Sifting and Sorting and
Yielding to God’s Call

by Deborah Gavrin Frangquist

I love the underlying meaning of the word discernment. The Latin dis means apart and cernere means to sift. “Sifting apart” carries my imagination into the kitchen, where I sift and separate all kinds of things. When I use a tea strainer, I want to keep the liquid that drains through and compost the used tea leaves. Yet when I pour cooked pasta into a colander, it’s the pasta I want to keep. And when I make certain kinds of soup, I want both the broth and the solid material, and I want them separated so I can process each part before I recombine them.

Spiritual discernment—discernment about our work, our human relationships, our relationship with God—requires repeated sifting, recombining, and sifting again, using different sieves and separators to distinguish between passing whims and heart’s desire, between false pride and false humility, between craven compliance and grateful obedience. It is wise to be cautious in this sifting and sorting, so that we keep and use that which is nourishing to us, that which is from God; and it is wise to be bold in our discernment, so that we truly use God’s gifts, rather than waiting until we are certain we know what to do.

In my work as a career consultant and spiritual coach, I have some clients who want answers right now, who come to me at the age of 27 or 42 or 58 desperate to know “What I’m going to be when I grow up.” Other clients have suffered despairingly for years; they say, “Maybe I’m asking for too much. Should I just learn to accept my life as it is?” I also consult with people who experience God calling them into specific ministries as leaders and healers in corporations, the arts, and the church. Each of these people reminds me that discernment is both essential and difficult. In encouraging and advising them, I gain courage and wisdom and learn more deeply how to tell the voice and touch of God from the attractions of ego, conformity, and easy comfort. Some of the best tools I’ve found for sifting and sorting are questions—ways of being open and curious about what is going on and what possibilities are opening up. When I’m willing to ask thoughtful questions of myself, of others, and of God, I find the sifting and sorting easier, and the answers bear fruit in my life and in the world.

Confusion and uncertainty are strong indications of divine presence. When I think I understand what I’m doing, when I can make a strong and sensible case for a course of action, when I’m unwilling to admit to any doubt, I’ve already managed to strain out the voice and touch of God.

In the early stages of discernment, for myself or with clients, the sorting is about some rather large distinctions. I'm checking whether we have the ingredients that suggest God is deeply present in this project or concern. If the answer appears to be yes, then I know I should proceed especially prayerfully, saving my planning and problem-solving skills until I have reliable indications of the tasks involved. The questions at this stage are about confusion and uncertainty, about physical and emotional feelings, and about fear.

Confusion and uncertainty are strong indications of divine presence. When I think I understand what I’m doing, when I can make a strong and sensible case for a course of action, when I’m unwilling to admit to any doubt, I’ve already managed to strain out the voice and touch of God. Ten years ago I accepted a new job. I assembled my family one evening to lay out the pros and cons of taking the job, the inconveniences I knew it would involve, the skills I thought I’d learn and the contacts I thought I’d make. I thought I was including the family in my decision. My young daughter said, “It’s obvious you want to do it. I don’t see what else we have to talk about.” I took that as confirmation of my choice. Once on the job, I tried to appear confident and knowledgeable, suppressing the doubts and questions that arose within me, ignoring my increasing sense that the job probably could not be done and that I was not, in any case, a good fit for the organization. It took 18 months and a disquieting performance evaluation before I began to pray actively about my work, to admit my confusion and uncertainty to God, and to ask for help. It was then, in 1995, that I began to experience what discernment can really be like.

God’s imagination is bigger than mine. When I use my own imagination, competence, and knowledge as my discernment tools, I get the comfort of believing that I know what I am doing, but I separate myself from the fullness of God’s grace. With God, there’s always a sense of being called into an expansiveness that feels, at first, uncomfortable—too big, too free, too abundant with possibility. That initial discomfort, with its qualities of confusion, bewilderment, surprise, and freedom, is what I want to sift out, collect, and use in discernment. It guides me to perspectives and awareness I didn’t have before, and it allows me to discover resources in myself, in others, and in the world that I had previously ignored or considered unattainable.

The world tends to help in our discernment. When we are open and willing to be led, we find that the people, information, and opportunities we need come to us.

My physical and emotional feelings are invaluable tools for discernment, now that I know how to use them. In 1995, when I first learned I had lost my job, I was not only disoriented, I was frightened. We had just returned from taking our son to begin his freshman year at a private college, and we were counting on my income. My mind raced as I imagined how difficult things could become for us, and the heroic actions I would perform to make things better. Meanwhile, my body relaxed. Within forty-eight hours I could feel that a weight had been lifted from me. That got my attention in a way that was new to me and set me on a path of noticing my body. That in and of itself has been a gift greater than I could have asked for. Regular massage and tai chi practice have taught me to notice when my hips relax, when my back straightens and lengthens, and when my breathing slows and deepens—all of which I now recognize as indications that I am open to God and to my own inner wisdom. More recently I’ve become aware that, for me, tears are a sign of spiritual health, even though they are physically uncomfortable. When I’m able to notice and accept the full range of my physical experience, I am also able to recognize more of the ways God has always been present and available to guide me.

Emotions and thoughts accompany physical sensations and intertwine with them. When I feel consistently rushed, anxious, tired, or bored, I know I have taken a wrong turn somewhere. In my job, I had become so used to those unpleasant emotions, and so used to ignoring them, I didn’t recognize them as signs I was in the wrong place. I just kept trying harder to keep up, to be cheerful, and to cross things off my to-do list. When the “bad news” that I had lost my job caused me to relax and feel better, I did have the sense to schedule a retreat. In that week I got a good taste of the curiosity, creativity, and mindfulness that accompany willingness to wait for God’s leading and to enjoy the gifts of rest, nature, silence, and physical activity. Now I notice when I feel energized and refreshed, and my to-do list is full of things that bring me positive emotions and feelings of balance and peace.

In Scripture, angels always start by saying, “Don’t be afraid.” That tells us that fear is a normal human response to a message from God. Healthy fear is a sign that an impulse or desire is from God. When I feel both drawn to something and afraid—afraid that my carefully crafted habits are going to change, that my accustomed beliefs are being challenged, that I’m outgrowing my old comfort zone and being drawn into learning new skills and strengths—then I know that the impulse comes from beyond me. Whether we call it awe or wonder or fear, we do well to welcome the chance to say yes to something that will change our lives.

As we start to act on that yes, we learn to separate what is useful from ego, old patterns, and convenience. Useful questions for discernment here address both details and our total experience. First, I look for humor. Is there laughter? Can I laugh at myself? After I lost my job, as I began to consider what I really wanted to do and was really called to do, I frequently had the distinct sense that God was laughing at me and inviting me to laugh with her about how slowly I learned. I compared myself to my children, remembering the many times I had wanted to teach them how they could benefit from my mistakes and had discovered that they learned better from their own experience. I recognized that God had been far more patient with me than I had usually been with others, and I had to laugh at how ridiculous I had been.

The world tends to help in our discernment. When we are open and willing to be led, we find that the people, information, and opportunities we need come to us. When I was unemployed, I was astonished by how much help people gave me and by how easy it turned out to be to find the right next choices. I’ve had to learn over and over that the easy path is usually the right one. That easy path involves hard work, of course. What’s easy about it is that the work brings results, is fruitful and enjoyable. Recently I have been in discernment again, about doing more consulting with organizations as well as individuals in transition. I have been learning again how easy it is to follow the natural flow, to learn about what interests me, and to associate with colleagues and clients I enjoy. I am working hard, welcoming the work, and rejoicing at all the things I am getting to do.

As I recombine elements I have sifted and separated, I also ask about the story I am living and telling. Before I lost my job, I was living a story of scarcity and difficulty. Today I am living a story of creativity and abundance. The old story was of struggling to make things happen. The present story is of yielding to divine guidance, of trusting that there is work I am good at that is a gift to the world and to me. As I live the story of trust, I learn to be more trusting. As I live the story of abundance, I feel safer and more joyful. The more questions I ask, the more answers I receive. The more I yield to God’s call, the more I am certain that confusion, uncertainty, attention to physical and emotional feelings, and healthy fear are reliable guides to abundance of life.

Deborah Gavrin Frangquist is a consultant and coach who shows people and organizations how to identify and get what they really want. She lives in San Francisco, where she worships with St. Aidan's Episcopal Church and studies Torah at Or Shalom Jewish Community.

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