Should I move across the country to that place I’ve always thought about living someday?
Things are rough with my girlfriend right now. Should we break up?
I wonder if I should quit my job or try to stick it out. My boss is AWFUL.
I bet you’ve tackled a big personal decision like one of these. It can be frightening, exciting, exhausting, and exhilarating all at the same time. We can try to avoid it, but decision making is one of those fundamental human experiences we all have to face every once in a while.
For a lot of my life, when I’ve encountered a decision like this, I would go with my gut. I’d feel out the idea in my mind for a few days and then just go for whatever option was sitting the best with me. Most of the time, looking back, I would think my decision turned out all right, but sometimes, I wouldn’t.
Even when I was happy with my decision, I would often second guess myself. I’d ask things like, “What if I change my mind? What am I missing out on by having chosen this option? What if I don’t actually want what I thought I did? What if I don’t really know what I want? What if what I want isn’t what’s most important? What if what I want isn’t ultimately good for me, or vice versa?” And so on and so forth.
This started to change for me in college, when I was lucky enough to become close to one of my professors who also happened to be a Franciscan friar and Catholic priest. One day, we were discussing the deep issues of life (a favorite pastime of mine), and he said to me, “You should always follow your heart, but first, make sure your heart is pure.”
The phrase immediately struck me as true, but I didn’t really know exactly what he meant. I wanted to know more. Over our next few conversations, he slowly began to unpack for me an ancient method of decision making called discernment.
Discernment is based on the ideas of several of Christianity’s great mystic minds: St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Paul, and St. John, just to name a few. It’s premised on the idea that God speaks to each of us through the good and holy desires of our hearts and minds. God made us fundamentally good — in His own image and likeness, despite our deep brokenness — and God wants us to mature into our full selves: to become the most fully actualized, best versions of ourselves. This is our divine calling and what He made us for.
But alongside this God-given goodness, we also have deep brokenness: fears, selfishness, insecurities, and wounds. This is what the Bible calls “sin.” These, too, speak loudly in our deepest thoughts and feelings and hold us back from being who we are meant to be.
And so within ourselves, we find this struggle between our true selves and our false selves. St. Ignatius describes the struggle as a “good spirit” and an “evil spirit” trying to sway us — kind of like the angel and the devil on a cartoon character’s shoulder. These voices compete for influence over our decisions.
The courageous part of you could be telling you to move across the country, but the fearful part of you is yelling that you will have no friends so you’d better stay where you are. The voice of your prudence could be saying to break up with your significant other, but the voice of your lust is reminding you of what you’d be missing out on. Perhaps your perseverance is telling you to stick it out in a job that is hard, but your recklessness just wants to smash a three-hole puncher into your boss’s stupid face.
I think this is what my professor meant by “make sure your heart is pure.” We need to make sure that we base our choices off of the good desires in our hearts, that we choose based on the goodness within us (like our strength, hope, generosity, and compassion) and ignore the evil (fear, greed, or pride).
This is no easy task, to be sure. Trying to parse our selfish desires from our altruistic ones can seem daunting, but it is possible to learn over time. In doing so, we grow in self-knowledge, and we can be sure we are listening to God’s call in our lives: that we are becoming our true selves.
Discernment helps us make the right decision for the right reasons. More than that, it gives us confidence to persevere in faithfulness to the commitments we choose. For my wife and me, the first few years of our marriage were difficult. We had to work hard to build healthy patterns of living, communicating, and growing together. We both had moments of doubt about the person we’d chosen to be with for the rest of our lives. Do you know what gave us hope? Looking back on our discernment process to get married.
Both she and I had discerned and prayed seriously about whether we should get married and both of us came to the clear conclusion that we were supposed to be together. So in those later moments of doubt, we looked back on that discernment as a source of strength. We knew that we had chosen each other for the right reasons and had confidence that God had called us to be married to one another.
Instead of viewing those initial struggles as a sign of a poor decision, we were able to see them as obstacles to tackle together, because we knew we had made the right decision with pure hearts. It helped us see the current struggle as a step to take together in becoming our true selves.
You may or may not be like me. As I mentioned before, my default mode of decision making is by going with my gut. Depending on your personality (or Myers-Briggs type if you’re into that — any other ENFJ’s in the house?), maybe you tend to follow your gut, too. Or you may think more logically and consider every possibility. Maybe you try make the most sensible decision. Perhaps you do what’s expected by those who are most important to you. Maybe you like to be a rebel and do the unexpected. Maybe you act impulsively and just choose something. Maybe you beg God for signs every day.
Each of these tendencies can be helpful, but they also have their drawbacks. Discernment helps us capture the best of each. It’s a holistic approach to help us get in touch with the true, good, and beautiful desires God has placed deep within us.
Listening to your heart, evaluating with your mind, and bringing God into the conversation through prayer helps us to clarify our motivations and desires, gives us confidence in the decisions we choose, and teaches us to be authentically our best selves.