The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert

The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert cover imageSummary: An exploration of spiritual practices that can facilitate decision-making. 

Over the next several months I will do a reading projection around the concept, history, and teaching of Christian discernment. I picked up The Way of Discernment in part because one of the people I meet with for spiritual direction is processing through both individual and corporate discernment and it felt like a good time to do a personal deep dive.

I have some biases going into the idea of discernment that may change, but I want to say them out loud because they will likely keep influencing how I read going forward. First, I think discernment is a spiritual practice of seeking after God. Many people frame discernment as primarily about decision-making. And I fear that when the focus is the process and not the goal of seeking after God, we reduce what is a spiritual practice to a self-help checklist. Second, and related, developing discernment is about building character and virtue and orienting ourselves to rightly seeing God, not developing skills to interpret and decide or process information. Third, while I think there may be a “spiritual gift” of discernment, this is a general gift of the church, not limited to only a few. There are likely people who are better at discernment than others, but that doesn’t mean that discernment is only for the gifted. Fourth, the development of discernment is a part of the discipleship process. I started listening to a series of lectures on discernment by Timothy Gallagher, and he suggested that teaching about discernment was a third-level task. In this view, what comes first is to evangelize and introduce people to Jesus; then, once they have met Jesus, they need basic discipleship. Discernment was part of a more advanced discipleship work that requires people to be more intentional, introspective, and focused on their role in sanctification.

With that too-long introduction, The Way of Discernment is helpful and a book I would recommend, although it is oriented toward spiritual practices to make decisions. She agrees that discernment is often a shorthand for decision-making and can be problematic. In her conception,

“…decision is the occasion for seeking God, not the primary goal. Setting out with the goal of making a decision that we then ask God to bless is to confuse the goal and the means. Rather, discernment involves the goal of seeking God through the means of decision making.” (p44)

The book is split into two main parts. The first section frames what she understands as discernment and is rooted in biblical grounding and church tradition. The second part explores practical exercises and types of spiritual practices to work through specific questions. She starts with the assumption that we have a question that we are seeking God’s direction. Helping to clarify the question is part of the practices she discusses. If you have a clear thing you seek, this book can help practice what is being discussed. If you approach this more abstractly (as I was), this becomes a more theoretical and less practical exercise. But the book is intended to be a practical guide.

This summary is helpful for her understanding of discernment:

“To summarize: Discernment means making a discriminating choice between two or more good options, seeking the best for this moment. These choices, while personal and conditional, are set within the community of faith and honor our previous well-made decisions. Discernment does not bring us absolute certainty, but rather operates in a climate of faith. Seeking to follow God’s call moves us toward that which is better for us individually and for our world, and assures us that God will accompany us into the unknown.” (p10)

Part of what I found helpful at the book at the theoretical level is that she is aware of what keeps people from discernment and raises many of them. Part of the problem is that our assumptions play into our evaluation. She says, and I agree, that discernment should be freeing us spiritually. But many have understood that Christianity is at root placing ourselves as the least important consideration. And this can lead to people understanding that God will always be directing us toward the hard thing, or the thing that we do not want to do. If this is our understanding of God, then personal desire is a negative arrow toward discernment. Her engagement with the idea of desire and the idea of what God’s will is as a concept is very helpful.

There are good summaries at the end of each chapter. I will quote another long summary because I think it gives a good sense of how Liebert understands the work of discernment:

“To summarize: desires underlie all our motivation; discernment urges us to choose well among these desires. Our experience as loved and saved sinners allows us to believe that discernment can happen. We can enter into a process of sifting through the ambiguities of our situation. Our experience as co-creators of God’s unfolding purpose in creation underlies the importance of discerning well. It matters to the continual outworking of God’s creative life. Growing in spiritual freedom through spiritual indifference is simultaneously the essential prerequisite and the goal of spiritual discernment. Without this spiritual freedom, discernment, as such, does not exist. With it, discernment becomes a powerful means of growing in holiness. Finally, seeking great desires, the “more,” invites us to stretch beyond our limited horizons to do something great for God. Ignatius’s foundational statement about indifference, here rewritten to express it from God’s point of view, cuts to the heart of the spiritual indifference that we seek before, through, and as a result of our discernment.” (p36)

She is also aware of the ways that our assumptions, our cultural biases, or history of trauma and other factors will influence our discernment. The goal is not to withdraw ourselves from culture or to heal all trauma before attempting discernment or “becoming completely objective” in a way that is not possible for any except God but to get a sense of the ways that our background will influence our discernment. One of the ways that the idea of natural law can be a problem is that it can work with the assumption that the way something is comes from divine order. This can be seen in the way that some conceive of gender hierarchy. It goes like this:

  • Men have been in charge most often throughout history.
  • Therefore, God intended that there be a hierarchy.
  • So, working against a gender hierarchy is in opposition to God.

Most people are not so unsubtle as this, but some say this explicitly. I use this example because the ways that Leibert works through the theoretical problems of discernment at the beginning of the book are very helpful broadly in discipleship. Identifying that there is a bias or a lack of maturity in our Christianity does not mean that we have to solve all things before God can speak to us. It only means that we are human like all other humans.

I will not speak about the spiritual practices section other than to say that some will be more helpful than others because we are not all made in the same way. God is infinitely creative and seems to always work in different ways at different times.

The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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