Christian discernment takes patience and prayer and is not something easily reducible to a few simple axioms or methods. However, through the use of our reason, we can at least approach discernment having ruled out certain impossibilities. One thing that we can be sure of, for example, is that God will never intend for us to sin as a means of accomplishing or reaching a good. The question of “ends and means” may be a familiar one in regards to imagining more extreme circumstances, but consider a more ordinary example:
I am a young husband, father, and professional. These vocations are my primary responsibilities and necessarily must take some degree of precedent over other things in my life. If one day I become excited by the idea of writing a book or doing foreign missionary work and think that God is calling me to do so, while continual prayer and discernment are in order, there are a couple of things I can immediately rule out: God is NOT calling me to leave my wife, abandon my children, or stop fulfilling my role in providing for them. Even with the accomplishment of some possible good in mind — even a very good “good” — I can be sure that God is not calling me to act wrongly as a means of attaining that good.
This is, again, simple but perhaps useful to consider from time to time regarding discernment. It allows us to immediately rule out some of the possible courses of action which, in our zeal, might seem very attractive in the moment. God’s ways are not our ways and our subjective feelings are not always the best standard by which to evaluate the next most right step we are to take. The good we want to do — that which seems most immediately gratifying, glamorous, worthy of praise, and likely to make us feel good — may not be the good that we ought to do (at least right now).
To use my domestic analogy again, in a moment of zeal, the good I want to do may involve locking myself in my room to write a book about important things. While writing a book may certainly be a “good” and may even be a good that God is indeed calling me to do, it may not be the good that God is calling me to right now. If locking myself in my room and writing a book involves neglect of my more fundamental (and in the moment perhaps less glamorous) responsibilities — care for my family and performance of my day job — then I can rather safely conclude that the timing is not quite right.
Does this mean I must abandon whatever noble calling I feel? Certainly not. If it truly is God’s will for me to be a writer, not only will he give me the grace to fill that role, but he will open the doors in his own timing, so that I need make no rash or hasty decisions to get there. Perhaps I will be able to incorporate writing into my professional life or perhaps for now I will simply need to plan my time well, confining my writing to some planned times throughout the week. Whatever the solution, again, we can be sure it will not conflict with, but rather complement the other duties and responsibilities God has placed upon me.
Now with all of that in mind, consider something further. If I think that God is calling me toward some good and yet I have concluded that the timing is not quite right, there is another rather confident conclusion I can make: God is calling me to be precisely where I am. Again, it is easy for me to relish a sense of noble calling in regards to becoming a writer. It is quite often less easy to recognize the noble calling of dirty diapers. But if this is where God has called me right now, then He intends for me not just to be here but to really be here.
A common temptation is to see a present difficulty as merely an annoying obstacle between myself and whatever I really should (or think I should) be doing or worrying about. As C.S. Lewis’ senior demon, Screwtape notes in chapter 6 of The Screwtape Letters:
“Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him — the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “Thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.”
This particular passage is dealing with the management of fear, but it is broadly applicable. It is the present difficulty or task which we are being called to bear with heroic virtue. However frustrating or boring or ignoble the circumstances at hand, they are what God is calling us to right now.
To summarize, God may have noble ends in mind for us, but He never intends evil means. Thus, if pursuing some true good seems to involve rash or hasty or irresponsible courses of action in the present, either God isn’t calling us in that direction (perhaps it is someone else’s job) or the timing is just not right. We need to look for the hard, long, right road and ignore the easy, but wrong shortcut. Furthermore, let us embrace the hardness and length of the road onto which God has led us, for walking this road and walking it well is the task to which we are called right now.