Let’s Discuss: Discernment

Let’s Discuss: Discernment

On Friday, I’ll be heading south to pray with monks at Gethsemani for the weekend. My main purpose in going, besides spiritual refreshment, is to take advantage of the silence to work on a project about Spiritual Discernment.

Before I go, I thought I’d ask for my fellow iMonks’ input. Consider this a brainstorming session.

For example, consider the following questions…

  • When you hear the word, “discernment,” what comes to mind? How would you define the quality, especially in a spiritual and Christian sense?
  • Assuming that “discernment” is multifaceted, what kinds of discernment are there? What aspects of it seem most pertinent to you in the course of daily life?
  • How does one become a “discerning” person? What habits and practices are important for developing “discernment”?
  • What examples or stories do you have of someone that you consider to be “discerning”?
  • Have you read any books or articles that helped you discover the meaning and importance of “discernment”?
  • Etc….

This is your chance to have an open discussion on the subject, and an opportunity for me to learn from your experience and insight.

Thanks, in advance, for participating. I hope it will be an enjoyable and edifying day for us all.

49 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss: Discernment

  1. I too scored high on discernment on a couple of spiritual gifts surveys. I call this gift my BS meter. It’s kept me from falling for many of the trends (marketing ploys in disguise) that move through evangelical Christianity.


  2. I’ve had difficulty with the word “discernment” in recent years as to how it’s been used in the blogosphere. Somewhere along the way, it came to be code for: I’m judging you, but the Bible says don’t judge, so I’ll call it ‘discerning’ instead; and I have discerned that I am right, and you are wrong.


  3. Grace and humility is the best approach, but it’s hard. My church leadership wanted to move toward what was “more biblical” in order to be more effective in “discipline” and other yada-yadas. It looked pretty legalistic. They wanted elders (male only) because elders (which are biblically designated as male, of course) are the correct form of church government. And complementarianism. And Sunday School lessons on Calvinism, which they called The Doctrines of Grace. Honestly, I felt like I was in an episode of The Wartburg Watch.

    The other side was voted down, but I don’t feel victorious. I had explained that this all looked like “another gospel” and was works, not grace. I was informed that my interpretation of Galatians “misses the mark.”

    It’s all over (for now) but as a result, the deacon who pushed hardest for the change left with his family and another family. I haven’t left completely, but I’ve been fading away over the past year. Now attend about one in five Sundays.

    You know what’s also biblical? Paul and Barnabas. When they couldn’t agree on something important they split up. The other side thinks Matthew 18 is the the correct and biblical manner to resolve issues, and they even insert elders into that process.

    Note to the faithful: Elders are not mentioned in Matthew 18. I looked it up.

    Also biblical is Paul confronting Peter to his face—because he stood condemned—on a matter of legalism. That’s in Galatians, but as my interpretation of Galatians misses the mark it’s moot.

    Discernment is hard.


  4. For some reason your comment reminded me that I once met a woman who told me she was so in tune with the Holy Spirit that every morning she would ask It what she should wear.

    I discern that that is b******.

    But I’ve met that person many times as well. They seem to be spiritually ineffective, certainly in an earthly sense.


  5. For some reason your comment reminded me that I once met a woman who told me she was so in tune with the Holy Spirit that every morning she would ask It what she should wear.

    Now I guess on one hand a person can be admired for having a relationship with God to the level that every little detail becomes a moment of communication and discernment, but on the other hand what does it say about a person who feels the need to turn to the Holy Spirit for what to wear every morning?

    I imagine those types of people are pretty ready with “God told me this” and “God wants you to know,” and I bet there’s nary a conversation that is what I would consider “normal.”


  6. I became known, for a time, as a bit of a complainer and grumbler. My current pastor even asked me once, “Why do you always seem to bring up the negative aspects of things?”

    I explained to him that, as a Board member, the “hat” I feel I need to wear is “Steward of what God has given us.” So I told him it’s not so much that I’m battling him in everything he wants to do but that I am first and foremost concerned about whether we’re being good stewards of what God has given us. That would include people’s tithes, people’s time, people’s prayers, people’s lives, etc. etc.

    I think that was an A-ha moment for him and actually helped our relationship quite a bit.

    Ted, in regard to your thing, I’ll just say You may be right, you may be wrong, just go in with grace, and what I learned that what we sometimes view as “spiritual discernment” is actually just differences in philosophical approach. The question then becomes, can you live with the difference of philosophical approach or not?


  7. I’ll use the 1 Corinthians 12 meaning of discernment, the ability to distinguish between spirits.

    This includes distinguishing truth from falsehood, good from evil, real news from fake news, sincerity from flattery, sympathy from a sociopath.

    A few scripture references:

    “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

    ” They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:25)

    “Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you.” (Matthew 24:4, but pretty much ALL of chapter 24)

    “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

    Pilate’s question “What is truth?” has never been more important. What can we know? We are now seeing truth up for sale to the highest bidder, truth owned by the most powerful. The Ăśbermensch has become the meaning of the earth after all. We are bombarded with falsehoods to the point that many have come to believe that there is nothing to believe, only power, and are acting accordingly. Again: Matthew 24.

    The above may answer your first question, “What comes to mind?” when I hear the word “discernment.”

    For your third question, “How does one become a ‘discerning’ person?” I might say that the ability to think, “I could be wrong about this” is a good place to start. I share Rick Ro’s story, above at 12:11 pm, with a different ending, at least so far. It’s lonely and humbling to go up against church leadership, to become a voice crying in the wilderness. Maybe I’m wrong in the case of my church, but I don’t think so. And maybe Rick was right after all. God knows. And of that, at least, we can be sure.

    So yeah, Mike, discernment sure is important to contemplate and study. Go for it, for the sake of the free world and for the church at large, if not for your own soul. And along with StuartB I’m asking, “Can I go with you?”

    Cheerio. Ted


  8. Humility is key. “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Even when we err he redeems what’s lost if we keep our place and don’t get on our high horse. It all becomes the wealth of knowledge that aids us moving ahead.


  9. “How does God communicate with me?”

    the animals, tiny birds, seasons, silence, sunlight through green leaves, solitude, the garden, peace


  10. I don’t think they would turn anyone away who needed to ‘come away and rest for a while’, no, not them


  11. I think discernment operates on many levels, both natural and spiritual. In the natural way, it operates whenever we need to make a decision. What is best in this circumstance? We learn and improve on this through experience, if we are paying attention. We actually learn more from the bad ones than the good decisions. Should I speed because it is the middle of the night and the freeway is empty? A hefty fine if you do it may make you think more carefully next time. Or check your local newspaper and you may find spectacular failures to discern good and evil, like the couple in an affair who plotted to kill the woman’s husband because he wouldn’t want to be divorced. They were then begging God for forgiveness after the fact. One evil following another, and now each accuses the other of being the mastermind. So sad and it was completely avoidable.

    Spiritual discernment though, is called a gift meant to strengthen the body of Christ. As such I am not sure it can be developed. Sometimes a gift will appear just when needed in a person who is simply open and willing to be used. Others claim to simply have the gift at all times, especially as an ability to point out truth from error. I’m sure there is a place for that, but if applied too often or without mercy it can cause more harm than good. The same person may claim the ability to discern sin in others, giving them license to shame other people. I’m seriously suspicious that this is not from the Holy Spirit, as it tends to destroy their relationships with those so accused.

    That brings me to the idea of discerning of spirits. The spirit in the above example (taken from real life experience) is one of accusation. It would appear that they are hearing from the accuser of the brethren, instead of the Holy Spirit. I do believe there are people who have the ability to sense the presence of evil beings in the spiritual realm. Most of the time, they will be quick and quiet about commanding them to leave, following Jesus’ example. If someone is looking around expecting to find demons everywhere, or blaming them for lost items in a messy house, I would think that person does not have the gift at all.


  12. I think discernment is applied wisdom. One doesn’t have to have a highly developed intellect to be wise, but other things do need to be developed: listening, watching, keeping inner silence, remembering Jesus as constantly as possible, prayer, seeking humility and the way to love. The point is not to have to choose among many options, but to be so united with Christ that one simply knows and does what is appropriate.

    This takes a lifetime.

    Sometimes the Holy Spirit will illuminate situations in what seems like an extra-ordinary way, but that isn’t something we should presume. Patience is key, and I think it works hand-in-hand with some degree of self-knowledge, as someone noted above. There is room in this kind of approach for navigating both the practical things of life and the above-the-pay-grade interactions with the usually invisible dimension of the One Reality (see Mule’s notes).

    Like so much of “Jesus-shaped spirituality”, it doesn’t fit well with the culture’s demands for instant anything.



  13. .”..Tolkien in that although there may be evils that need to be resisted with steel, the real battle needs to be fought with the weapons of self-denial and humility.”

    And to return the conversation to its topic, discernment is the ability to tell the difference between the two.


  14. –> “As far as concerns Spiritual Warfare, I take my marching orders from Solzhenitsyn and Tolkien, Solzhenitsyn in that the real battle is inside my own heart, and from Tolkien in that although there may be evils that need to be resisted with steel, the real battle needs to be fought with the weapons of self-denial and humility.”

    That’s a wonderful piece of insight and wisdom! I learned the hard way that there are some battles in which armor and weapons do absolutely ZERO good, like when there is no enemy, or the enemy is me.


  15. Where is God working in my life?

    Discernment to me is where to I hear God and where does that point to take action.

    Do I spend time listening for God?

    Schedule time to listening\reading to scripture, coffee discussions, walking with and without others, meditation, solitude and within community. Many do not schedule time to listen I have found in conversations with others. The one exception is listening to scripture on Sunday mornings.

    How does God communicate with me?

    Meditation, centering prayer, listening\reading scripture and other wisdom texts.
    Listening to others, read advertising at coffee shops and on buses.
    I might even share with other what direction I think God is pointing out and listening to their response.
    I once used a discernment group at a church. It was any context and not just holy orders.


  16. I think spiritual discernment is not so much like a psychic power as it is the discipline and practice of paying attention. It is not like suddenly getting struck by lightning and knowing all though it might occasionally feel like that.


  17. If I were making things up, I’d say discernment is about seeing what is important and good about life, especially in the midst of the unimportant and distractions. It is the ability not to feel the need to defend the “whole package” of anything, but to draw out the worthwhile parts of everything.


  18. Yeah, the monastery I visit doesn’t talk money – you give what you give, or you don’t, and they’ll take you even if you show up unexpectedly, though they won’t be as prepped, obviously.


  19. I’m going to put myself at odds with most of the board and stick with the archons. I don’t have a lot of trouble with wood, water, whatever spirits either. I also don’t care one fig about what common-sense was during the Babylonian, Greco-Roman, Second Temple Judaic, or Late Imperial Anglo-American periods or which was preferable or a more reliable reading of reality.

    I didn’t go crazy during the late 80s and early 90s because I didn’t pay much attention to the shriekers, being safely ensconced in Reformed-dom. I also know that dealing with the archons is well above my pay grade, so I don’t even pretend to know what the strategy is for dealing with them. As far as concerns Spiritual Warfare, I take my marching orders from Solzhenitsyn and Tolkien, Solzhenitsyn in that the real battle is inside my own heart, and from Tolkien in that although there may be evils that need to be resisted with steel, the real battle needs to be fought with the weapons of self-denial and humility.


  20. My experience with “discernment” has proven to be extremely humbling.

    I used to think I was pretty good at discerning God’s will in things (my own life, my family’s life, the church we attend, etc.) In fact, I score pretty high in “spiritual discernment” in “Gifting” surveys and my discernment radar was proven correct for a good part of my Christian walk, including times when it ran counter to conventional wisdom and leadership desires.

    Several years ago, though, I felt strongly that God wanted one thing for our church while leadership wanted another and I ended up battling leadership a bit over a couple of issues. I even ended up on the Board and became the lone voice for a certain path of our future.

    Well, as you can imagine, the lone voice got drowned out and I had to accept everyone else’s idea for our church future, and lo and behold…the decision I fought against has proved to be exactly the best one. Very humbling. I approached all the parties who I “fought” against and told them they were right and I was wrong. The response was extremely gracious, which only upped my humility.

    So now I tend to view my discernment radar with the knowledge it ain’t 100% right, maybe not even 75%, and it helps me to approach people who feel strongly about “knowing God’s will” with a story that will hopefully enable them to dial it back a bit.


  21. A better hermeneutic might be to let the NT interpret the NT, and let contemporary parts of the OT interpret contemporary parts of the OT.


  22. I choose to interpret spirits to mean something closer to moods or general emotions or “the spirit of the age”. That’s a far more preferable interpretation than endlessly discerning what demon might be hiding behind every corner. I lost my mind to that insanity in my 20s and I will not revisit it.

    If you want to discern the spirits, take a temperature reading of the mood of the room or prevailing culture. There’s not some weird lord of the flies or incubus hanging out in the corner. I do not believe in any great dark archons…unless you want to dip back into the Book of Job and claim as it does that they are all agents of Yahweh seeking to test us.

    (Which reminds me how foolish it is to let the Bible interpret the Bible. At any given point there could be over 1000 years between when passages were written, and language and culture evolves fast. Plus, by the time Paul was writing, within both contemporary Judaism and Roman/Greek culture, there was less of an emphasis on some heavenly based spirit pantheon or earth based ‘spirit in the water/woods/whatever’, and more of an emphasis on actual human-shaped entities as gods and deities.)(That was poorly written but hopefully it gets my thinking across lol)


  23. When you hear the word, “discernment,” what comes to mind?

    Spiritual Warfare fanboys.


  24. I cannot hear the word ‘discernment’ without thinking about the spiritual gift ‘discernment of spirits’ from the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians, diakrisis pneumatĂ´n. This, for me, raises the stakes considerably, especially if you believe, as I do, that events that affect us are reflections, or even results, of events that occur in a dimension with which we do not ordinarily traffick.

    It has long been a belief of mine that both the ‘progressive’ and the ‘conservative’ movements in our highly Manichaean political environment are influenced, if not directed, by great dark archons that only appear to be opposed to each other but which have the same anti-human, if not anti-zoic, goals in mind. That having been said, there are some real growlers stalking some precincts which we thought exorcised seventy-five years ago. They are growing in virulence and diminishing in patience.

    If your Christianity is basically ethical, and doesn’t address this spiritual dimension, it’s as useful as a bucket of jewelers’ grit in the desert.


  25. > As can Bible learning … how the world truly works … triad that often fights amongst itself.

    Hmmm. I see it very differently. The Scriptures are very honest about “how the world truly works”; it ain’t pretty. There is very little rivalry. Now…. place Scriptures [or anything] in the hands of a man with an Agenda … and suddenly rifts appear that need to be Theologized away.


  26. Yeah, that is frustrating.

    My Discernment is that places where you hear both messages – not uncommon – are deeply broken places, owned by the partisans, and best ignored.


  27. Oh. An example: HUG. Despite his scripts and repeated statements, he demonstrates an understanding and discernment that many lack, and can often repeated it often enough in the right contexts to really have things sink in. That’s a world weary given discernment.

    I also nominate Fred Clark.


  28. On one hand, “the church should handle that!” On the other hand, “we only preach the gospel and the Bible here”.

    So I’ve discerned.


  29. When you hear the word, “discernment,” what comes to mind? How would you define the quality, especially in a spiritual and Christian sense?

    It’s a four letter word that’s synonymous with both “weapon” and “cynical”, depending on the power dynamics and the goal trying to be accomplished. If someone likes me, they call me discerning. If they don’t, cynical.

    Assuming that “discernment” is multifaceted, what kinds of discernment are there? What aspects of it seem most pertinent to you in the course of daily life?

    Wisdom can be a form of discernment. As can Bible learning and intellectual knowledge. Also street smarts and a general knowledge of how the world truly works. What I’ve just described is a triad that often fights amongst itself.

    How does one become a “discerning” person? What habits and practices are important for developing “discernment”?

    Learning, experience, life. Sometimes painful, sometimes guided. I think regularly growing and being exposed to things and always inquisitive with maybe a willingness to be hurt will bring discernment.

    Can’t think of anything off my head for the final two questions…


  30. I might phrase it, ‘vitalis attendere’ or vital attention. Lively awareness. Hearing, seeing, feeling, rationalizing, intuiting. An acute openness and preparedness to receive, without restriction on God as to how he imparts his word. With apologies to those who are not into contemplative practice, a long tenure of contemplation serves as a solid foundation. Last, but perhaps most important, patient humility. God will use my wife, my pastor, an enemy, a scripture, an intuition, a fleeting memory, an accident or any combination of things. It is the internal practice that puts me in a position to hear and accept what Life is saying.


  31. Discernment is “seeing through”; perceiving how something or someone is responding to, and creating, context.

    ‘Christian’ discernment adds the compassion and grace of Christianity. Compassion wondrously opens the ability to hear others.

    The key discipline of Discernment is the discipline of S-L-O-W. The Partisan sees immediately, but his understanding cannot penetrate. The discipline of S-L-O-W can only follow the discipline of Peace [Confidence]. One cannot Discern in a state of Anxiety or Anger – Christianly or otherwise.

    Discernment also requires a great deal of knowledge, because it is about context. You need to know the history and story of a people, person, or place; if not, you cannot Discern concerning it – false discernment of such a situation can be harmful – humility is important. This is likely where a concept of “types” of Discernment comes in; but I doubt there really are types, rather there are people with the knowledge to see more than others about a thing. People who have developed deep knowledge about a thing know this. I can survey either computer code of an application or where a railroad crosses a road – and just due to a lot of knowledge and experience they whisper all kinds of things to me someone else might not see. I know an avid sports fan watching a game really does see much more than I do – that is the basic component of discernment [the act of physically perceiving – and seeing – are very distinct].

    I doubt the Christian-ness of Discernment changes much; but it changes a great deal – because in compassion the seeing will be different than that of the partisan. On the otherhand compassion and grace are clearly not for Christians alone.

    > How does one become a “discerning” person?

    In the Christian tone of Discernment – the most helpful thing has been friends and affiliates who are there. The best thing is a core of people not bound up in Anger & Anxiety – or who at least are self-aware of their anxieties. Anger & Anxiety are a social contagion.

    The most important choice is life is constant: the choice of one’s friends. Good fortune played a role in this.

    > Have you read any books or articles that helped you discover the meaning
    > and importance of “discernment”?

    Miroslav Volf was very helpful to me – to move beyond the western obsession with Justice and the counting of evils, which I now believe cannot co-exist with Christian Discernment, or really with Christian much-of-anything. Grace transcends Justice.


  32. > Without some degree of self-mastery, as well as mastery of life and its circumstances …

    Agree; and a good argument for why The Church should focus more on “mastery of life” skills. It is very difficult in many places for people who need that kind of help to find it.


  33. I’m a totally modern discerner which means I can accurately tell you what others REALLY MEAN – particularly conservative evangelicals who’s only motives are evil – dryly.


  34. Discernment is a question about what should I do. Of course we are going to carefully listen. Adding the voice of the poor is especially important. And this is a key because of the job of creating spaces that are safe. Just being in relation to you or I should intuitively have this safe vibe. As to hospitality, work site, politics, and community……it’s the truth that the opposite of flourishing is poverty. And poverty is directly related to violence. Flourishing is not directly related to money. It’s having enough of a safe space. Given it we all can face the question of what should I do more clearly and make better decisions.
    I’ll give a personal story. One son, twenty, came home and took a job working out of our house. He had spiraled down when taking a job away. So he was getting back on his feet as it were( and banking money, yes). So after awhile, a co-worker comes over also. This guy shares with us later that he thought initially when he came over we were putting on a show for him. It was so peaceful in the home. And we would go boating the summer he was coming over, and the peaceful vibe followed us. He thought we were faking it for him. So after quite a while he wants to know not only why this is normal here, but how. You have to say..sort of hesitantly…it’s because we have in our own way…invited Jesus here. And we don’t talk that much about that, because the truth it’s not about talk, you have to be still and know.


  35. In my good/bad old days, “discernment” meant “measuring how well some idea/practice/thing conformed to the full rigors of Reformed theology”.

    Nowadays… I’d say “discernment” means “measuring how well an idea/practice/thing measures up to the Person, work, teachings and purposes of Christ”. And it requires as much compassion and common sense as it does logic and Scripture memorization.


  36. You have so many more years left. (Would I lie to you?)
    I doubt extra years improves our perspective of faith, truth and beauty, or discernment..
    You either have them or not.
    I feel I have been allotted just so much of the above and I am fast running out.

    late Spring we await.
    shards of icicles spear faith
    ‘refresh my heart Lord’


  37. Without some degree of self-mastery, as well as mastery of life and its circumstances, it seems to me that the disciplines required to acquire discernment are impossible.


  38. Hello Susan Dumbrell,
    sometimes, in cases of need, an abbey or monastery will taken people in for retreat with just a donation of what they can afford, or sometimes in hardship cases, just a token donation . . . . it has to do with the Christian principle of ‘hospitality’ which receives visitors with the same courtesy as if they were Christ Himself

    if you could research and write to some within traveling distance of where you live, you might be able to get some consideration if you tell them about your circumstances and your need for a time spent in peace


  39. I suppose that knowledge of oneself is a prerequisite for spiritual discernment, however it might be defined and described. I need to get started on acquiring that self-knowledge; at 58 years old, I may not have all that much time left.


  40. My dictionary says that discernment is ‘penetrating insight’.

    I pull back at this as I daily experience the noise and confusion of the Dementia Ward at the Nursing Home where my husband lives.
    No time to look deeply into the cross hairs of useless disputes which occur there.
    People who have no touch with the everyday processes of life and how they fit in or how their loved ones who care so deeply for them, fit in.
    I escape to home and a glass of wine, away from the multitudinous blabber of the many residents who block out my own more rational thoughts.

    I have no penetrating insight into the whys and wherefores of their questions without answers. They vocalise their latest complaints
    Their physical outbursts are unexpected. One resident is nursing broken ribs as a result of a fellow punching him.

    I would love to have a week away in contemplation at a Retreat. Actually today I have been looking for same.

    Distance and cost prohibit such an indulgence.

    I need spiritual refreshment – not likely to happen.



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