Discernment: A Rich Definition

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Discernment [From The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation, coming in May 2003.]

Discernment. The biblical concept of discernment is rooted primarily in the vision of the people of God living in a theocracy, where God guides the people in their daily and national lives and relationships. The whole nation knows and does the will of God. This was the vision of the early Hebrew experience. This vision of a "Kingdom of God" and a "People of God" needed spiritual leaders such as Moses and prophets to help the people come to know and experience the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in the Old Testament, discernment was focused on rightly distinguishing between a true prophet and a false prophet. It was in this context of practical judgment that Jesus and Paul gave instructions on "discerning of spirits" or "testing the spirits" (Matt 7:15f, Acts 20:28ff, and I Thess. 5:19-22). The Greek word "diakrisis" most simply means the capacity to separate or distinguish. It is generally understood as the capacity to see, know, or understand the essence of a matter or inner nature of a person or thing by immediate and direct insight.

In the early church and through the patristic period, the people of God saw their struggles as an intense conflict between God and God’s forces and Satan and Satan’s forces. They understood that the strategies of the demonic forces did not always oppose God directly but used counterfeits, impediments, and deception (Eph. 6:12). Thus, discernment was understood as the capacity to distinguish between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error, that which was of God and that which was not. In this context, what is being discerned is the spirit or energies at work that influence human motivations and actions. What was needed in the environment of the early church was an ability to distinguish between mere human illusion, demonic illusion and the true prompting of the Holy Spirit. Because of the particular craftiness of the demonic, a special "grace" was needed. It was this grace of discernment that Paul speaks of in 1 Cor. 12 as a special gift of the Spirit given to individuals for the practical functioning, welfare, and effectiveness of the whole Body of Christ.

From the Middle Ages until now, Christian discernment came to be understood as a quest, both individually and communally, for the "will of God." In the context of this discipleship focus, discernment came to be understood as a process, a method or a technique by which one came to order one’s life and bring all its details into harmony with God’s will. A good study of this could start with some of the following Spiritual Classics on Discernment: Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, John Cassian’s Conferences, John Climacus’s The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Thomas á Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Francis de Sales’s Finding God’s Will for You.

More modern writings on discernment techniques have both Old Testament and early church elements. These discernment processes have become more individualist in practice. Often the over-all concern is decision making in the context of personal discipleship. Many of these discernment techniques are rooted in practical judgment and are situational specific-characteristics of the Old Testament use of discernment — but also have some elements of the spiritual grace of bringing to light spiritual energies, movements or motivations. For example, the Wesleyan quadrilateral, with its careful weighing of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, is a discernment and interpretive process that relies heavily on practical judgment, characteristic of our Old Testament roots (see "Our Theological Task" ¶104 in "The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2000)." The Quaker "Clearness Committee," with its emphasis on silence and prayer, demonstrates Patristic spiritual elements of direct access to the Holy Spirit in the context of a group or community. Two good modern resources for individuals or small groups on discernment are "Yearning to Know God’s Will" by Danny Morris and "A Guide to Spiritual Discernment" by Rueben Job.