What Is Discernment?

by Carolyn Brock

Discernment is one way we connect with God. Discernment is not just a series of steps we take to seek direction from God (although it can involve this). It is not a new program from International Church Headquarters or a replacement for other ministries and programs. Discernment incorporates principles and processes from Covenant Discipleship Groups and Listening Circles, as well as other aspects of Christian spirituality.

Discernment and the Spiritually Formed Disciple

Discernment is one part of spiritually centered discipleship that opens us to God’s movement in our lives. It flows out of a larger commitment to yield our attention, agendas, and actions to God.

Discernment is an ongoing process; a stance toward life. A discerning disciple has the attitude or intention to seek the presence, wisdom, and compassion of the Spirit at all times and in all dimensions of life.

Discernment fits within a broader pattern of ongoing spiritual formation and discipleship development. This pattern is set in motion in our lives when we wake up to our longing for God’s peace and healing and decide to follow Jesus’ way of discerning and doing God’s will.

Discernment and the Transformative Model of Jesus

The deepest, widest circle of meaning for our lives is God’s dream of beauty and wholeness for the Creation (Zion, Shalom, Sacred Community). Jesus was “captured by” God’s transformative vision. He relied on continuous relationship with God’s Spirit as he touched, healed, proclaimed, confronted, and invited. Jesus’ redemptive ministry was discerned and empowered by a pattern of letting the Spirit breathe through him, shaping his identity and being. Jesus took time to listen to the Voice; to be fed and informed by Spirit’s wisdom through prayer, solitude, silence, and scripture reflection.

The Spirit is promised as the source of wisdom, healing, and compassion for our lives and ministry. Jesus’ model of transformation is to yield the whole self to God and listen to (discern) the way the Spirit wants to form us into new people. This is the way we get new hearts, new eyes, and new identities as God’s beloved ones and Christ’s friends. This is the way we become disciples. Disciples become disciples through the transforming influence of the Spirit on their bodies, minds, and spirits. Discernment is a process of staying open to transformation through inner and outer rhythms of the Christian spiritual life.

Discernment and the Rhythms of the God-Shaped Life

Jesus gave himself completely to becoming the form of God; living the God-shaped life. He used both receptive and active spiritual practices to discern and obey God’s will. Receptive spiritual practices help us create an open, quiet place in which to hear what God may want to say to us. Silence, solitude, listening prayer, reverent attention and trust all help open the Deep Self to discerning the voice and touch of Spirit. Active spiritual practices are a response to discernment. We hear and obey. Like Jesus, we carry the word and touch of Spirit into acts of kindness, healing, justice, and proclamation. And as we go we continue to listen, observe, and pay attention. We keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to what Spirit may be trying to do in the midst of our ministry; our life; the lives of others.

As we follow the Jesus way and live the God-shaped life, discernment becomes a way of being. Discernment as a spiritual discipline is supported by other spiritual practices that keep the rhythm of receptive and active spirituality alive and in harmony with the Spirit.

A Holistic Approach to Discernment

Discernment is one strand in the fabric of our discipleship. It cannot be picked out and practiced without the surrounding support of personal and corporate spiritual practice or relationships and communication within the faith community. As we begin to explore discernment in Community of Christ it is important to remember how it is connected to the larger context of spiritual formation and discipleship development. The next two sections summarize things to remember before beginning discernment work and principles for engaging in discernment.

Things to Consider Before Beginning Discernment

  1. Discernment is one part of integrated spiritual formation and discipleship development.
  2. Healthy discernment takes place as we open to the transformative movement of the Spirit in our journey as disciples
  3. Engaging in holistic spiritual formation will increase our ability to listen and our desire to discern.
  4. Training and resources are already available to foster the spiritual formation and listening skills that are essential for discernment. Covenant Discipleship Groups focus on receptive and active spiritual practice. Listening Circles teach us to listen to each other in community with respect and openness.
  5. Covenant Discipleship Groups connect spiritual formation with discerning mission. The Discernment Groups at World Conference were modeled closely on the Covenant Discipleship Group process. Each CDG session ends with a discernment period focused on listening to God’s invitation to action, service; ministry.
  6. Before beginning a separate process of discernment or discernment groups we encourage you to explore Covenant Discipleship Groups as a way of engaging your congregation in ongoing spiritual formation, discernment, and transformative discipleship. Covenant Discipleship groups have been designed to foster spiritual growth and discernment principles. Listening Circle information and training is also available to help us learn the art of listening and processing information and ideas as a part of our discerning.
  7. Additional information and resources from other authors and organizations are available and have been recommended to assist you and your congregation in learning about discernment.

Discernment Principles

  1. Discernment is an ongoing attitude and practice of Christian spirituality.
  2. Specific, structured discernment processes are used to discern God’s will at particular points of need in which we desire to align our lives and ministry more fully with God’s purposes.
  3. Discerning what it is we need to discern is a critical part of the discernment process. Getting clear about the question is an important first step.
  4. Discernment does not take place in a neat, orderly, linear fashion. We may find ourselves being drawn back to scripture or pulled once more into silent prayer as we stay open to God during the discernment process.
  5. Discernment includes head, heart, spirit, and body work. We think and speak, we listen and wait, we feel and are moved, we have physical sensations and responses. It is a whole person process.
  6. Discernment is based on the trust that God is the Source of all we are and are trying to do. God is the One who already knows what we are seeking and wants to communicate with us. Letting God be larger, wiser, and greater than us is a key shift in our awareness. We think we know this and then find ourselves still trying to figure it out in our own minds or worrying about finding the one true solution.
  7. Intentional Group Discernment usually incorporates attention to the following components:
    • Setting a context of openness to the Spirit and maintaining that focus
    • Inviting participants to set aside personal agendas, conflicts, and preconceived ideas about the outcome. This is called “Holy Indifference” and does not mean we don’t care but rather that we trust God to know more than we do and are willing to let go of the answers we already have.
    • Getting clear about the question to be discerned
    • Reviewing and sharing relevant history and background related to the issue or question
    • Reflecting on relevant scriptures
    • Intentional times of silent reflection and receptive listening
    • Use of spiritual practices that encourage reflection and listening. These may include silence, journaling, lectio divina (reflective reading of scripture), imaging, centering prayer/breath prayer, and other disciplines.
    • Open, honest, non-judgmental sharing of insights and awarenesses that come out of reflection times. Listening and relational skills are critical at this point. All should be heard and listen with careful, respectful attention.
    • Art, music, movement, or poetry may also be used to open the creative, intuitive gifts of the group to the impress of the Spirit. Insight may come in word, image, color, shape, sound that inform the larger process.
    • Eventually the group will come to a tentative consensus and the idea will be tested for its validity and completeness.
    • More discernment will be necessary before the group feels it has heard what was needed and has been faithful in receiving what the Spirit offered.
    • Response and implementation will be the hoped for results of the discernment process.