Winter 1982, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 326-334.

Charles Shelton:
      Discernment in Everyday Life: Spiritual and Psychological Considerations

Some criteria are offered to assist us in making many everyday decisions which are not between good and evil but between two or more good objects.

Father Shelton, S.J., is engaged in theological studies at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California. He is also currently editing a book on adolescent spirituality.

A friend informed me recently of a personal decision he was attempting to resolve. He wanted to leave his present employment and desired a related line of work offering more creativity and freedom. Around this same time I had a conversation with a former student who was wondering which of several college majors she might pursue. She was attracted to both social work and management science and wondered which would bring more personal satisfaction. More recently, in my own life, I was considering several academic programs in theology. I found both advantages and disadvantages to the options before me.

The underlying theme of these situations is the necessity for everyday choosing. It is this everyday deciding-the need to "transform" (Rom. 12: 2) our choices and decisions-that at times renders life both perplexing and frustrating. No doubt we all have, or will eventually confront, serious moral challenges. Deciding the fate of a family member on life-support systems, attempting to cope with the possibility of an impending divorce, confronting a serious crisis of faith, or accepting a decision calling for retribution or a commitment to a deeper level of justice are just a few of the major ethical dilemmas which might invade our lives and call forth a deeper Christian self-awareness and commitment.

But so often it is not these major moral dilemmas but everyday decisions that preoccupy our time and effort. It is the concrete realities of the everyday-that business move, the response we make in that personal relationship, the acceptance of that volunteer work, the decision to purchase or not purchase that car or house-which give our Christian lives their real test. It would be much easier if our choice was between clearly perceived good or evil, yet we know that everyday decisions are rarely that simple! Far more likely we are faced with various options, all of which are attractive, and we find ourselves sorting through the various choices attempting to discover what might be the "best" Christian response. Which way should I go? What option is best? How can I decide this matter? This everyday deciding and choosing enable us to learn firsthand what Christian living really means. More than anything, everyday Christian decision-making needs concrete "criteria" which clarify our Christian commitment and translate our moral stance into everyday choices. Fortunately, recent trends in both theology and psychology have helped to provide the needed direction for this vital dimension of Christian living.


Two significant events in theology have helped shed light on Christian decision-making. First, recent developments in spiritual theology highlight for Christians the importance of discovering within themselves answers to the questions: "Where is God leading me?" and "What does God ask of me now?" Popular interest in discernment, conscious attention to the Lord's movements within one's own life, provides a vital focus on the Lord's beckoning. Secondly, moral theology's recent stress on the person as a moral agent and on the need for personal acceptance and responsibility for "my" moral decisions lends support to a decision-making process that is personal, responsible, and maturing.

Psychology, likewise, has provided a context for decision-making that is authentically human and caring. Developmental psychology, particularly the works of Piaget, Erikson, and Kohlberg (as well as the recent psychotheological perspective of James Fowler) delineates the need for human growth which is situated in the context of healthy emotional development. Personal decisions are influenced by our stage of development, which reflects over the years a developing appreciation and understanding of the Lord's call. In addition, recent writings in social psychology document the immense environmental and personal factors which induce the caring behavior so necessary for everyday Christian decision-making. This growing capacity for attending to others, this being aware of our personal self, and this realizing the consequences of personal choices encourage the development of a caring self oriented towards personal moral growth.

Ideally, then, everyday Christian decision-making takes account of our own conscious realization of the Lord's presence in our life and elicits within us a deepening awareness and care for our brothers and sisters as we encounter everyday decisions and choices.

With the above in mind, it would be helpful to focus on "criteria" that empower our everyday decisions and choices. We are not attempting by the following criteria to suggest a structural model for moral decision-making. Rather, what is offered are "significant" criteria that provide a foundational touchstone for the everyday decisions we do face. By focusing on these criteria we provide needed Christian direction for everyday choices.


1. Where is Jesus? For Christians the focus in life is always on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the context of this faith commitment we respond to Jesus' call to "come and follow me" (Mark 10: 21). St. Ignatius perceptively noted this invitation of Jesus when posing the questions: "What have I done for Christ?" "What do I do for Christ?" and "What will I do for Christ?" When making everyday decisions, an important question must always be where Jesus is in this choice. If, for example, I am wondering whether to take time for a specific volunteer work or if I am attempting to decide what type of volunteer work to engage in, I need to consider how this choice allows me to be with Jesus and walk the road that he traveled. What would he say about this work in light of my present life situation (other obligations, time involvement, personal talents, etc.)? Every Christian needs to reflect on what is personal experience of Jesus for him or her, and on how this choice allows Jesus to become a greater mediating force in personal choosing.

2. Community. Christian living is never done in a vacuum. Our decisions and choices are inextricably tied to the roles and relationships that envelop our life. If we choose to leave a certain occupation, we touch not only our own life but the lives of family, friends, and associates whom we leave, as well as the people we shall soon be working for. Our decision, in other words, is not unaffected by other relationships which influence our life. When choosing a line of work, a business move, an occupational choice, we must consider not only our own needs but the needs and life situations of others too. Our Christian decisions, likewise, are made real in the life of a community which encompasses a unique heritage and tradition. St. Paul was adamant in his dealings with the people of Corinth about the eating of idolatrous foods and speaking in tongues. Christians, says Paul, need awareness of their brothers and sisters, always being attentive to their needs. For Paul, if eating certain foods causes scandal, or if emphasis on speaking in tongues disallows the recognition of others' gifts within the community, then these behaviors must be altered out of respect for other members. As Christians we must ask where the community of faith fits into our decisions and life choices. How does the decision that we make reconcile us with the needs and desires of others within the community of faith whose tradition we embrace? A fundamental "corollary" for this is "knowing" the position (if it exists) of our own faith community. If our avocation, for example, is politics and we choose to take part in political activities and adhere to a diverse array of political opinions, then we need to seek knowledge of our own faith community's stance on questions of politics and related social justice concerns. If we choose to dissent from our community's stance, we need to ask why this is so and be willing both to offer input to the faith community and at the same time to be aware of the reasons why the faith community's stance differs from our own.

3. Love. The great Christian commandment is love (John 15: 12), and Christians are called to a loving relationship of universal openness towards others. The love which Paul so eloquently describes as patient, kind, not rude, not boastful, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things (1 Cor. 13: 4-7) is a distinguishing mark for Christians. Thus, if we are making a decision in regard to a particular relationship, we might well refer to Paul and ask how we are becoming more loving through care, kindness, and genuine human attentiveness towards this person. If we take on some hobby, we would do well to ask ourselves how, with this new commitment, our Christian love is made real for those with whom we work, live, and play. In effect, is this choice the more loving thing to do at this moment in my life?

4. Solitude. When making a choice, we find ourselves caught up, not only in a choice that involves content (what particular thing I should do), but also in a "process" of actual decision-making (the steps I use in making this decision). All too often our focus is restricted to the former area of content (what choice we should make). Yet an essential component of Christian decision-making is attention to how this decision is made, and an integral factor in the Christian process is solitude. "And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed (Mark 1: 35). What strikes us in reading Scripture is Jesus' constant attentiveness to his own life of solitude. In our own lives, too, we must look for moments of aloneness. If that job, that relationship, the buying of that house are so important, are they not made more meaningful by giving time to listen and hear the Lord's movement within? Do our choices and decisions reflect this time of quiet that is so important to the how of our own everyday choices?

5. Openness. Allied with the above need for solitude is the need for openness. Are we willing to seek the advice of others, to ask others for their opinions and counsel? Trusted friends and experienced professionals can provide a helpful conduit for valuable insights, while offering a richer perspective for our choices. St. Ignatius suggests that inclinations to keep to ourselves can reflect serious temptations, since we beguile ourselves and cut off the very human openness that brings clarity to our Christian lives. He labels this temptation to silence as arising from a "false love" whose manipulations entrap us. When facing a life choice, we need an openness and sharing that sheds light on our interior disposition. Thus, if we wonder whether this relationship is truly growthful, we should seek counsel from friends and those we trust. Failure to seek enlightening dialogue with others renders us susceptible to the numerous personal limits and misconceptions that detach us from our own spiritual growth.

6. Growth. The Christian obligation is not only to be in Christ (Gal. 3: 20) but through this union with Christ to "increase and abound" in love for others (1 Thess. 3: 12). St. Paul characterized his own growth in the Lord as a "race" in which the "prize" is "life on high in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3: 12-14). Two focuses are particularly helpful here. First, how have previous choices in our lives contributed to our being who we are today? Similarly, we might ask how we have grown in love through these past decisions, especially as they relate to the present choice we are making. We might reflect, likewise, on what previous choices most touch on our present decision. If, for example, we are facing an occupational choice, we would do well to reflect back on what past decisions have brought us to this present moment (college major, vocational interests, fostering personal talents). How have past choices contributed to who we are, and how have these decisions allowed us to increasingly give ourselves in a spirit of Christian selflessness to others? Secondly, we might project ourselves several years into the future and look at what we perceive to be the consequences of this present decision, particularly as it pertains to our spiritual growth. How do we foresee this choice as leading us to greater Christian growth in both the love and care we show ourselves and others? We might also imaginatively rehearse in our minds the future possibilities before us. As we reflect on the alternatives that we foresee, we would do well to gauge our own affective responses as well as ask the question: "How is this choice making me more Christian?"

7. Limitations. Regardless of the choices we make, no matter how well intentioned we are, Christian doctrine and most certainly Christian history declare our inadequacies and limits. Every Christian can empathize with Paul's own struggle to follow the Spirit's call: "I cannot even understand my own actions; I do not do what I want to do but what I hate" (Rom. 7: 15). In addition to our personal limits, we find ourselves challenged by the limiting confines of our culture (stereotypes, narrow attitudes) and the painful realities of our own existential situation (lack of skills, time, money, etc.). Conclusively, though, our choices never succeed in completely appropriating the gospel command to love. This knowledge of limits calls us to reflect more deeply on our choices. Just as we must look at the opportunities that allow us to love, so too must we center on the limiting, narrowing, and unloving aspects of our decisions. What are the unloving aspects of this relationship, this job choice, this career move, this choice of ministry? Interpreting our life history means recognizing our blindnesses and nongrowthful ways of behaving that are incompatible with the following of Christ. By recognizing and admitting our weaknesses (2 Cor. 12: 10), we are led to rely on decisions nourished by Jesus' presence and nurtured through prayer and sacramental participation.

8. Values. Developmental psychologists often point to the increase of self-knowledge as a sign of growing maturity. As Christians we need to consciously realize our distinctive value system that prods us to ask "why" of our behavior and fosters within us an understanding and appreciation of our Christian commitment. Values reflect the core of our personal belief and provide sustenance to our sense of an ethical identity. When making everyday choices, we need time to view how our behavior reflects "me" at this fundamental level. Furthermore, having a sense of why we do what we do strengthens the direction of our future choices. Psychologically we come to "own" ourselves at this deeper level, becoming more aware of the values underlying our choices which in turn reinforce our value commitment in future decision-making. When we choose this behavior rather than another, we proclaim what is most authentic in our life. When we choose to relate with this person in a particular way, or to leave this ministry, or to choose this way to occupy our time, we are proclaiming at a deeper level the values that direct us to make these very choices. No greater expression of what should result from a distinctively Christian value system is available to us than Paul's own words: the working of the Spirit brings love, joy, peace, patience, endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity (Gal. 5: 22). We need time to reflect on our choices, especially as they form a pattern in our life over a period of time, so that we can note what values we are professing and whether the fruits of the Spirit are both present and growing in our life.

9. Affectivity. Depth psychology has revealed the critical influence that feelings have on our attitudes, perceptions, and behavior. Theologians, likewise, such as Donald Gelpi, note the critical role affective responses have for our own maturing faith. Facing my actual feelings disposes me to respond freely in a more authentic faith commitment. No doubt the decision to leave a job, terminate a relationship, purchase some material good can arise from numerous unrecognized feelings, such as anger, fear, jealousy. From another perspective, we cannot dismiss social psychology's penetrating insights into the role that environment, habitual behavior, and our own perceptions have on our decisions. Our internal psychological states, such as tiredness, low self-esteem, feelings of personal inadequacy-all unite to undermine and circumvent true Christian growth. Authentic Christian choices encourage us to look within ourselves and be aware of these numerous feelings which interweave with our attempts to choose authentic Christian responses. It is important that we find time to examine what feelings might be operative in our decision-making.

10. Responsibility. When professing Christian commitment, we must be responsible for the decisions we make. As Christians we are called to make choices that reflect our responsible use of Christian freedom (Gal. 5: 13-14). Our choosing represents his loving presence in our life as we grow more and more responsible in a loving stance towards our relationships and all that occupies our life. And in accepting responsibility we also commit ourselves to the prospect of altering or tempering our choices as subsequent experiences enter into our life history. What orients our decisions are not rigid commitments to past choices but the presence of Jesus Christ and his message of incarnating love (Matt. 22: 39). This paradoxical dynamic whereby Christian freedom is lived out in a growing dependency on Christ leads to deepening personal choices based on a growing Christian maturity (Phil. 3: 15).

We can summarize our decision-making criteria by listing some general questions that touch on our experience of making everyday choices and decisions.

What role does Jesus Christ exercise in this decision?

How does my choice reconcile me with the community of faith of which I am a part, and how does my decision take into account the effect my decision has on others?

What are the ostensible signs of Christian love evinced in this decision I have made?

In making this decision, do I find time for interior silence whereby I can really listen to the Lord?

How open am I to consulting others about this choice in my life?

How do past decisions, or decisions related to the one I am presently making, influence my present Christian choosing, and how does this choice allow for possible future growth?

Can I recognize and admit the limits and imperfections of my choice, accepting my shortcomings, yet still relying on the need for ongoing and deepening conversion?

How does this decision proclaim Christian values, and are my own values authentic signs of true Christian living?

What feelings do I have when making this decision, and how might these affective responses influence my attempts to determine an authentic Christian choice?

Can I truly say that this decision is a responsible use of Christian freedom in my own life?

From this discussion we can see that Christian decision-making is immersed in the ongoing events and complexities inundating our everyday lives. What the above criteria suggest, however, is that touchstones for our everyday decisions are available in our human experiencing and that these focuses can aid in our efforts to see that "Christ is being proclaimed" (Phil. 1: 18).