Previously on the blog, I wrote a reflection on how the practice of NFP allows us to hone different virtues. Included in that list was prudence, which involves right judgment or discernment of what is the right thing to do. Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity. As Christians we also recognize three theological virtues faith, hope and charity (see: 1 Cor 13:13)
While the four cardinal virtues can be known, practiced, and acquired through the human action, the theological virtues come from and lead to the Triune God. They still require human action in order to be nourished and grow, but they are “the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being (CCC #1813).
For Christians, the discernment which accompanies prudence must necessarily be informed by the counsel of the Holy Spirit, one of the gifts which is strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Yet discernment is an often misunderstood and underdeveloped art in our modern world. Abundant distractions, a lack of silence in our daily lives, hyper focus on the future, and the myth of total autonomy all pervade our experience of the Western world today. Each of these is a hindrance to true discernment, but they can be recognized fairly easily and with some effort can be countered through our own good actions.
What is far more difficult and poisonous to our personal discernment are attitudes within the Christian community which distort discernment into a sort of divine mind-reading game, devised by a God who lays out a multitude of possible paths and expects us to pick the right one… or else. We tend to relegate discernment to an action taken only when faced with very big or impactful choices: like a fork in the road, where God is asking us to choose the one right path. Once we have chosen that, we can continue along the road relatively easily and without much thought until the next big decision comes along.
On the other hand, discerning the will of God can sometimes be seen as a constant stream of crippling choices. I’ve heard friends who have become so focused on doing the will of God “at all times,” that they worry even the slightest choice they will make will lead to a huge diversion from God’s plan. They see it as a narrow road laid out specifically for them, which must be walked like a tightrope for their entire lives if they are to succeed in their journey towards heaven. Perhaps this is not an explicit belief of theirs, but it manifests when they are asked to make a decision, and find that it comes with crippling anxiety and scrupulosity.
We who use NFP are acutely tuned to the fact that the reality of discernment falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. It is not a one-time event associated only with capital-v Vocation questions. But neither is it something that must cripple us into thinking that every little decision must be scrutinized. There are a lot of wonderful books, guides and programs available which can teach us about discernment techniques. But so much of it can be pulled straight from the practice of NFP, which requires prudence, counsel, and a huge dollop of faith to keep us going.
So for our mutual benefit, I would like to present a few ways in which Natural Family Planning helps us understand and practice the Christian art of discernment.
1) Communication is key. When we are seeking to do God’s will, we should probably spend a lot of time getting to know Him and asking His opinion first. This is called prayer, and it’s a basic form of communication that Christians must intentionally seek out and strengthen regularly. Successful practice of NFP also requires strong communication between spouses, so they can know what each person thinks and feels by honestly and openly seeking to know the will of our spouse. If we take it one step further and pray together as spouses, we strengthen lines of communication with each other and God at the same time.
2) The Holy Spirit often speaks through other people. Good communication also requires and hones the art of listening. When we take the time to listen to the prayerful considerations of our spouse, we can become more attuned to the way the Holy Spirit speaks to us through other people. Sometimes this awareness reveals things about ourselves which were previously hidden: our own motivations, desires, and shortcomings can be laid bare before us as we discern God’s will together.
3) Following God’s will requires a submissive act of our own will. We may think that some people are just naturally clued into what God wants, thinking that everyday holiness is a special quality reserved for a few. While it is true that some people seem to naturally have more faith or hope or love than others, every one of us needs to make the conscious choice to follow God. Following God’s will is not purely based on our feeling of what “seems right”– it requires a humble act of submission of our own will, and then the fortitude and endurance to carry out His will over and against our own if necessary. NFP, in particular, is an aspect of Church teaching that may make total sense to some people, but it’s completely counterintuitive to others. For the latter group, NFP runs against our own feelings and teaches us how to submit our will. Hopefully with this conscious submission, the habitual grace which is received through doing good works will shape our will to be more conformed to God’s will over time, making the practice of NFP and the art of discernment easier.
4) We are not usually choosing between good and evil, but competing goods which can all be legitimate options. NFP teaches us that in mutual discernment it is possible for prayerful people of good will who love each other and God to disagree. One spouse may feel very strongly that now is the right time to have a child and they present many good reasons for believing that. The other spouse may be hesitant and think that postponing pregnancy is the better decision at this time. Both spouses may see the situation the same way, but still come to differing conclusions. When this happens, we learn how to respectfully cooperate with one another in following God’s will. We see that there could be multiple good options, and come to an agreement about a mutual course of action. Sometimes this requires the submission of one spouse to the other, but this should always be done out of mutual respect, not coercion.
5) You don’t have to think 10 steps down the line. God may be asking us to make big decisions, but he’s not asking us to try and figure out exactly how all of these decisions will impact the rest of our lives. The cyclical and frequent nature of discernment associated with NFP helps us focus on one decision at a time asking only the question: What does God want us to do now? It seems at times that our society wants us to have our family planned even before we get married. I’ve gotten plenty of questions from seemingly well-intentioned cashiers wondering how many kids I’m going to have or if I’m “done” yet. I’m grateful to say that I don’t know. I may have a vision for how I would like things to go with our family, but NFP prevents me from clinging too tightly to that vision.
Now, of course, the caveat must be mentioned that absolutely none of this is easy all of the time. There is a reason that so much ink has been spilled on the topic of discernment– for each person the art is ever new and the experience is completely unrepeatable, because discernment is all about your personal relationship with God and your unique role in the Church.
Sometimes God gives you some clear answers; sometimes, for whatever reason, He decides not to give you that much input.
In the latter case, I pass along some great advice I got recently from a friend:
“If you aren’t sure what to do, go ahead and make a choice from any number of good options you perceive. Offer it up to God and say, ‘Lord, if this is Your will for me, may it flourish and bring me peace. If it is not, may I discover Your true will through following this path I have chosen.’”