Acton Institute Powerblog

5 Principles for Spiritual Discernment in the Economic Order

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If there’s one area of the faith-work conversation that’s lacking in exploration and introspection, it’s the role of spiritual discernment in the day-to-day decisions of economic life.

It’s one thing to orient one’s heart and mind around the big picture of vocation and stewardship — no small feat, to be sure — but if economics is about the intersection of knowledge and human action, what does it mean to serve a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts? Before and beyond our questions about ethics and meaning and vocation (“is my work moral?”; “does it have meaning?”; “what am I called to do?”) remains the basic question of obedience.

How does the Gospel transform our hearts and minds and how does that process transform our economic action? How do we make sure we’re putting obedience before sacrifice in all that we do? How do we hear the Holy Spirit minute-by-minute, day-by-day, and how does that impact the ideas we have, the products we conceive, the prices we set, the relationships we build, and the trades and investments we make?

I was reminded of this recently upon reading an essay on discernment by Peter Kreeft. Although he doesn’t speak directly to economic matters, Kreeft does a nice job of connecting the earthly with the transcendent, cautioning us against “emphasizing Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity or his humanity at the expense of his divinity,” or likewise, “his divine sovereignty at the expense of free will or free will at the expense of divine sovereignty.” Spiritual discernment ought not descend into some kind of peculiar escapism, but rather, it must engage with the natural world, leverage the gifts and the resources God has given us, and ultimately bear fruit for the good of the city and for the life of the world.

To boil it down, Kreeft offers five basic principles on discerning God’s will that apply to all areas of life (quoted directly):

  1. Always begin with data, with what we know for sure. Judge the unknown by the known, the uncertain by the certain. Adam and Eve neglected that principle in Eden and ignored God’s clear command and warning for the devil’s promised pig in a poke.
  2. Let your heart educate your mind. Let your love of God educate your reason in discerning his will. Jesus teaches this principle in John 7:17 to the Pharisees. (Would that certain Scripture scholars today would heed it!) They were asking how they could interpret his words, and he gave them the first principle of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation): “If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would understand my teaching.” The saints understand the Bible better than the theologians, because they understand its primary author, God, by loving him with their whole heart and their whole mind.
  3. Have a soft heart but a hard head. We should be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” sharp as a fox in thought but loyal as a dog in will and deed. Soft-heartedness does not excuse soft-headedness, and hard-headedness does not excuse hard-heartedness. In our hearts we should be “bleeding-heart liberals” and in our heads “stuck-in-the-mud conservatives.”
  4. All God’s signs should line up, by a kind of trigonometry. There are at least seven such signs: (1) Scripture, (2) church teaching, (3) human reason (which God created), (4) the appropriate situation, or circumstances (which he controls by his providence), (5) conscience, our innate sense of right and wrong, (6) our individual personal bent or desire or instincts, and (7) prayer. Test your choice by holding it up before God’s face. If one of these seven voices says no, don’t do it. If none say no, do it.
  5. Look for the fruits of the spirit, especially the first three: love, joy, and peace. If we are angry and anxious and worried, loveless and joyless and peaceless, we have no right to say we are sure of being securely in God’s will. Discernment itself should not be a stiff, brittle, anxious thing, but—since it too is part of God’s will for our lives—loving and joyful and peace-filled, more like a game than a war, more like writing love letters than taking final exams.

Both Christians and non-Christians may in fact lean on these principles to certain degrees and from time to time, often unknowingly, but we ought not be satisfied with stewardship by accident or self-selection. Many will go through this process when it comes to big decisions — choosing a career, a house, a spouse, etc. — but how often do we let our “heart educate our mind” in the more mundane decisions of life? The tasks we assume, the groceries we buy, the appointments we make, the way we prioritize our career with our creativity with our consumerism with our relationships and obligations? God has something to say about all of it.

This is not to point us toward some petty legalism or to layer up new anxieties, but quite the opposite: to open our hearts more actively and intentionally to the will of the Father and the peace available through serving him with everything we have. What would it mean for the economic order if the people of God were to be led not only by wisdom and reason but also by the Spirit? Not simply “getting smart” or “making business moral” or having the sensibility to discern “positive impulses” from negative, but tapping directly into the Almighty, hearing and obeying his voice, and moving actively in the gifts of the Spirit — in our creative activity, exchanges, investments, generosity, and so on. More importantly, what would all of this mean for the people of God?

There’s much else to be explored here, and Kreeft’s essay goes much deeper on the finer philosophical points, but hopefully these principles serve as a good practical guide to (1) reorient our imaginations, and (2) prod us to explore the implications of such discernment on the world around us..

Economic decision-making ought not be a mere deferral to “reason” and “prudence,” just as it ought not devolve into an over-spiritualized fog that conflicts with God’s reality. He has given us many relationships, many gifts, and many tools. It’s up to us whether we lean on his Helper to connect the dots.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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