Discernment as the practice of wellness and self-care


By Daniel Wolpert

Psalm 127: 1-2:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;

The term “self-care” is all the rage, and in our challenging times, we see the symptoms of burnout and the need for care all around us. Anxiety, exhaustion, depression, and lack of interest in one’s work are at record levels. The turmoil within our congregations and larger church systems, as well as the turmoil in our society, in general, coming on the heels of a global pandemic, continues to pile stress upon stress.

Yet the term “self-care” implies that we, ourselves, are responsible for creating the care we need, and this idea of carving out time and space for “care” when we already have no time and space can make matters worse. The passage from Psalm 127 offers us a different approach, one which has become a rich part of our spiritual tradition: the path of Discernment.

I’ve been doing Discernment work for decades now, and the more time I spend with this practice, the more I realize just how radical it is because, in this practice, we shift from “self-care” or self-guidance to “God-care” or God-guidance. Discernment calls us to let go of our understanding of how things should be and move into the flow of God’s powerful, but invisible, creative action. To enter the life of Discernment is to leave behind our desires for certainty and control, an act that can, at first, be deeply uncomfortable.

Since we were very little, we were taught to know the answers to the questions given to us. Graded since the age of five or six, we’ve been trained to know what’s correct and incorrect. In many settings, pastors are expected to even know what God is wanting and thinking! This formation is what we are asked to give up as we enter into discernment practice, and while this is challenging, it is also freeing: we are not alone in our reflections and decision-making process because God is real and active in our lives and is working with us to find what is most life-giving.

These are the basic assumptions of the practice of discernment – the practice of coming to understand what God is up to in our lives and in the life of the world:

  • God is real and active in the world.
  • God is smarter and more powerful than humans and is thus worth listening to.
  • God is always working for good in the world and is a vast creative force.
  • If humans want to work for good in the world, our best approach is to try and understand what God is up to and simply ‘get on board’ with that activity.
  • When humans follow the will of God in this manner, we experience life and growth.
  • The human ego – the sum total of our formational habits – is the biggest obstacle to the practice of discernment.

When we seek to practice discernment, we are confronted with an obvious and important question: How do we know, given that God is invisible, if something is ‘of God?’ As Luther said, “When I feel something in my stomach, is it God or indigestion?” All discernment practices are designed to tune our attention to this issue and are created to address another set of assumptions about the human being and God’s work in the world.

  • Because of the infinite human capacity for self-deception, God’s action is very hard to observe in the present moment.  
  • God’s work and desires are manifested through our deepest desires and are made visible by the ‘fruits’ of actions and behaviors.  
  • The fruits of the Spirit are not only listed in the book of Galatians, chapter 5, but are also seen manifested in the life and teachings of Jesus.

Thus, discernment practices require that we, humans, set aside our ideas and preferences to listen and look for these ‘fruits.’ Specifically, discernment practice in relation to a life situation moves through several steps:

  • We admit that we have no idea what God is up to.
  • We endeavor to approach our task with a spirit of spiritual indifference. This is the hard part of discernment. We have a lot of preferences and ideas of what is ‘right’ and what should be ‘of God.’ If we do not let go of these preferences, we will simply end up affirming our own ideas and thinking that God wants what we have already decided.
  • We spend time understanding the current situation with as much breadth and depth as possible, including trying to understand what we do not pay attention to.
  • We look backward over the current situation asking when we notice things that are ‘life-giving’ and things that are ‘death-dealing.’ This gives us data about how God has been moving.
  • We then also look at our deepest desires in an honest way. What is ‘burning in our hearts?’ This is also a very hard part of discernment, as we are rarely honest with ourselves and each other regarding our deepest desires. We hear people making excuses for themselves all the time and talking about what they ‘should’ want or trying to do what they are ‘expected’ to do. Christianity has often taught us that our desires are selfish and bad, and this poor theology also clouds our ability to see ourselves clearly.
  • We notice how our deepest longings match that which we experience as life-giving.
  • Then, as we move forward, we do more of that which matches our desires to what gives life.  
  • Like the instructions on the shampoo bottle, we then repeat the process.

Approaching our lives from the perspective of Discernment gives us a new view, new energy, and new hope. God is doing something in our life, and we are given the tools to move forward with greater confidence and freedom as we seek the path which unfolds before us. 

Blessings to you all. 

Daniel Wolpert, a healer and student of the spiritual life, worked as a research scientist, psychologist, spiritual director, farmer, and teacher, before earning his Master of Divinity degree at San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS). Co-founder and Executive Director of the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing (MICAH), he has taught in the fields of psychology and spiritual formation in numerous settings around the world. Daniel is the author of several books, including Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices, The Collapse of the Three Story Universe: Christianity in an Age of Science, and Creations Wisdom: Spiritual Practice and Climate Change.

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