Spiritual Discernment


2017 was a year of spiritual discernment for the NEWIM Board and me. As we transitioned from Jackie's leadership to mine, we sought to discern God's leading. What is spiritual discernment and what does the process look like? I found Henri Nouwen's book on Spiritual Discernment (Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life) very helpful in confirming what I understood about the process so I thought I would share  the insights that were helpful to me and how I used my journal to capture all of the specifics instances when something resonated deeply within, and the process of understanding their interconnectedness.

All year long in my journal I kept notes...and several times during the year I spent hours prayerfully reflecting on what it all added up to so far. By the time that the Board needed to make some decisions about the pathway forward, I was so grateful (and confident) that the Lord had given us the wisdom we were seeking to discern. For me, it was truly an intimate process. I had no option but to be completely dependent on the Lord making his Wisdom known, I was a branch seeking all that I needed from the Vine.

What Is Spiritual Discernment

Spiritual Discernment is a way to perceive the Wisdom (Proverbs 8:1-11) that God speaks to us all day long in the books we read, nature, people, and events. We need to be rooted in prayer and part of a faith community, seeking to read the signs and recognize divine messages. It is hearing a deeper sound beneath the noise of ordinary life and seeing the deeper interconnectedness of how God is at work in our lives so that we might live a life that is pleasing to him, a life that is “worthy of our calling” (Col. 1:9), fulfilling our unique role in the world.

Spiritual discernment is a spiritual capacity for distinguishing between opposing forces. Discernment requires that we look up to the LORD Almighty, and then, as best as we can, from his perspective see our world from heaven’s vantage point. We are looking for that Wisdom that is from above. Discernment involves “listening to the still small voice beneath the rush of the whirlwind, a prayerful practice of reading the subtle signs in daily life.” (Nouwen) Jesus is our model of a fully discerning person, and the account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus teaches us about the process of spiritual discernment.

Foundational Principles

We must begin with an awareness that our core identity is in being a beloved child of God. Knowing I am his beloved daughter, I am able to be open and willing to be fully seen by Jesus during this process of spiritual discernment. So we examen our impulses, motives, options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away.

We put our trust in God and meditate on his character, and the characteristics (fruit) of the Holy Spirit. I think this is key because God will lead us in accordance with who he is.

We pray seeking the Lord to give us wisdom and reveal to us what we need to see. We put our trust in God knowing that he will lead us because the Scriptures tell us that he will.

We cannot see with perfect clarity what lies ahead, so we recognize our human limitations and with humility we pay attention and trust.

What Does the Process Look Like?

We begin with our ordinary, everday life. What other life do we have?

Nouwen writes: “When we are rooted in prayer and solitude and form part of a community of faith, certain signs are given to us in daily life as we struggle for answers to spiritual questions. The books we read, the nature we enjoy, the people we meet, and the events we experience contain within themselves signs of God’s presence and guidance day by day. When certain poems or scripture verses speak to us in a special way, when nature sings and creation reveals its glory, when particular people seem to be placed in our path, when a critical or current event seems full of meaning, it’s time to pay attention to the divine purposes to which they point. Discernment is a way to read the signs and recognize divine messages.”

We are listening for God’s love and direction so that we can fulfill our mission. We are paying attention to God’s active presence so that we can obey His prompting, direction, leadings and guidance.

We seek discernment individually, but always confirm our thoughts as we come together, listening to each other in community. We are looking for how my/our small part fits into God’s larger story of renewal and redemption for all.

God speaks through family members and close friends with whom we have a primary relationship. We also need to be paying attention to the people God puts in our lives, teachers and friends, who act as signposts pointing us toward God. He also speaks through books and nature and the Scripture.


It’s good to keep a journal (or a section of one) for our discernment process, capturing our prayers, the insight we glean as we read, the words of Scripture that stand out, listening to the inner movements of the Spirit within us. I ended up with a lot of this scattered throughout my normal journal and I'd make a star in the margin to signal me not to forget this part. I set aside a couple of pages for a chronological record of the major experiences that seemed to have significance.

We want to recognize that each event, each day, is part of God’s forming us and our world. We know that God cares and is active in our lives. Every step of our journey should reaffirm who I am in Christ and that I have a purpose to fulfill which is uniquely mine. It is helpful to share the journey and listen to others’ responses. Discernment performed alone can often become delusion, so we want to discern God’s will together with others. I talked with friends and family about what I was gleaning all along the way.

It was important for me to keep in mind that what I was looking for was what will lead us closer to love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which pathways lead us further away.

The Bible is our guide as we seek to interpret events—what we are looking for is what God is doing. The President of Cal State Long Beach used to say that he wanted to "water the green spots." And in a similar way, we are looking for the green spots, where God is at work and seeking to join him there.


I spent several days reviewing my journals, highlighting where the Lord seemed to be showing me some aspect of how he would have us move forward as a Board. I typed up the chronology, the stories, the Scriptures, the words spoken by friends, the essence of several weekend retreats with the Leadership Team, times when I sensed deep emotions of compassion and love for others, my frustrations and what I learned about myself and what I needed as a leader, the insight I gleaned from books I had read and key conversations with my husband and children. And then I prayerfully sought to distill it all into themes, grouping common elements. It was a prayerful process over several days and when I'd get stuck, I'd pray. And God brought the clarity I needed as I needed it. It was a very humbling experience because I was so aware of my need. And then it coalesced, just in time for me to share what I had discerned with the Board and listen to what the Lord had given them, and together we did our best to listen to each other and the Lord and make some decisions. We know that we won't discern perfectly, but we have confidence that we are proceeding according to his will, with his wisdom, and we anticipate that we'll make adjustments along the way.


Waiting For The Unfolding

God will ultimately reign and LOVE will actually prevail. God’s ways are not always our ways, and his timetable is not always ours. So we must settle into God’s ways of measuring time. Waiting for God’s will to unfold always means paying attention to what is happening right now before our eyes and seeing there the first rays of God’s glory. We wait patiently, actively watching for the signs that the One we are waiting for is coming.

We are successful when our will is aligned with God’s will. We are seeking to discern how we can align ourselves with him. Journaling during this time was a key component of capturing all of the Wisdom that cries aloud in the streets. 


Questions To Ask

What is pleasing to the Spirit of God? (Being abandoned to the love of God and responding faithfully to him, producing/responding with the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control), being in a posture of extending mercy and grace – this is when we are pleasing him.)

What can I/we say "yes" to without reservation?

What will lead me/us further toward the love of God, my belovedness and the belovedness of others? What will lead me/us further away?

What signs am I seeing?