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
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
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
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.