When you hear the words “spiritual discernment,” what comes to mind?
Maybe you think of a spiritually-based way to make big life decisions, such as marriage or a new job.
You might think of it as a supernatural way of discerning good and evil spirits in the world.
Or you might consider that it means wisdom in understanding and applying Scripture.
The truth is, spiritual discernment can be any of the above and much more, depending on the situation.
Here's a breakdown of the definition of spiritual discernment and what it means in Christian life.
What exactly does discernment mean?
The official definition of Christian discernment is “a decision-making process in which an individual makes a discovery that can lead to future action.”
For a Christian, discernment is a process by which God helps an individual reach the best decision. The Latin root of “discernment” means to “separate” or “set apart.” In Christian life, it is the ability to separate good from evil, truth from falsehood, wisdom from foolishness.
Discernment is a useful gift in various situations in our lives. It’s the ability to evaluate situations and choose courses of action while staying aware of the moral implication of all options.
Yet, we need to recognize that discernment isn't something that just happens but requires hard work and attentiveness. We accomplish this by assessing the moral and spiritual status of each individual, group, or movement.
In Matthew 7:1-2, the Bible says that Jesus urges us to be discerning and discriminating while remaining non-judgemental, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
The key to proper discernment is to avoid judgmentalism.
During Jesus' lifetime, His discernment reached deeply into the heart of the matter. Christian believers are called to have a similar ability to discern. As Jesus Christ confirmed to us in His ministry through the Holy Spirit, discernment comes only from union to God and His word.
The goal of discernment is to live according to the thoughts of God, practically and spiritually. This is what it means to see things the way God sees them and act accordingly.
Spiritual discernment has often been mistakenly described as a God-given awareness of good or evil spiritual forces. However, it’s wisdom that measures discernment, allowing us to identify right from wrong and not just good and evil.
When we know and obey God's word, we'll learn to distinguish between right and wrong.
In a sense, this is the essence of the discernment process. Being able to differentiate between the people of the world, the voice of God, and to recognize when something feels right or wrong.
We mere mortals often forget to listen to divine intervention when deciding about our lives or another person.
There are two types of decision-making: head-based (those ruled by logos, meaning logic) and heart-based (those ruled by ethos, meaning emotions).
Most people who make decisions with their heads are usually rational, impersonal, and objective. Heart-based decision-makers are thought of as passionate, empathetic, and centered in their feelings.
Both logos and ethos have strengths and weaknesses, but it can also be unwise to use just one or the other when making decisions. Discernment is the marriage of these two ways of thinking.
This enables us to make sound decisions through logic and not to overlook details while also demonstrating empathy and understanding the viewpoints of others.
There are countless examples of discernment in the Bible. One could argue that during Jesus’ time on earth, he used discernment to heal and teach others.
Here are a few passages from the Bible that involve discernment.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10).
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
“To another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kind of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians” 12:10).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7).
It’s clear from the Bible that discernment is a very important subject, so let’s talk about ways you can cultivate it in your own life.
Now that you have a better understanding of what spiritual discernment is, how can you develop it? Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to cultivate spiritual discernment.
When you want to become good at something, you practice using the best techniques available to you. As you practice, you become better at the skill.
After all, practice makes perfect.
If we seek to develop spiritual discernment through the spirit of God, we need to do more than read about or visualize it; we have to get out there and do it.
It may seem a little tricky at first, but here are some ways to develop discernment.
Among the easiest ways to cultivate spiritual discernment is to have consistent communication with the Lord. When you think about it, God is the only one who can offer real spiritual discernment, so it makes perfect sense to ask for His help.
The more we ask God for help along the way, the more it becomes apparent that we can make wise decisions through the gift of discernment. Having faith in our decisions strengthens our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Because when we have faith in Him, we have faith in ourselves and vice versa.
Another easy way to develop your spiritual discernment is by reading examples of it in scripture. Occasionally, it can be hard to understand what God wants to tell us, but it becomes clearer when we study His word.
Jesus spent most of his life making decisions about others and Himself that ultimately affected future outcomes. Jesus predicted during the Last Supper that many of His followers would eventually bring about His death.
Another example is in John 2:13-19, when Jesus became enraged by the merchants who were selling their wares in the temple. When questioned about His authority to clear the temple, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I'll raise it again in three days.”
Only after Jesus rose from the dead did His disciples realize that He really meant His own body and not the temple.
There are times when we need to sit with God and listen. This is meditative prayer. We can go for a walk and meditate on God’s word. We want to be open to what God may be saying to us through scripture, signs, and our experience. This is listening to God.
Another way is to seek spiritual counsel from those with a knowledge of God. When we seek counsel, we should do so from people who have the knowledge, experience, and wisdom to properly advise us.
Just talking with our friends, who may not have the necessary expertise to provide sound counsel, is unlikely to always provide wise answers and good results.
Let’s be clear about one thing: discernment should not be an excuse for judging others. It’s merely a tool to help make decisions about right and wrong.
Through discernment, we can make the best decisions in our own lives, which is why we should not judge others. While discernment may be used to make decisions about a group or movement, it doesn’t mean it should be used for judgment.
Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 7:1-2 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”