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Spiritual Discernment: What does the process look like?


Luann Budd, president of NEWIM, blogs about the spiritual life of a leader, shares insight from what she is reading, and reflects on the call to Christian leadership.

Spiritual Discernment: What does the process look like?

Luann Budd

2017 was a year of spiritual discernment for the NEWIM Board and me. As we transitioned from Jackie's leadership to mine, we sought to discern God's leading for NEWIM's direction.

What is spiritual discernment and what does the process look like? I found Henri Nouwen's book on Spiritual Discernment (Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life) very helpful in confirming what I understood about the process so I thought I would share in this post the insights that were helpful to me.

All year long in my journal I kept notes...and several times during the year I spent hours prayerfully reflecting on what it all added up to so far. By the time that the Board needed to make some decisions about the pathway forward, I was so grateful (and confident) that the Lord had given us the wisdom we were seeking to discern. For me, it was truly an intimate process. I had no option but to be completely dependent on the Lord making his Wisdom known. I was a branch seeking all that I needed from the Vine.

So what is spiritual discernment and what did this process look like?

Spiritual Discernment is a way to perceive the Wisdom (Proverbs 8) that God speaks to us all day long in the Bible and other books we read, nature, people, events, and the Spirit's work. We need to be rooted in prayer and part of a faith community, seeking to read the signs and recognize the Lord's quiet voice. It is hearing a deeper sound beneath the noise of ordinary life and seeing the deeper interconnectedness of how God is at work in our lives so that we might live a life that is pleasing to him, a life that is “worthy of our calling” (Col. 1:9), fulfilling our unique roles in the world.

Spiritual discernment is the process of attentive listening to all of the Wisdom that the Lord is giving us throughout our day (from the heights, where the paths cross, beside the gates and entrances to the city, the places we go during the course of our day).

"Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud: To you, [put your name here], I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence, you who are foolish, gain understanding. Listen, for I have worthy things to say." Prov. 8:1-6)

It requires that we have a spiritual capacity for distinguishing between opposing forces. Discernment requires that we look up to the LORD Almighty, and then, as best as we can, from his perspective see our world from heaven’s vantage point. We are looking for that Wisdom that is from above. Discernment involves “listening to the still small voice beneath the rush of the whirlwind, a prayerful practice of reading the subtle signs in daily life.” (Nouwen) Jesus is our model of a fully discerning person, and the account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus teaches us about the process of spiritual discernment.

Foundational Principles

LOVE. We must begin with an awareness that our core identity is in being a beloved child of God. Knowing I am his beloved daughter, I am able to be open and willing to be fully seen by Jesus during this process of spiritual discernment. 

THE CHARACTER OF GOD. We put our trust in God and meditate on his character and the characteristics (fruit) of the Holy Spirit. I think this is key because God will lead us in accordance with who he is. Wisdom from the Lord is always consistent with his nature. James 3:17 "But wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, and without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." So we examen our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people, and which ones lead us further away.

TRUST. We pray seeking the Lord to give us wisdom and reveal to us what we need to see. We put our trust in God knowing that he will lead us because the Scriptures tell us that he will. "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt..." James 1:6-7

HUMILITY. We cannot see with perfect clarity what lies ahead, so we recognize our human limitations and with humility, we pay attention and trust. Could we be wrong? Yes! So we hold in our open hand what we believe to be from the Lord. We take time to reflect on it and discuss it with others. To be responsible in judgment and action is to humbly and fully consider all of the factors. In the end, we are still the ones who make the decision. Prayerful listening does not exclude our own judgment so we need to recognize that we can be wrong. Humility requires that we listen to others as well.

The Process

It is broadly understood that the Lord gives us wisdom through three lights: the Bible, the Holy Spirit's work, and circumstances. We are used to having Scripture speak to us, but we may not be as familiar with tracking the Holy Spirit's movement or reflecting on our ordinary, everday life. Spiritual discernment is a process of cultivating an inner listening to everything the Lord brings across our path, and then recording the wisdom we receive. Nouwen writes:

“When we are rooted in prayer and solitude and form part of a community of faith, certain signs are given to us in daily life as we struggle for answers to spiritual questions. The books we read, the nature we enjoy, the people we meet, and the events we experience contain within themselves signs of God’s presence and guidance day by day. When certain poems or scripture verses speak to us in a special way, when nature sings and creation reveals its glory, when particular people seem to be placed in our path, when a critical or current event seems full of meaning, it’s time to pay attention to the divine purposes to which they point. Discernment is a way to read the signs and recognize divine messages.”

God also speaks through family members and close friends with whom we have a close relationship. We also need to be paying attention to the people God puts in our lives, teachers and friends, who act as signposts pointing us toward God. He also speaks through books and nature and the Scripture. The process is one of being awake to the truth that God is giving us wisdom all day long, of recording the insight we discover so that we can retain it over a period of several weeks or months, and then analyzing all we've received to answer the questions we posed at the start.


Journaling is perfect for the process of spiritual discernment. In my journal, I write for a while to try to distill the question(s) that I am seeking God to answer. I need the question to be very clear in my mind. And I reserve a few pages in my journal for a chronology. There I record the date, the place, perhaps the people or the Scripture verse or the circumstance, and the insight. This has been very helpful at the end of the journey to be able to look back and discern where the Lord is moving and how he directed the process.

In my journal, I take notes during sermons and other times I'm listening to someone teach. When the Spirit seems to nudge me that there is something here regarding my question, I simply put a star in the margin so I can come back to it, reflect on it, add it to my list of what the Lord is showing me. I might also note something in the header of that page.

I also capture the prayers, principles I learned as I read articles, the words of Scripture that seemed to stand out, inner movements of the Spirit within me. It is helpful to share the journey with godly friends and family and listen to others’ responses and then to jot them down. Several times I took an afternoon to prayerfully review what I had noticed and to try to boil it all down.

The direction we seek will lead us toward right and not wrong, toward love and compassion (love for God and love and compassion for ourselves and other people), not further away. The Bible and the Holy Spirit are our guides as we seek to interpret events. Knowing God's nature (The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in loving and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. Exo 34:6-7, see also Exo 33:19) and the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) can also bring clarity as the Lord always leads us according to his goodness. At the end of the year, I typed up all of my notes and began to organize them under key subheadings.

The next step was to share my perspective with the others who were also seeking God's direction. As we listened to each other and prayed, we arrived at our conclusions and feel confident that he has been leading us all along this journey.

Waiting for the Unfolding

God directs our paths and LOVE will prevail. God’s ways are not always our ways, and his timetable is not always ours. Waiting for God’s will to unfold always means paying attention to what is happening right now before our eyes. We wait patiently, actively watching for his wisdom to be revealed.

We seek discernment individually, but always confirm our thoughts as we come together, listening to each other in community. We are looking for how my/our small part fits into God’s larger story of renewal and redemption for all. Discernment performed alone can often become delusion, so we want to discern God’s will together with others.

We are successful when our will is aligned with God’s will. We are seeking to discern how we can align ourselves with him.

Course Corrections Are Allowed

We seek God's Wisdom from all that he brings into our awareness, and together with others make decisions that we believe are aligned with his will. Ignatius teaches us that making the decision is not the final step, but should be followed by a continuing process of noting our feelings of discouragement or doubt. God allows for us to learn through trial and error. Even if we think a decision was God's will, we can still make adjustments.

Questions to ask:

What is pleasing to the Spirit of God? (Being abandoned to the love of God and responding faithfully to him, producing/responding with the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit, being in a posture of extending mercy and grace – this is when we are pleasing him.)

What can I/we say "yes" to without reservation?

What will lead me/us further toward the love of God, my belovedness and the belovedness of others? What will lead me/us further away?

What signs am I seeing?