Discerning and Deciding

‘What will make me happy and fulfilled?’ ‘What does God want me to do with my life?’ ‘What’s the purpose of my life?’ ‘I’m drawn to a certain vocation, is it the right one for me?’ If you are asking questions like this, discernment can help you.

What is discernment?

If we break down the word discernment  into the two Latin words it comes from, we get ‘dis’ (apart) and ‘cenere’ (to separate).  To discern means ‘to separate apart’.  Any time we have to choose between two or more options, we discern.  If both options are attractive, the best choice might not be obvious.

Vocational discernment is self-discovery

Discerning your vocation is not about choosing something you will do for life but about discovering who you are made to be, discovering your deepest identity.   It is more than an intellectual weighing up of options, or applying a technique to find an answer. Discernment is a process of becoming aware of what’s in our hearts and minds, listening to God, gaining clarity and making a choice.

The process of discernment can be compared to the process of fruit ripening.  A fruit tree needs to be nourished with water, sunlight and good soil in order for the fruit to ripen.  In the same way, we need the right conditions for effective discernment of our vocation.

10 Steps for Discerning and Deciding

Just as a plant needs the right conditions to bear fruit, so too do we need the right conditions for our faith to be nourished and grow so that we can discern effectively and be open to listening to the voice of God. Here are 10 practical steps you can take to discern effectively. 

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1. Don't explore alone

In daily life we might be told to “stand on our own two feet” but in the Church we “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Th 5:11).  We don’t discern alone but in the communion of the Church which is Christ’s own body (Rom 12) which we became part of through baptism. Within the body of Christ we discern with the support of community, formation in our faith and the grace of the sacraments.   Through the Church we are given the Holy Spirit which unites us, enlightens us and helps us to grow in our spiritual lives.  Our spiritual lives are nourished by attending Mass, hearing the word of God, regularly encountering God’s mercy in Confession, being accompanied through a parish group, and being nourished through talks and retreats.   We can experience this through our parish, and through coming together with others at events in our Archdiocese of Sydney.

2. Listen

Faithful, daily prayer (no matter how you feel) is a must if you want to learn to recognise the voice of Jesus calling to you.  If we cannot dedicate some time to the one who is the source of our life, we really need to question whether our priorities are in order.  If you are not at the point of faithful, daily prayer don’t give up – we all have to start somewhere.  Give God the chance to deepen your prayer life by going on a retreat, reading a book on prayer, asking a spiritual director to teach you how to pray more deeply, or dedicating time each day to prayer (start with just 15 minutes a day).  A particularly good way to pray is to meditate upon scripture.  Read more on prayer.

3. Find a Spiritual Director

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) once said words to the effect:  a person who is his own spiritual director becomes the disciple of a fool!  His point is that it can be very helpful to have an objective “sounding-board” in our spiritual life.  A spiritual director is such a person: someone who accompanies you in your spiritual journey and helps you to understand how the Holy Spirit is acting in your life.  Read more on ‘How Spiritual Direction Helps us Discern’ .  For help finding a spiritual director, contact us.

4. Cultivate the Right Dispositions (Attitudes)

In order to listen to God, we need to foster the right dispositions or attitudes. These include openness to what God has to say, humility (truth about who we are and who God is), a desire to please God, an attitude of surrender, an attitude of healthy ‘indifference’ (desiring only what God wants for us), a ‘detachment’ from things which prevent us from listening to God, vulnerability before God, and willingness to take up our cross and follow Jesus through both the joys and challenges of our vocation. A spiritual director can help us notice these attitudes.

5. Go on a Retreat

Getting away from the busyness of daily life and immersing yourself in a quiet environment can help you listen to God. You can attend retreats which include talks, or a silent retreat; in either case you can also take the opportunity to receive spiritual direction. Find out more about retreats in the greater Sydney area.  The Vocation Centre and various religious communities in Sydney also offer retreats which you will find listed on our events page.

6. Seek opportunities for Catechesis

Discovering your vocation requires putting your trust in God, but you can’t love and trust God if you don’t know Him.  You can grow in understanding by reading a good book or article, exploring the excellent resources on Catholic Archdiocese of Sydeney Library , CRADIO and Word on Fire, or undertake some further study. Visit the websites of these institutions for more information:   Catholic Institute of SydneyAustralian Catholic UniversityCampion College and the University of Notre Dame.

7. Make contact with your Diocesan Vocation Director

Contact your Vocation Director and ask to have a confidential chat.  This does not mean that the Vocation Director will push you into a convent or seminary! His first responsibility is to listen to what the Holy Spirit is doing in you.  It is possible that the Holy Spirit may not be calling you to the priesthood or religious life.  This is why we need to discern. To contact Fr Epeli Qimaqima, click here.

8. Approach a religious community and make an enquiry

You could wonder what life would be like if you were to be a sister, brother or religious priest or nun, but taking a step to meet and spend some time with the community is going to be more helpful than speculating about whether they are right for you. Don’t be afraid of having a confidential chat with them.  Click here for a list of religious communities.

9. Cultivate your freedom

In order to be able to make a choice, we also need to have freedom to say ‘Yes’ to God. God appeals to our freedom, and the more we are truly free, the more we can respond to God’s call.  To say ‘yes’ like Mary did, we need to say ‘yes’ to following Jesus and his Church through the little demands of our daily lives. For example, praying every day, Sunday Mass, getting up on time, helping out at home, and being charitable to others, etc.  These little acts of love prepare our hearts to say ‘yes’ completely to God when that love matures.

We misuse our freedom by saying yes to harmful things which are addictive.  For further reading on this issue, read on to Stumbling blocks to discernment (below).

10. Dare to dream and live big!

Recently Pope Francis said “life is not grey, life is for betting on grand ideals and for great things!”  Many of the saints were ambitious to do something beautiful and significant with their lives.  Think of Blessed Mother Theresa, St Mary Mackillop and St John Paul II: they were anything but boring!  These saints tapped into an incredible dream God had for them when he created them, and they committed everything to bringing that dream to life!

Stumbling blocks to discernment

If discerning a vocation is like preparing a field to be receptive to the seed, then one of the things we have to do is remove rocks from the soil.  These are the rocks or ‘stumbling blocks’ which can limit our receptivity to God’s call, in the way a rock might prevent a seed from embedding and flourishing in a field.  Below is probably the 15 most common stumbling blocks to discernment.  Reflecting on our journey with a spiritual director and giving sufficient time to self-reflection in prayer are two important ways that the Holy Spirit can help us to identify and then remove these ‘stumbling blocks’.  In each of these cases, bringing the problem to prayer and talking it over with a spiritual director is an excellent way to begin to move these stumbling blocks.

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1. Fears

This is one of the biggest factors that can prevent us from making a choice. We can become paralyzed by our fears. Fear of suffering, fear of not being in control, fear of failure, fear of leaving one’s security or comfort zone, fear of what others may think, fear of being misguided by others, fear of making a mistake, fear of disappointing other people, fear of losing oneself or one’s identity, fear of change, fear of being lonely, and so on. God never calls through fear, so we should not make a choice out of fear. The first step to overcoming fears is to acknowledge them so that they won’t have power over us.  God wants us to bring our fears to Him in prayer and in this place of vulnerability He will offer us comfort and encouragement.

2. Lack of freedom

It can be hard to really listen to God if we are not free to do so. Things that inhibit our freedom could include:

  • being a slave to sinful behaviour
  • being too attached to our own projects or plans, too dependent on other people or too easily influenced by others
  • being chained to unhealthy motivations, for example, acting to please others, or out of a sense of duty or obligation.

We need to ask God to reveal our lack of freedom, grant us his mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and give us the grace to grow in freedom.

3. Lack of knowledge

Perhaps our perceptions of a particular vocation are clouded because we don’t know enough about it. Can you imagine how hard it would be to discern marriage if you had never met a married couple?  You can take practical steps to overcome this by getting in touch with communities, asking your vocation director to put you in touch with experiences and materials which can help you learn more.

4. A false idea of who God is

Sometimes people develop an image of God which is not true. God does not play tricks with us. He does not pressure us, but calls out of love. Sometimes we can resist a genuine calling because we think that following God will take away our freedom, make us unhappy, or will expect us to work harder for Him than He does for us. This is not true!

5. Unrealistic expectations

Sometimes people expect that God will speak to them through extraordinary supernatural means like a mystical vision. Although not impossible, this is very rare. More often, God speaks to us in a more subtle way in our ordinary daily lives. To read more, see How does God Call?

6. Past Hurts

We can experience wounds in our lives from the way people have treated us or other experiences. If we try and bury the past and not open the wound up to healing it can become an obstacle to discernment. For example, perhaps through being bullied at school we may have poor self-esteem and fail to see ourselves the way that God sees us. If we’ve been hurt by a parent or other authority figure, this can affect our ability to trust God or receive His love.  Discuss these matters with a  spiritual director and ask whether counselling by a good psychologist might help you process these matters in a way which allows you to move forward with your life.  The Vocation Centre can refer you to one of these.

7. An inordinate focus on the self

We can become so consumed by our own ego or thoughts that our attempts to discern become something narcissistic rather than open to God.

8. A sense of unworthiness

Sometimes people may feel ‘not good enough’. Whilst it is good to be truthful about our own faults and failings, it is important to realise that God came to call sinners (Mt 9:13). He calls ordinary people, weak and sinful as we are, to do extraordinary things for Him, and He helps them to do it.  A common truism about this challenge is: “God does not call the equipped, He equips the called.”

9. Focusing too much on the sacrifices

There are sacrifices involved in any vocation but we shouldn’t forget all the good things too! For example, if you’re called to be a priest you may worry about sacrificing your family relationships, but forget about how amazing it would be to absolve someone of their sins or unite a man and woman in the Sacrament of Marriage.

10. Lack of freedom with respect to sexual desires

God has wired us for intimacy, including sexual intimacy.  But this capacity for sexual desire should be orientated to the good of the other.  Therefore we need to be free from a selfish expression of this gift. This freedom can only come from God’s grace, given to us through Christ.  God gives us graces to help us form good natural habits in order for us to be happy.  But our choices are important ways of cooperating with God’s grace. Unfortunately, sometimes we misuse our freedom by choosing to use our sexual desires for selfish purposes, such as fornication, pornography, etc (see resources below on the problem of pornography).  Thankfully, the Sacrament of Confession restores us again in this life of grace.

11. Anxiety

Perhaps we feel the pressure to figure out our vocation before ‘time runs out’. Or we are plagued by many worries about the consequences of our choices. It’s important to understand that a vocation comes to fruition in God’s time and neither ourselves nor others can rush the process.

12. Spiritual Dryness

There may be a season in our lives when we are not experiencing the consolations of God. Even when we pray and go to Mass we experience ‘numbness’ or feeling like God is distant. St Ignatius calls this experience spiritual desolation. Experiencing spiritual desolation doesn’t mean we should abandon our efforts to discern.  Spiritual desolation is a part of everyone’s spiritual life.  There can be various causes for this: (1) it could have its cause in ourselves, for example if our hearts are divided, if we are still attached to sinful habits or if we are lazy in our relationship with God; (2) it could have an external cause, for example a tragic event that has taken place such as a death in the family; (3) it could be the action of God in our soul, allowing us to experience aridity in our prayer time as a way of purifying us.  Because it is never easy to understand the origin of spiritual dryness, it is helpful to discuss such experiences with a spiritual director.

13. Too much 'noise'

These days, our senses are constantly bombarded. If we’re always plugged into our smartphones, too busy with our various commitments and don’t give ourselves the time to be silent, it’s virtually impossible to hear the voice of God.  To discern your vocation it is essential to make time for silent prayer.

14. Inability to make a choice

Our culture places a high value on ‘keeping your options open,’ only committing to something at the last minute. But this desire not to eliminate any option can sometimes mean that we don’t actually make a decision at all, and so we become stuck.  It is important to realise we can only be something by making a choice.  No one gets to be everything! If you try to keep all your options open you will realise none of them.

15. Being too rash or flippant with the decision making

On the opposite spectrum is to not ever make a choice.  Some people can be so enthused after an experience like a retreat or World Youth Day that they make a decision to follow a certain path without waiting for the ‘afterglow’ to settle. In fact they may have not really discerned properly, but made a decision in the impulse of the moment. Having said that, it is possible for the Holy Spirit to give light and conviction in an experience like a retreat, but it is wise to take time to test this in order to see if it is an authentic calling from God.

Vocation and the Problem of Pornography

There are many serious problems with pornography. One of these is that pornography is inherently addictive. It limits our freedom to listen and respond to God. This can rob us of our vocation. Visit the resources below to see how porn affects the brain, and also strategies to fight pornography addiction.

Father Mike Schmitz discusses why we seek out porn and what you can do to quit. Porn use is often a sign of a deeper need.


Fight the New DrugA website to help you fight pornography addiction.

The Porn Effect. Will give you a battle plan to fight addiction to porn.

The Science of Porn Addiction. Watch the video

Reclaim Sexual Health. A science-based, Catholic program and resources for those wishing to reclaim God’s plan for their lives.

Responding in Love and Trust

If you’re reading this and feel that God is calling you to serve Him in  a particular way, it’s a natural response to be a bit scared. There are countless examples in Scripture of how God called people whose initial response was one of fear and resistance.  These vary from Jeremiah’s “I am only a youth” (Jer 1:6) to Moses’s “I am slow of speech” (Ex 4:10) God knows that we might have fears or excuses. He knows our weaknesses. He knows that we cannot follow Him by our own strength.  But He will give us the strength! We are able to give our lives freely for God because Christ is the one who calls us. He calls us with great love. In His infinite love, Jesus laid down His life for us on the cross, and so we are able to put our trust in Him completely.  As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and He gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.” Jesus says to us, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16). It is liberating to know that a vocation is a gift from God who knows us better than we know ourselves. God invites us to respond to His call with love, gratitude and generosity. Let us all pray for each other, that we would listen to God and be generous in responding to His call!


Discerning your vocation Part 1 with Fr Jacques Philippe

Discerning your vocation Part 2 with Fr Jacques Philippe

Watch #AskFrBarron
How Should I Discern the Priesthood?


MGL’s Discernment for Dummies Part 1 with
Fr Dave Callaghan MGL

See also Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Banner Photo Credit:  Patrick J Lee