Life-Long Learning: How to Discern Key Areas of Growth in Our Lives


Summer has arrived and many of my teammates here in Spain are about to set off on various home assignments: speaking engagements, support raising, seeing teenagers off to university and perhaps even a bit of vacation. I, however, will be holed up in my home office writing, trying to make progress on a PhD dissertation that has been many, many years in the making. But why in the world would a sixty-something-year-old, who already has her dream job invest so much time and effort into such a thing? Life-long learning and growth, folks. 

There is much scientific evidence about the value of learning throughout our lives, even into our later years. That evidence reflects the way we are made by God to be continually transforming, growing ever more fully into the people he designed us to be. It raises a question for us, however. How do we discern areas of growth in our lives? Or in other words, how do we assess and decide where to focus our energy?

Think Holistically

I would suggest that we begin by taking into account the multi-faceted, integrated beings that God created us to be. When working with people, my team uses the great commandments as a guide for personal assessment:

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

  • Love the Lord…  Look at your relationship with God. This is foundational and permeates every other area of your life.

  • with all your heart…Reflect on the emotional aspects of yourself.

  • with all your soul… Consider your choices, your will, and desires.

  • with all your mind… Examine your intellectual and thought life.

  • with all your strength… Assess your physical well-being, your health and skills.

  • love your neighbor… Evaluate your relationships; we are meant to live and work with and among others.

Within each of these areas, we might find growth opportunities at either a deep, personal, and characterological level, or at a more outward level. 

In the case of my doctoral studies, I’m looking to grow in the more surface areas of my thought life and to enhance my outward ministry. At the same time, however, I am learning things that impact my understanding of God—not to mention facing challenging questions about my motivations, habits, and even core beliefs around my capabilities, worth, and identity. It turns out that all of those things are fodder for growth and learning.

Think Discernment Over Decision-Making

Thinking holistically is a good starting place for self-evaluation, yet it still leaves us with the question of deciding where to focus our energy. Certainly deciding is good, as is self-evaluation. But the better way is to discern. So what is the difference between simply deciding and discerning? 

My longtime friend and mentor, Larry Warner, in his book, Discernment, God’s Will & Living Jesus: Christian Discernment as a Way of Life, describes it thus:

Christian discernment is the ability within us—energized and empowered by the Spirit—to: 1) recognize the communications of God in expected and unexpected places, 2) distinguish good from evil, 3) perceive what is best, and, 4) embody God’s will. 

This sort of discernment is not only available to all believers, but an area where we are expected to grow and mature. 

That growth is not something we can achieve through our own efforts, but happens as we open ourselves to the work of the Indwelling Spirit through a practiced way of life, which involves four main characteristics:

  1. A deepening knowledge of God and self

  2. Uniquely “living Jesus,” in harmony with his words and teachings

  3. Attending and responding to the Holy Spirit

  4. Desiring God’s greater glory, and his will over our own

Opening ourselves to the Spirit and engaging in a practiced way of life is a highly relational business! It is not merely a set of disciplines, but a life lived in increasing intimacy with God. In order to live in the place of increasing intimacy, the ability to notice and respond to God’s presence (#3 above) is a key factor which contributes to the other three. This is the place to begin if we hope to grow in discernment.

Attend to God’s Presence

So, how do we learn to notice and respond to the presence of God in and around us? A wonderful and relatively simple practice, developed by Ignatius of Loyola (here in Spain!) and practiced within the Church for several centuries, can be a great help. The Examen is a way of prayerfully reflecting on your day, asking the Lord to reveal both himself and yourself, and to hear his invitations as he walks through daily life with you. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Knowing that God Is constantly present, ask to behold him, and how he has been present in your day.

  2. Review your day—perhaps imagining that the Lord is holding the remote control for a video of your day—asking him to pause where he wants you to notice his presence or something about yourself.

  3. Pay attention to your reactions—in your thoughts, body, and emotions—which can offer insight into where you need to hear God’s voice.

  4. Express your reactions to God, freely and without judgement.

  5. Ask God how he is inviting you to respond, and resolve to live into the invitation.

Putting it Together

With time and attention, we gradually learn to listen ever more clearly and closely to the Lord’s call on our lives. As we continue growing in our intimacy and ability to hear from God, key areas to invest time and energy in growth and learning become evident. If the Lord hasn’t already told us, we ask! 

As a first step, I suggest taking each aspect of yourself (relationship with God, emotional life, volition, thought life, physical well-being and skills, relationships) to God in an Examen, asking for insight and invitation.

In my own discernment regarding my PhD studies and dissertation, I have found that the Lord has desired to communicate with me and guide my decisions and process. I’m so grateful for his leading during moments of self-doubt and the simple hard work of writing. (Now, if he’d just write it for me...sigh.)


Debra Schuster co-leads SentWell, the team dedicated to care and development of Novo’s field staff. Based in Spain, she and the team travel globally to provide services as well as receiving folks in Spain and spending lots of time on international video calls. She is an experienced spiritual director, and as part of her work, heads up Deepen: Relational Spiritual Formation, a training program in spiritual companionship for cross-cultural workers. Debbie is the proud mother of three adult children, two sons-in-law, and seven precious grandkids, whom she misses terribly. (And, yes, a good number of those international video calls are with the family—thank you Lord for technology!)