Decision vs. Discernment

By: Mariann Hughes, Office of Communications

A friend and I sped into D.C. on a whim the other night with the top down on her fiancé’s Mustang. It was late and we had lots of energy – and promptly ended up perched on the Lincoln Memorial chatting about the complexities of adult decision-making. I know; we are so wild and crazy.

Confusing decisions exist, because, from a moral standpoint, the alternatives could go seemingly either way. That uncertainty, if we are fearful, can cripple us while choosing a path.

How to make the “right” decision in many situations is not, surprisingly, as easy as deciding whether the convertible roof should be “up or down. ” Moral issues, for sure, are clear-cut if we follow the Church. She instructs us well in living virtuously within our families, church and communities. “Be open to life; love your neighbor; honor God; feed the hungry; obey just civil laws and don’t go flying down Constitution Ave. at 90 MPH with the Mustang” are all straightforward instructions.

But sometimes, decisions don’t boil down to “moral” or “immoral.” Confusing decisions exist, because, from a moral standpoint, the alternatives could seemingly go either way. That uncertainty, if we are fearful, can cripple us while choosing a path. However, time marches on. At some point, the waffling must cease and we must decide.

Fortunately, as Catholics, it’s not so much a decision as a discernment of God’s will for our lives. I love the word “discern.”  “Decision” implies the matter is in my hands. “Discern” implies that I see my life choices as a part of God’s plan for me and live them out accordingly.

What are some common discern vs. decide situations?

How about:

  • Should I buy a new house? My family is growing, but extra payments will crimp our finances. Is that prudent?
  • Do I take a promotion? It means more responsibility and hours, but the pay is better and I will be free to pursue my passion. But will my family and social life suffer?
  • Can I afford an advanced education? Is college the path which will make the best use of my talents? Am I an empty-nester who should go back to school or should I relax during my retirement?
  • How soon should I commit to a relationship with a person to whom I am attracted? What if she’s not the person I will ultimately marry and my heart gets broken? Then I’m back to square-one.
  • My husband is sick and I physically can’t take care of him anymore. Do I accept my child’s offer to move into her home? Is helping take care of my ill husband going to be too stressful on my child’s marriage?

People of Faith recognize that life choices are building-bricks on the journey toward holiness and heaven. Do you look back at a time in life and think, “Whoa, I really see the finger of God in that situation?”  It can bring hope to remember those times.

However, it’s a two-edged sword. Maybe we’ve made decisions we regret. “I never want that hurt to happen to me again!” But, we can’t let a skewed desire for perfection paralyze our present-day choices. “What if I’m not doing what God wants me to?” “What if I irrevocably mess up?” “I made the right decision on X a year ago, but am I going to do so now with Decision Z?”

Rather, trust that God will put the events, person and materials in our hands to discern the path. Don’t be crippled by fear! God is bigger than any “mistake” we can think we can make. And we can only control ourselves and our own decisions and the situations we bring to God. We cannot “make” other people follow our path, or our will. We can only live our own lives!

When asked for insight on discernment, Fr. Edward Fassett, S.J., Secretary for Partnership Formation at the U.S. Jesuit Conference in D.C., offers some food for thought:

  • Pray. First, take the whole experience to God.
  • Open up. Then, get past the brain to the heart of the matter. A situation with no clear answer can be rationalized intellectually either way. Instead, look at what is in your heart. If fear is present, what is behind your fear?
  • Learn. Do not be afraid to inform yourself and open your eyes to all aspects and truths of the situation. How much does the house or college tuition cost? Has there been tension with your child before, or do you have a loving relationship? Does the girl you want to date have the qualities you need in a life-long companion? Sometimes, the truth is hard to face, but the discernment process cannot begin before that happens.
  • Be calm. That being said, do not overthink what could happen in the future. You cannot see the future. You can only see the now and learn from your past. Certainly, we must be prudent. But, if a decision seems reasonable and rational, fears of the unknown only delay you.
  • Evaluate. Since this discernment process involves growing in holiness, ask the question, “What gives me life?” We were created, according to St. Ignatius of Loyola to give praise, service and reverence to God. Will this make my life better in regards to fulfilling my reason for creation? Are my reasons to give glory to God?
  • Role play. Give yourself time to assess what your life would be like if you were to make one decision, and see how that sits with you. Alternatively, see how the other choice sits.
  • Choose with peace. A decision can be made between choices of unequal worth, that is, we can choose to commit evil. We have a free will. But true discernment is used between two goods; they do not necessarily have to be equal, but it’s in the discernment that you determine which of those goods will help better achieve your reason for creation.

“Fear not, I am with you; be not dismayed; I am your God. I will strengthen you, and help you.” (Isaiah 41:10)

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