In 15 years of service in Christian Higher Education at multiple institutions, I’ve had front row seats watching God work in the lives of many students, families, and in my own life. The collegiate years might just be the most formative in our lives, and they often present questions that come without the “writing on the wall” type of answers. The questions might include what to study, internship options, whether to drop a sport or study abroad, join a club, get a job, pursue graduate school, marriage and more, thus the need for discernment.

Discerning God’s voice amid the noise of our daily routines presents challenges especially as it pertains to vocation; the journey of self-discovery into the person God uniquely designed us to be. The advice I provide here and to my students is borrowed from many within the Christian tradition and isn’t unique or specific to one issue or circumstance, but rather is gathered from experience, mentorship, community, spiritual directors, books, and of course the Word of God in the Biblical text.

Discernment takes time.

Contrary to our society’s demand for the urgency of yesterday, same-day delivery, and drive-thru efficiency as key factors to a comfortable life, the process of discernment should not be rushed. Instead, it demands a willingness to hear from God by paying careful attention to his presence and activity in our lives.

Discernment in its true manner and outside the heavenly realm is a never-ending journey to a closer and deeper relationship with God. The word discern has its roots in the Latin language meaning to “sift apart” or examine, investigate, and scrutinize…in order to make judgment or estimation. Therefore, discernment is an invitation into a journey and relationship with a loving and merciful God who desires a commitment from us to take the next step with anticipation.

Discernment is anchored by communication. (Prayer)

Having established that discernment is about deepening our relationship to God, then like any other relationship, communication is the anchor. For Christians, our prayer life is the best channel of communication that we have to our Creator, and it is through this two-way communication process that we learn to express our thoughts and concerns and listen closely to the response from above. In our conversations through prayer, we step in the space to hear God relay His will for our lives to us. Much like a conversation isn’t just one person talking – one must also listen to the other and allow for a response. Listening then is a key element of prayer and must be an active part of our prayer life. My spiritual director emphasizes a process of Deep Listening which calls us into listening to learn and receive new information about ourselves and the heart of God.

In his book Calling and Clarity, Doug Koskela highlights the importance of prayer in the journey of discernment:

You can think of missional calling as the primary point of connection between God’s redemptive work in the world and the particularity of each person. In that light, discovering that point of connection will require the time and effort to know God and to know yourself. That precisely is the work of prayer. And the way in which you approach this work makes a significant difference when it comes to discernment.

Discernment involves a commitment to self-awareness.

A vital component of the discernment process is the ability to slow down and engage in a self-awareness inventory. This process is best done by spending time with the Word of God to draw closer to Him and recognize the image of God in ourselves. It is crucial to understand that God has already been working in our lives and provided skills and gifts that pave the way for that which lies ahead. This introspective journey allows one to explore what is happening within.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) explored this process deeper through his view of Consolation and Desolation:

“Consolation - the soul is inflamed with love for its creator …a sense that God is close to me; my desires are awakened and I long to be creative, consolation offers a sense of peace.

Conversely, Desolation, Ignatius writes, is a darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit; soul is slothful, tepid, sad, distant from its Creator.” -The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

According to Ignatius, self-awareness through the consolation framework allows us to make decisions that bring peace and in closer connection with our Creator. Ignatius warns against making any decisions while in the place of desolation where the devil uses feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear, and separation from our Creator to bring turmoil in our lives.

Discernment is communal.

In her book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Hutton suggests, “Discernment does not take place in a vacuum, nor does it take place by accident. Spiritual community is the context for discernment…Our ability to discern what we should do flows from our commitment to be together in life-transforming ways.”

As we take note of God’s relational intentionality in Genesis 1:26 where the Triune God creates man in his own image, it is imperative that our work of discernment also mirrors the relational and communal n examples set by our Creator within the model of the Trinity. In the process of discernment, one is ultimately responsible for hearing and following God’s voice and call on their life; however, God also places people in our life to speak and share about God’s activity. The ability to be attentive in discernment allows us to see, know, and hear God’s voice through the work of the Spirit and those trusted members of the community situated in our lives.

Charles Spurgeon wisely observed, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”

In my understanding, Spurgeon suggests discernment is not a prescription for making decisions about what is right and wrong, rather through koinonia (fellowship) with God and his people, meditation on His Word, and our introspective journey, we are able to make what Spurgeon later called spirit-infused decisions in our lives.

King Solomon, deemed to be the wisest man in the Bible, nudges us gently into understanding this when he writes:

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Prov. 2:1-5)

In our quest for wisdom in decision-making, may we diligently continue to drudge through the quagmire of distractions that we may see and hear the truth of what our Lord is inviting us into and not settle for what seems swift and convenient. God has a word for each of us if we are only dedicated enough to hear His gentle voice.

Dereck Kamwesa is a Career Counselor and Vocational Discernment coach at Seattle Pacific University where he is also attending seminary in pursuit of a M.A in Theology focused on Reconciliation and Intercultural Studies. As a native of Kenya, Africa, Dereck loves the intersections of faith and culture that allow all of God’s children to flourish in their God-given stories. He holds a B.A in Communications from Taylor University.