As a high school teacher, I have the privilege each year of helping my seniors figure out what they are going to do after they graduate. Some obsess and others procrastinate, but they all have a sense that there is this looming countdown to May, whereafter their lives will be unpredictably, and forever, not the same.
For most of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever faced a decision like this. For someone like me, who is gracefully gliding down the latter half of his thirties — well, let’s just say it’s not my first rodeo. And while I would not claim to be a flawless decision maker, I’ve learned a thing or two about discernment through the years.
I first learned what discernment is when one of my college professors showed me the ropes for how one can discern tough, life-changing decisions with a pure heart so that you can become your best self. Here are some practical discernment tips that have helped me through the years. Most are not original. None are universal (take what’s helpful and leave what’s not), but the examples are all my own or of those I’m close to. I hope they’ll help you.
Good decisions are not made in a hurry. Feel free to take days, weeks, months, even years, to discern really big decisions. My wife worked as an emergency room nurse for two full years as she discerned about whether to go to grad school to become a nurse practitioner. She’s now just a few months from graduating, and her long discernment has given her the perseverance to get through a really challenging program. Meanwhile, my buddy who got married after knowing the girl for a couple months? Well, you can probably guess how that’s going.
To the extent that you can, don’t make big decisions quickly. Take the pressure off until you have some time to think clearly and gain some perspective on the situation. This keeps you from deciding based off of an emotional high or low, somebody else’s expectations, or any other outside pressure.
Choose between goods
The only really complicated decisions are the ones where you have to choose between two good options. Like, “I love my girlfriend a lot, but I also think I might need to be single right now.” There are good things about both of those options. What you have to figure out is which one is the greater good. That’s a situation for discernment.
On the other hand, if the choice is between a good option and a bad option, your answer is simple: choose the good option. Notice I did not say your answer is easy (it rarely will be), but it will be simple.
I was recently invited to a bachelor party for a close friend. I could see the disappointment in his eyes when I told him I wouldn’t be going to the “gentlemen’s club” at the end of the night. “Come on, man. We’ve been friends since we were 3. You won’t do this with me?” I said, “Sorry, brother. I love you but I’m asking you to respect me on this one.“ So I played paintball and went for dinner and craps at the casino, but checked out after that. Not easy, but simple.
Be prepared to do what’s necessary
In that vein, know that choosing to do the right (or better) thing might be really hard. It may require sacrifice, loss, and hard work.
My old roommate bounced around between a few jobs when he was first out of college. He is a ridiculously smart, easy-going, and competent guy, but despite everything he tried, he couldn’t shake this feeling that he should be living a more radical lifestyle.
So while most of the rest of our friends have spent the years after college advancing our careers, getting advanced degrees, and buying houses, he has been growing a nonprofit in some of the roughest neighborhoods of Washington, DC. Along the way, he married a badass woman and they have four kids living in a neighborhood most of us would be scared to walk through. And even though they live off of donations and providence, he would tell you he’s absolutely where he’s supposed to be. The hundreds of families they’ve helped would tell you the same.
Make a pros and cons list about which choice will most help you achieve what you really feel called to in life. Which choice will help you more in becoming who you want to be? Talk to a few trusted confidants, including someone older with more experience. Think through every detail: the finances; the effect on your family and friends; your career; your spiritual, physical, and emotional health; your boyfriend or girlfriend. All of these real-life factors are important.
Keep track of your emotions
This is where a journal or diary comes in handy. I’m usually a very inconsistent journaler, but when I have a big decision to discern, I make myself do it regularly. Then after a few weeks or months, I can look back through my journal and get a sense of where my heart has been.
What have I been leaning toward on most days? Have my feelings changed? Are they all over the place (in which case I’m probably not close to a decision) or are they steadily leaning or moving toward one option (in which case I probably am)?
Some other “emotional barometer” type tricks you can do:
- Flip a coin and see how you feel about the result.
- Who is a personal hero of yours? What would they choose?
- Imagine yourself at the end of your life, on your death bed, or even standing before God: How would you feel about this decision then? What do you think an older, wiser you would have wanted you to choose?
Speaking of God
This may seem like a weird tip, but beg God for signs.
How do I know a sign when I see one? How do I know I’m not just reading into things?
The short answer is that you don’t know, which is why it’s a bad idea to rely on signs alone. But signs can confirm what’s already going on in your heart or give you a different perspective on the situation.
In my experience, God speaks mainly through the movements of our hearts and key insights we gain in prayer. Journaling consistently will help you to catch those, but sometimes he also speaks in big, strange, unexpected ways.
The key principle to go by when you think you may be getting a sign from God is to consider it in the context of the rest of your discernment process. A sign is only one data point on your discernment graph. And because it’s often hard in the moment to sort out coincidence from providence, you shouldn’t base your whole decision off of a possible sign.
That said, don’t ignore signs, either. I’ll share a short story from when my wife and I were dating: I had been thinking/praying/discerning about proposing to her for a couple months, and my heart and head were pointing pretty strongly to the “lock it down” option. Except for one day in February, I was all of a sudden not feeling it. Doubts and insecurities would not leave me alone: annoyances with her, thoughts of other girls, you name it. All of a sudden, I was no longer ready to marry this girl.
I happened to be driving her car that day and in an effort to just take a break from my thoughts, I grabbed a CD from the disc sleeve on her sun visor and popped it in. The song was, “Going to the chapel and we’re — gonna get ma-a-arried.”
I thought, “That’s really weird” and hit skip. Track two: “Going to the chapel and we’re — gonna get ma-a-arried.”
Ok, now you’ve got my attention. What else is on this disc? It was just those two tracks, the same song twice, about getting married. To this day we don’t know where that disc came from. It sounds silly, but it was just what I needed to snap me out of my funk. I proposed a month later. She said yes. #LockedItDown
At some point, after some period of thinking, praying, talking, and discerning, you will understand what your heart is saying. You will have considered all the practical aspects of each choice, and you will start to feel like you are pretty sure what you should do.
At that point, it’s time to act. Don’t hesitate. Choose the right time, be brave, be confident, and do it. Proceed in faith, knowing that it is what God has called you to, that it will help you become the best version of yourself. Though there may be rough waters, you’ll know you are setting sail on the next leg of your life’s purpose, in the right direction, and for the right reasons.
Note: For the writing of this article (and the handful of good decisions I’ve managed to make in my life), I’m very much indebted to the insights of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Father Regis Armstrong, OFM Cap., as well as Timothy Gallagher’s book Discerning the Will of God and Warren Sazama’s article on “Ignatian Principles for Making Prayerful Decisions.”