The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment – Chapter 3

The discipline of spiritual discernment

Review of Chapter 3 – Defining Discernment
by Nikica Lubura Reljic, World Vision Bosnia & Herzegovina


Definition of discernment caused a great deal of disagreements, and lead to numerous various definitions of the term, not only in theological sense but much wider, however most of them revolve around decision making process, and those being discussed in this book add to this process … “God’s help, and God’s will for our lives.”

The author states that for “many followers of Christ discernment is a gift or ability that equips us to make good and wise decisions (in line with the will of God). In this view those who make good decisions in life are discerning. Conversely, people who make poor decisions in life are those who lack discernment.”

In this light, he further argues that biblical discernment looks beyond the will of God to the truth of God, i.e. knowing God’s truth is a number one precondition for discerning and as “knowing God and knowing truth are inseparable, if we wish to know truth, we must know God or if we know God, we will also know truth.

Best prof for this is the quote from the Solomon, known as the most wise and discerning man: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).

But this, and latter portions of Proverbs, force us to make distinction between character and conduct, first of all, because we must first be taught about God’s truth and then, we must train for implementing that knowledge.

One of the first prerequisites for that is WISDOM, and, according to the author, wisdom and discernment depend on each other: “Wisdom is the application of the fear of God to life; it is living in such a way that we esteem God above all else. A man who is wise is first a man who fears God…” .

Wisdom is attained and enhanced as we think deeply and humbly about how we are to serve God. But, wisdom has moral and ethical dimension and is not an end in itself, but a means to molding human behavior in a way that pleases God. Further thought the book, the author finds support to this claim in Greek and Hebrew meanings of the word discernment and finds confirmation in original Bible that discernment is a subset of wisdom: “There seems to be a progression from knowledge, which refers to bare facts, to wisdom, which refers to understanding moral and ethical dimensions of facts and data, to discernment, which is the application of wisdom.”

He finds translation of the same words as “understanding”, “skill”, “judging”, “distinguishing”, “separating”, “looking for differences”, “understanding the times”, etc. and combining those, comes to the combination that comes as close to explaining of the term discernment as possible, when comparing all quotes in the Bible related to it:

“Discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong.”

So, vivisecting it further from this point of view, the author speculates that discernment is a skill, which is not innate to humans, like breathing, but something that must be practiced and must be improved, and it only increases with practice.

Furthermore, once we have this skill, we must understand it and that too depends upon rightly and accurately knowing God and his ways. “Because we can only base what we do on what we know, we must first understand who God is and how he wants us to serve and honor him. Understanding must precede both interpretation and application.”

Following understanding is the application of that understanding.  “Discernment is wisdom in action, wisdom applied, and here we seek to apply the skill we have been practicing…”

God’s Word… refers to both God’s revelation of himself through the person of Jesus Christ and revelation of himself through speech, and in particular, the words that have been recorded in the Bible, as a very source of infallible truth.

John MacArthur (American fundamentalist Christian pastor) writes: “Discernment intersects the Christian life at every point. And God’s Word provides us with the needed discernment about every issue of life…

Separating truth from error…We are called by God to examine all theology and to make such binary distinctions… and right from wrong.

Discernment is a skill we need to live lives that are morally and ethically pleasing to God.

In further defining of discernment, the author is analyzing the source, and that is God, and if a person does not receive this gift, he/she cannot be discerning.

Further on, once we have the gift, we also need to be continually empowered by God to use it.

The Process: While the source of discernment is the Holy Spirit, and while the power of discernment is God, it is still a process and something we must work at”, using both our Heart and the Head, and there are different views of Christian theologians on which one comes first. The author writes: “First, it implies that there are two levels of discernment, one that is purely rational and depends on the mind, and another that is subjective and depends on the heart or on feelings. Second, it implies that this second level of discernment is superior to the first and somehow relies more fully upon the Holy Spirit…” but concludes finally that the point is that we must search support for either of the two in the Holly Scripture only, and there we cannot go astray.

As for the Purpose of discernment, the author sees it as “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”, but still he says that it has its end, and that is “when Jesus Christ returns and this world passes away. Therefore, discernment is a process that prepares us for heaven and enables us to eagerly await the end of discernment. Thus we see that discernment begins and ends with God.”


According to Christian theology judgment, fundamental precondition for discernment can be made in two ways: through divinely granted gift, or acquired human knowledge.

According to St. John of Damascus, the virtue of discernment (discrimination) “is greater than any other virtue; and is the queen and crown of all the virtues“, and St. John Cassian claims that discernment “is only secured by true humility. And of this humility the first proof is given by reserving everything (not only what you do but also what you think), for the scrutiny of the elders, so as not to trust at all in your own judgment but to acquiesce in their decisions in all points, and to acknowledge what ought to be considered good or bad by their traditions“.

Furthermore, early church fathers claim that humility is the key to discernment, as David states in (Ps. 14:7. LXX): ‘And my eyes looked down upon my enemies’.

Moreover, no one who is trying to make spiritual progress should attempt to do so alone – a “spiritual director is required”. In line with that and, as a conclusion to the analysis of this Chapter, I would like to share my view that we should not rely only on our wisdom or knowledge when discerning, but also of those, such as early church fathers, who had gained much more knowledge and experience mulling over these questions:

St. Peter of Damascus writes that “It is excellent to seek advice about everything, but only from those with experience. It is dangerous to ask questions of the inexperienced, because they do not possess discrimination“.

St. Gregory of Sinai says that “You can tell that a person is undeluded when his actions and judgment are founded on the testimony of divine Scripture, and when he is humble in whatever he has to give his mind to“.

St. Seraphim of Sarov says about reading the Bible that “When a man provides his soul with the word of God, then he is granted the understanding of what is good and what is evil“.

Discussion Guide

  1. The apostle John says, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). How do we discern/distinguish between true and false prophets in today’s world?
  2. “According to the New Testament, discernment is not optional but it is required for the believer; however that is an area where most Christians stumble. They exhibit little ability to measure the things they are taught against the infallible standard of God’s Word, and they unwittingly engage in all kinds of unbiblical decision-making and behavior. How do we discipline ourselves to apply the skill of discernment, once we ideally acquire it?

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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