent certainty. No matter how confident we may be, God’s guidance and purposes are often only evident with hindsight. We are therefore responsible for looking back at the discernment process, the decision we made, and whether our choice bore the fruits of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others. After all, both Jesus and Paul encourage us to examine the fruits of a choice to discern whether it is from God. In short, past decisions and experiences inform our character, which informs future decisions and experiences, so looking back on the fruits of past decisions in our own lives and in the lives of others can help guide us in present and future discernment processes.
Looking back on discernment and realizing that we made a wrong turn should not be a source of shame, even if it is painful, and even if it requires repentance. God can redeem all things and work any situation for good. Disobedience is instead an opportunity to cultivate obedience. First, a poor decision is an opportunity to gain wisdom. This wisdom will serve us well in future discernment processes, and, if we are integrated into a community, that wisdom can help others avoid similar mistakes as well. Second, discernment gone awry is an opportunity to draw close to God. God is uniquely present in our struggles and sufferings, and God knows full well what it means to be human, which means God knows how difficult it is for us as we struggle to discern and obey. Finally, misperceptions of God’s will can be a hopeful reminder to us that God desires for us to flourish. As people of hope, we can stand firm in the love of God, even when we recognize the moments when we have failed to do just that.