Discernment 101: 5 Practices


“Our God is a God who cares, heals, guides, directs, challenges, confronts, corrects. To discern means first of all to listen to God, to pay attention to God’s active presence, and to obey God’s prompting, direction, leadings, and guidance.” [Henri Nouwen][1]

Discerning God’s direction does not happen by accident. The Spirit helps us to discern but we have a part to play as well. Concrete practices help us to listen to the Spirit and get a sense of what a faithful response to God’s direction might look like.

Here are five practices that help form our discerning sensibilities!

Prayer of Examen[2]

This is a practice that helps us to reflect on the day/week/year in order to attend to the movements of God’s Spirit within us, identify God’s presence, and discern God’s will. In it’s simplest form it involves 4 steps:

  1. Sit quietly and open yourself to God’s loving presence

  2. Review the day/week/year with openness and gratitude, looking for times when God has been present and times you may have ignored him. Pay attention to specific details (i.e. conversations, tasks, thoughts, feelings) that come to your mind as you reflect.

  3. Pay attention to your emotions in order to listen to God.

  4. Pray for grace to be more available to God who loves you.

Steps 2-3 are the most critical parts of the Examen for discernment. One of the ways God speaks to us is through our deepest feelings and yearnings, what Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) called “consolation” and “desolation.”

Consolations are those experiences that fill us with joy, life, energy, and peace. Desolations are those that drain us and feel like death. Consolations connect us more deeply with God, ourselves, and others. Desolations disconnect us.

Below are some sample questions that can be used to help unpack our deeper emotions about our day/week/year or to help us pay attention to feelings around a decision for discernment.

  • Where am I experiencing feelings of joy and peace?
  • Where am I experiencing sadness, apathy, and a sense of life draining out of me?
  • How am I sensing connection with God in this decision?
  • How am I sensing disconnection from God in this decision?
  • When did I give and receive the most love today?
  • When did I give and receive the least love today?
  • As I reflect on this decision, where do I encounter energy and excitement?
  • As I reflect on this decision, where do I encounter anxiety and fear?
  • For what moment in this discernment process am I most grateful?
  • For what moment in this discernment process am I least grateful?
  • How am I experiencing the Spirit’s presence in this decision?
  • How am I experiencing the Spirit’s absence in this decision?

Practicing the Examen regularly (daily or weekly) allows it to be a key practice in how we experience God and pay attention to his direction for us.

Spiritual Direction

The ancient practice of spiritual direction helps people cultivate ways of noticing and knowing God in their everyday lives.

Spiritual directors accompany others in their deepening friendship and intimacy with God; integrating the sacred and secular in their lives; increasing in awareness of how God communicates with them personally and nurturing a greater interior freedom from which flows a personal, heart-felt response. 

Spiritual direction is different from counseling, which normally focuses on the past.

Spiritual direction is different from coaching, which normally focuses on the future.

Spiritual direction is entirely focused on the present moment and the experience of God in that moment.

“Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith.” [3]

Eugene Peterson

Spiritual direction is an invaluable tool for discernment, particularly for leaders, as it helps us notice the movement of the Spirit that we can easily miss on our own.

If you are interested in working with a trained spiritual director, you can find out more info.

Lectio Divina[4]

Lectio divina is a meditative way of reading and experiencing Scripture. The goal is not to “study” or “master” or even “understand” the text, but to enter into it, listening for the nudges of the Spirit in the passage.

This way of engaging the Scripture is particularly useful for discernment, as our noticing and listening muscles get worked out through the text.

Lectio divina traditionally has five steps or movements. These flow naturally from one to another. Take as much time as you need. Meditating on Scripture can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as 1 hour.

  • Silence – Prepare yourself to receive from God. Slow down, relax, and intentionally release the chaos and noise in your mind to him. Ask God to give you an openness to hear from the Spirit.
  • Read – Read the passage slowly, allowing the words to resonate and settle in your heart. Enter into the words as fully as you can. As you do so, listen with the ear of your heart for a word, phrase, or detail of the story that stands out to you. If something in the passage catches your attention, pause and attend to what God is saying to you. Listen and wait.
  • Reflect – Now that the words are familiar to you, read the passage a second time slowly. As you do so and for a few minutes afterward, linger on the word or phrase that stands out to you. Sit with the word or phrase and savor it as a word of God for you.
  • Respond – Read the passage a third time, listening attentively. Now is the moment to enter into a personal dialogue with God. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Allow your thoughts and feelings to flow out spontaneously and freely before the Lord who loves you.
  • Contemplation – Deeply receive God’s Word and rest in his presence and love. Give yourself some time to wait and be still before you reenter life as usual. Take God’s Word to you with you throughout the day.

Life Timeline

A Life Timeline is a 30,000 foot overview of the seasons of your life that specifically recognizes different highs and lows. This is a great exercise to engage in if you have a very specific issue or decision that you are discerning.

Reflect with others about how this problem/issue/experience interacts with your overall life story. Graphing this out on a big sheet of paper is usually very helpful and effective.

Clearness Committee

In the 1660s, the Quakers developed a method called a “Clearness Committee” to help individuals discern the Spirit. It is a form of prayerful listening and mirroring in a group setting that involves extended periods of silence, reflection, sharing, and asking open-ended questions.

This group listening process can be extremely helpful for someone who is seeking to make a significant decision and wants help hearing themselves.

Parker Palmer writes,

Behind the Clearness Committee is a simple but crucial conviction: each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. But that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference. The function of the Clearness Committee is not to give advice or “fix” people from the outside in but rather to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out.[5]

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[1] Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life by Henri Nouwen

[2] Adapted from The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero

[3] Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson

[4] Adapted from Hearing God by Dallas Willard and Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun

[5] A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer

About the Author
Matt Alexander

Matt Alexander

Matt Alexander has planted, pastored, and led in urban, suburban, and rural churches over the past 15+ years, including a missional church in Miami, FL called Rhythm. Currently Matt serves as a church planting coach with the V3 Movement, coaching cohorts through an 18-month missional training system. Matt, Evette, and Emery live in sunny Miami and love to drink coffee, go on outdoor adventures, and kayak around the mangroves.

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