I was speaking to a friend recently about how we make life decisions. We discussed the importance of looking at a decision from God’s perspective vs. a human perspective alone. The difference is stark: when we make a decision based on the human intellect alone we might come away with a “good decision”; in contrast, when we consider God’s perspective on a matter we engage the spiritual dimension. This leads us down the path of prayerful decision making.
Early in our marriage, my wife and I were discerning where we wanted to live. At the time we lived in an apartment on the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ. As time went on, we sensed God calling us to move downtown. We wanted to move specifically into a poor, multi-ethnic community where we could connect with people who were far from God. Little did we know where we would land.
I’ve been learning some things about discerning God’s voice from other voices. I want to share with you some of what I’ve learned in the hope that in the quiet, you can better hear God’s voice too.
Borrowing from St. Ignatius (1491-1556), I have adapted the process he used to discern God’s will when making a decision. This is a process you can use personally or apply to help others. Gina and I applied many of these steps when we were discerning God’s plan for our move from the suburbs into the inner city.
1.State the problem
When we can clearly and succinctly state a problem, it’s already partially solved. Take time here to thoroughly understand the problem so you can concisely articulate it. A clearly understood problem is a problem 80% solved.
2. Unpack options
You will almost always have at least two options, if not more. Understand each one and its implications so that you can make an informed decision. The energy you put here will be well spent and will pay dividends later.
3. Pray for inner freedom
For Ignatius, “inner freedom” meant “indifference” to the outcome. Not ambivalence, but earnestly desiring God’s will, whatever it may be. Once His will was discerned, he would be wholly committed to leaning in and following through.
4. Do you need any other information to make a decision?
To gather all relevant information needed to make a prayerful decision is an important next step. What do you sense Jesus wants you to know in order to make a prayerful decision? The answer to this question will direct you down a path that might lead you to an unexpected outcome.
5. Pray for inner freedom – again
This can’t be overstated. The goal is to begin at a place of indifference and arrive at a place of acceptance. It’s easy to slide back and forth from a human place to a spiritual place.
6. List advantages & disadvantages
Surprisingly, I’ve overlooked this step more times than I care to admit. A simple list of the pros and cons can reveal the wisest choice. Make certain you have taken ample time to slow down, pray, and reflect on this step.
7. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages
Now – compare and reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of the options before you. I would encourage you to think through opportunities and threats when making big decisions. This can clarify nuances you may not have considered.
8. Test your reasoning with your imagination
Ignatius engaged his imagination in the Spiritual Exercises using the Gospels in particular. Engage scripture and allow yourself to imagine that you’re in the scene with Jesus. Ask Him, “What do you have to say about this? Then ask yourself, “What was that like?”
This is where I am still learning. Use your imagination to project where you will be 3, 6, 9, and 12 months down the road with each option. What sensations are you experiencing physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and in your “gut”? Check in with your body: what do you sense is going on?
9. Make a tentative decision
In a way, this is testing the water before you finalize your decision. You can apply different tools to help you at this juncture. One tool I use is called the Objective Prioritization Process. Simply take your options and compare them against one other. For example, if you have four options, number each one and “match” all the various combinations (such as 1v2, 1v3, 1v4 and so on). Then choose which option you prefer under each and total the number of 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s. You will then have your top choice(s).
10. Confirm the decision
Decisions can be confirmed in a number of ways. Individually, you might need to sit with the decision for a season to determine how it feels and whether it makes sense. You might want feedback from trusted friends. Or you might simply move on once you affirm this is the direction you want to take.
11. Make your decision even if you aren’t certain about it
When I choose to make a decision I like to think I’ve made it prayerfully based on the information I had in the moment. Situations do change; but when I do my due diligence I can be sure the Holy Spirit has also done His.
Gina and I employed much of this process in discerning where we would move. Eventually, we landed in a townhouse in the middle of an immigrant community. People from all over the globe would settle there as a means to establish some stability in their lives with the hope of moving up and out. Over the 12 years we lived there, we started our family and found wonderful opportunities to see God work.
Discerning God’s will using a prayerful process made it possible for us to recall why we had moved there, especially during tumultuous seasons.