What do I do Next?

Steps in Discernment

Is there an invitation from the Lord?

The word ‘discernment’ is used to describe the whole process by which we listen to God and listen to our own hearts; gradually coming to know who God is calling us to be and where he is leading us. It is not something we just decide to do one afternoon, like baking a cake or watching a film. It is a journey that involves patience, honesty, perseverance, generosity, courage, and a sense of humour! It is a personal journey that will also involve trusted friends and the Christian community. Within all our discerning we are trying to hear the invitation of Christ to follow him in a particular way and to become the person he wants us to be.

Christians talk about how God ‘calls’ us to do something, and perhaps we think this means that one day we will literally hear a voice telling us what to do. Sometimes God does speak to us in clear and dramatic ways, but more often he ‘speaks’ to us in ordinary ways. He guides us through the deepest desires of our hearts (calling us ‘from within’) and the events and circumstances of our lives (calling us ‘from without’).

Here we look at some of the many ways that God can guide you and pull you in a certain direction – whether it concerns a small choice, a medium-sized career move, or a lifelong commitment. Beneath everything, you are trying to know God’s will for you, to listen to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit deep in your heart, and trying to respond generously. It is about a personal relationship with the Lord.

… but don’t over-analyse!

You don’t need to over-analyse your life, looking for conclusive signs in every mood or event. This can become an obsession, and even a superstition, like reading the tea leaves or the horoscopes. The ‘signs’ listed here simply point to some areas of life that you can pay attention to, ‘listening’ to what they mean. When you stand back and take a look at the big picture, perhaps a pattern emerges, and you sense that you are being drawn in a particular direction. Usually, you don’t really need more signs, you just need to look and listen more carefully.

Desire and attraction

What do you care about? What do you love? What do you feel passionate about? What would you love to commit yourself to? What do you feel pulled towards – even if you can’t explain why?

Admiration

Which people do you admire the most? Is it because of who they are or what they stand for or what they do? What is it about them or their vocation that you have been attracted to? What does it stir up in your own heart? Which person, alive now, would you most like to be? Which saints, from the past, inspire you most? Why?

Enjoyment

What do you like doing? Not just for leisure or fun – but what kind of work and activities do you enjoy most? Which bring the best out of you and gives you satisfaction at the end of a hard day?

Skills

What are you good at? What are your gifts and skills and aptitudes? Not just your qualifications (although these are often relevant) but your gifts of character and personality too. How could you best use all that God has given you and make a difference?

Value

Of the many projects and careers you are interested in, which of them are really worthwhile? Which allow you to contribute to something that is not just a waste of time? What do you actually believe in and want to promote? This doesn’t mean you have to choose a ‘religious’ or ‘charitable’ work – as if all the ordinary jobs people do in the world are a second-best option for Christians. But you have to have some sense that you believe in what you are doing. Put it the other way round, you should avoid any choices that take you into an area that is corrupt or immoral, and above all avoid any wrongdoing yourself.

Events and circumstances

Sometimes an opportunity opens up unexpectedly and you want to make the most of it. It wasn’t planned, and you are not quite sure how it fits into the rest of your life, but you feel an instinctive enthusiasm, and you want to ‘seize the day’. Or you are waiting for an event to unfold that is now beyond your control: exam results, feedback from a job interview, a medical report. You may have a passionate desire to follow one path, but circumstances make it impossible. The Lord opens doors, and closes them, through the ordinary events of your life, through the decisions that others make, and through the concrete situation you are in. You can trust that God is guiding all these circumstances and leading you to where you are meant to be. He is more powerful than all the other forces that seem to be shaping your life.

Other people

If people encourage you in a particular decision or way of life, if they ‘believe in you’, this can be a sign that you are going in the right direction. Sometimes other people can see your own potential more clearly than you can yourself. You might be afraid or lacking confidence, but they can see the possibilities, and encourage you to go in one direction, or perhaps discourage you from going in another direction. It’s good to talk to people that know you well, people you trust – friends, family, teachers, priests – and see what they think about your ideas for the future. They might have another perspective that helps you. But other people can also get things wrong, and become over-enthusiastic about your vocation, or project their own ideals onto your life – so you need to be cautious and not follow the advice someone else gives you uncritically.

Inner conviction

You might have a clear, inner conviction that something is right for you; almost like an unshakeable knowledge of who you are and what is important for you. More than just a desire or an attraction – it is like a sense of inevitability, part of your identity. It might have been a part of you for as long as you can remember; or it might have dawned slowly; or it might come upon you like a moment of inspiration. This inner conviction is not an infallible sign of your vocation – it might need interpreting or purifying – but it is certainly something that you should listen to carefully.

Ordinary prayer

When you are praying (talking to God, asking his help, or just sitting in silence) – do certain ideas keep coming back to you? When you let go of your distractions for a moment, and open your heart to God in prayer, it can allow your deepest concerns to come to the surface, and allow the Lord to ‘speak’ to you. Sometimes an idea comes to mind in prayer, or a memory, or a concern, or a task. It nags. It seems important, it seems especially meaningful. And when you reflect on it later on, it still seems important for you. This might be an ‘inspiration’ from the Holy Spirit – not in the sense of an infallible divine command, but a nudge in your heart or mind to look into something more deeply.

Holy Scripture

In a similar way, when you are reading the bible alone, or listening to the scripture readings at Mass, a phrase can strike you with unexpected force. A passage that you have heard many times before can suddenly seem clear and powerful. It moves you or challenges you or almost impels you to do something. You feel as though God is speaking to you personally and directly through the words of the Bible, or through a sermon or talk. This is another way that the Holy Spirit can inspire and guide you – pointing you, through these words and the response they evoke, to something that is important for you.

Extraordinary experiences

Not often, but sometimes, God steps into our life in a quite extraordinary and unexpected way. You ‘hear’ a voice in prayer, or ‘see’ a vision, or witness a miracle – and you are quite convinced that this is God’s direct work, and that he is speaking to you personally in this way, and guiding you in a certain direction or requesting something of you. You have to be very careful here: You can deceive yourself, and harmful spiritual forces can trick you into believing what is not true. You should never just trust these experiences uncritically – you should talk about them with a wise priest, and try to make sense of them in the light of all the other ways that God is guiding you. Many people do not have such experiences. We should not expect them, and there is no need to ask or pray for them. God usually prefers to guide us in ordinary ways. But sometimes it does happen!

Realism

Finally, you have to be realistic. You may have many desires and dreams, but they must grow out of who you are and what is possible for you at this time. This doesn’t mean you should lack ambition and settle for second-best. It does mean, however, that your thoughts about the future should be rooted in the reality of your life and of your situation. You don’t need to be defined by your weaknesses; but you do need to have the humility to accept your limitations, and a sincere gratitude for the person that God has created you to be.

Summary

God ‘speaks’ to us in all these different ways. Life is not like a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle, where we have to analyse every clue and complete every answer in order to come to the end and reach a tidy conclusion. We simply get on with life, doing the best we can – ‘listening’ to God, paying attention to all these different areas listed above, seeing if there is a pattern, stopping to think when something strikes us with a new force or clarity. Usually, gradually, we find that we are being pulled in a certain direction, or we have enough to help us make a decision. And then we take the next step.