Practices

Discernment

“Our decisions and our search for guidance take place in the active presence
of a God who intimately cares about our life situations and who invites us to
participate in the divine activities of healing and transformation.”

— Frank Rogers, Jr.

Introduction

Thoughts and questions to help you consider this practice

Christians believe we are not alone in the midst of uncertain insights and conflicting impulses.

Discernment is the intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.

Discerning the Spirit as an individual

What does God want me to do? How can I know for sure? We yearn for divine guidance, especially when voices within us seem to conflict. How do we tell the difference between self-deception and God's leading?

What decisions make us cry out for guidance? What conflicting pressures come from outside us? How do we assess advice to take care of ourselves when it comes from a culture that also idolizes self-fulfillment?

The aim of discernment is to enhance one's participation in the work of God, for the glory of God and the healing of the world. There is no method that guarantees how the Spirit will be discerned because the Holy Spirit can't be captured in a formula. But we can learn ways to practice discernment that help counter self-deception and heighten the possibility that God's Spirit can be known. How might action itself be part of a method of discernment?

Discerning the Spirit in communities

The communal practice of discernment places group decisions within the context of God's transforming activity. How can groups get beyond party interests, personality clashes, and power strategies that crowd out genuine dialogue and respect? In what ways can we prepare the soil for fruitful group discernment?

Consensus is a distinctive model for a group that is reaching decisions. When have you seen this model in action? How did it function? How does consensus compare with a "majority rules" model for making decisions? In what ways does each model make space for dissent to be voiced and respected? When a final decision is made, how does the community treat those who disagree with the proposed course of action?

Seeking wisdom as a group requires a lot from participants and can be an exhausting process. What do you find most challenging about communal discernment personally? For your faith community? What changes in polity would your community have to make in order to adopt a model of communal discernment?

When discernment deceives and when it doesn't

How can we know for sure when self-deception and personal power are at play in our discernment? When someone maintains that "God told me to do this," by what criteria can we evaluate such a claim? How did the Israelites distinguish between true and false prophets (Jeremiah 28:1-16)? What advice did the early church give for discernment (1 John 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21)?

The promise in the practice

What promise does the practice of discernment bear for you? For your faith community? How might this practice provide opportunities to imagine solutions we did not anticipate and help us to find better paths toward the future?

Discerning the Spirit as an individual

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, offered a model that includes these requisites: a passionate commitment to follow God, an attitude of indifference toward all other drives and desires, and a deep sensitivity to the ways and being of God.

  • Become aware of as many dimensions of the decision as possible. Investigate information sources; weigh pros and cons; consult with confidants.
  • Consider the negatives, the decision you feel least inclined to choose. Live with the idea for a while. What feelings of consolation or desolation emerge? Feelings of consolation are those that give rise to life, love, peace, joy, creativity, and communion. These are harmonious with the Spirit, even when painful. Feelings of desolation give rise to despair, confusion, alienation, destructiveness, and discord.
  • Repeat the process of consideration with the side to which you were initially more attracted. Which choice gave rise to the deeper feelings of consolation?
  • Take action in order to complete the discernment process. Discernment rarely yields absolute certainty; rather, action itself is part of the discernment process. Sometimes action reveals that a direction is misguided, in which case you need to repeat the discernment process.
rosary
Here are suggested criteria to discern whether or not a spiritual prompting is authentic:
  • Is it faithful to scripture and to the larger tradition?
  • Does it manifest the fruit of the Spirit within the individual and community?
  • Is it characterized by a genuine sense of inner authority and peace?
  • Does it promote reconciliation rather than divisiveness?
  • Does it enhance rather than diminish life?
  • Has the discernment process been engaged with integrity?

Discerning the Spirit in communities

Begin in silence, move through discussion, and repeat the silence when necessary (a sort of communal "time out" when feelings run high). The discussion stage of discernment often begins tentatively and gradually becomes more purposeful, until a direction begins to gain a wave of support. Members build on one another's ideas, endorsing and refining the rising consensus. If no such tide emerges after some time, postpone the discussion. One important sign of confirmation is a peaceful conviction permeating the entire community, including those who dissented, that the decision is the one that will most allow the community to be faithful to God.

Ignatian communal discernment does not require full consensus. When it is determined that consensus will not emerge within the available time, the group can agree that the decision will be made by a majority vote. (In Quaker communal discernment, participants honor dissent by "standing aside" to respect an emerging consensus or "standing against" to redirect the course of action being considered.)

Participant requirements for communal discernment toward consensus:
  • Trust that the resolution has the potential to be based on something larger than self-interest and partisanship.
  • Seek personal wisdom about God's direction for the community, laying aside control and esteem needs for the sake of finding God's leading through the whole community.
  • Create a safe space to speak and process that includes the voices of everyone present, which may sometimes necessitate small group sharing.
  • Remain open to the wisdom of other participants, even when it may not sound like wisdom upon first hearing.
Photo of open bible

Questions and activities

  • Recall a decision that in retrospect was a wise one. How did you make it? What factors did you weigh? With whom did you consult? What would have been the consequences if you had made a different decision?
  • Recall a decision you made that you now regret. What was the process by which you make that decision? Have you since discovered clues about how you could have made that decision differently?
  • Make a short list of people you might call when you are faced with a tough decision. What do you look for from these people? How do they help you?
  • As a group, role-play the process of communal discernment as if you were a decision-making body of your community. You could choose a real decision that faces your community to come up with a hypothetical scenario.
  • Encounter scripture using a contemplative approach, such as lectio divina. For a detailed description of how to use lectio divina in groups, see Gathered in the Word: Praying the Scripture in Small Groups by Norvene Vest.

Worship Materials

"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 this world."

— John 4:1

Prayer

As we look for what to do,

May the strong hand of God be upon our shoulder
guiding, admonishing,

and the wisdom of all eyes be our sight.

May the courage of the martyrs be our inspiration,
pushing us beyond our fear, beyond mere wanting.
May our foolishness for Christ shame worldling wisdom.

May our ears gather up the voice of the Spirit.

May we not take ourselves so seriously
that we neglect to nurture joy in our being together.
Neither may we find cause to fear laying out our hearts.

Root deception out of us.

Convert appetite for power
to hunger for justice.

May our ears gather up the voice of the Spirit.

Amen.

— Lani Wright, Cottage Grove, Oregon

Photo of man praying
Woman closing her eyes in nature

Walk and pray

  • For centuries, some Christians have prayed while walking on a labyrinth, a circular but winding path that leads into the center and out again.
  • If you have access to a labyrinth, walk it silently as a group. A church in your community or a nearby camp or retreat center might be able to tell you the location of a labyrinth in your vicinity.
  • If you do not have access to a labyrinth, find another place where everyone can walk in silence – near one another, but with each person going at his or her own pace. For example, you might walk up, down, and around the aisles of your sanctuary, or outdoors around a building or through a park.
  • As you walk, ask God to make you aware of God's presence as you walk from this place into other places in the coming days. Close by singing as a group the African-American spiritual "Guide My Feet."

Hymns

Lord, You Sometimes Speak

"Lord, you sometimes speak in wonders, unmistakable and clear...
Lord, you sometimes speak in whispers, still and small and scarcely heard..."
Text: Christopher Idle
Text copyright (c) 1969 Hope Publishing Co.

Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me

Text and music: Daniel Iverson
Text and music copyright (c) 1935, Moody Press

Lead Me, Guide Me

"Lead me, guide me, along the way;
for if you lead me, I cannot stray."
Text and music: Doris M. Akers

Open My Eyes, That I May See

"Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me.
Open my ears, that I may hear voices of truth thou sendest clear.
Open my mouth, and let me bear gladly the warm truth everywhere.
Open my heart, and let me prepare love with thy children thus to share.
Open my mind, that I may read more of thy love in word and deed."
Text and music: Clara H. Scott

Take, O Take Me As I Am

"Take, O take me as I am, summon up what I shall be..."
John L. Bell, the Iona Community, 1995

Photo of man reading bible

Books & Films

Read more about Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church
Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church
Luke Timothy Johnson

Looking at a number of thorny issues facing the contemporary church, Johnson demonstrates how the interaction of Scripture and discernment can and must become the basis for how we respond to the decisions with which the church wrestles today.

Read more about Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace
Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace
Nora Gallagher

A profound testimony to the urgency of living with meaning, to the natural world’s solace and sacredness and a beautiful and often harrowing account of the search for vocation. Gallagher bears witness to the way death yields new life.

Read more about Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment
Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment
Rose Mary Dougherty, S.S.N.D.

Practical guidance for offering and participating in spiritual direction in a group setting.

Read more about Grounded in God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Group Deliberations
Grounded in God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Group Deliberations
R. Taylor McLean, Suzanne G. Farnham, and Stephanie A. Hull

This powerful, prayerful, and practical guide teaches groups a whole new way of conducting meetings and reaching consensus.

Read more about Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition
Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition
Brian J. Mahan

In the wise and often witty Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, Brian Mahan considers the question of how it is possible to create a meaningful spiritual life while living in a culture that measures us by what we have rather than who we are.

Read more about Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
Parker Palmer

With wisdom, compassion, and gentle humor, Parker J. Palmer invites us to listen to the inner teacher and follow its leadings toward a sense of meaning and purpose.

Read more about Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church
Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church
Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen

Bible study, research, and fieldwork merge in this book of practical principles for decision-making by spiritual discernment.

Read more about Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life
Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life
Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn

This book is a simple, engaging, and colorful introduction to the examen, a prayerful awareness of God’s loving presence during the highs (consolations) and lows (desolations) of each day.

Read more about A Wee Worship Book
A Wee Worship Book
John L. Bell

This book offers brief, lovely liturgies from the Iona community in Scotland.

Read more about Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer

This feature-length documentary by Martin Doblmeier tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian who was imprisoned and executed for his resistance to Nazism.

Read more about The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making
The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making
Elizabeth Liebert

In this helpful and encouraging book, Elizabeth Liebert introduces the practice of discernment and guides readers through the process of faithful decision-making.

Read more about Hearing with the Heart: A Gentle Guide to Discerning God’s Will for Your Life
Hearing with the Heart: A Gentle Guide to Discerning God’s Will for Your Life
Debra K. Farrington

In Hearing with the Heart, popular writer and retreat leader Debra K. Farrington leads you through a gentle process for discovering how to invite God’s presence into every aspect of your daily life.

What Others Are Doing

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Sister Jane Meuse, Elandria Williams, Rachel Plattus and Sister Lorita Moffatt gather for conversation during a residency in which young adults lived at the Sisters of Mercy's convent to learn about their way of life. Photo courtesy of Nuns & Nones
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Resources

read more about Study Guide for “Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility”

Study Guide for “Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility”

Susan Forshey & Karen Meridith

Susan Forshey and Karen Meridith compiled this companion study guide for the book “Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility,” by Claire E. Wolfteich.

read more about Discerning and Deciding

Discerning and Deciding

Thomas Blair

This sermon based on Romans 12:1-3 was preached at Second Presbyterian Church in Baltimore (MD) on July 26, 2009.