Spiritual Practice

The Art of Discernment

Sarah Arthur

How do I know what God wants me to do?

How many times have you asked that question?

Christians have a process for learning God’s will known as discernment. The word discern comes from the Latin discernere, which means “to separate.” To discern is to distinguish or to recognize, often with some level of difficulty. The process of finding your best friend in a huge crowd of people, which is not easy but doable, is a form of discernment. When it comes to faith, we can’t always see clearly what God wants and we can’t always hear God’s voice. So how do Christians discern God’s will?


GPS2 CC 4225307113_326c141e04_bFirst, discernment involves paying attention to information from a variety of different sources. It’s like using a Global Positioning System (GPS). To locate your position on the planet, a GPS uses signals from at least three satellites. In the same way, the spiritual process of discernment works best when you receive information from several sources: other Christians or mentors, scripture, prayer, sermons, Christian books or articles—even from fasting. When many of those “satellites” start locating your path and your spiritual direction, pay attention—even if what they say is not what you want to hear.

Second, discernment becomes easier if you have a clear sense of personal mission. What is your purpose in life? What are the ways faith defines your identity? For instance, when I met my future husband, Tom, he felt called to racial, social, and economic reconciliation. His personal mission was to live in the spirit of Galatians 3:28 (NRSV): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Throughout our marriage, we have used that mission statement to help us discern where to live, how to love our neighbors, and even what to purchase.

Third, God’s will is a lot harder to discern when you are being disobedient. For instance, we do not have to wonder if God cares whether or not we lie to our parents. The Bible calls us not only to speak the truth (Ephesians 4:15) but also to honor our parents (Exodus 20:12). God may not reveal more of our path until we obey what God has already made clear to us.

Fourth, many decisions are not between good and bad but between good and better. Finishing college on time is good. So is taking a semester off to serve in missions. Which one is the better choice? When neither option emerges as an obvious choice, then take a breath, pray for grace, and follow your joy! God wants you to experience joy in your life, and there is no greater joy than doing God’s will.

The process of discernment doesn’t guarantee that we will discover for certain what God wants us to do. However, it allows us to take each step of the journey in faith rather than fear.



devozine Reflective Guy FTR TS 80467216Facing a major decision? Go to at least three different sources—scripture, prayer, sermons, Christian books, conversations with other Christians, fasting. See what response you get. Ask people to pray for you and follow up with them in a few weeks. When you pray, pay attention to your own feelings. Make note of common themes you find in sermons, books, and articles. Read the prayers in Ephesians 1:17–19, Philippians 1:9–11, and Colossians 1:9–12. Heighten your awareness of God’s presence and direction by fasting for one meal. When all of those dials stop spinning, where are they pointing?

Sarah Arthur , a former youth director whose GPS pointed her in the direction of writing and speaking, writes about her experience of discernment in her devotional book The One Year Daily Grind.

—from devozine (September/October 2010). Copyright © 2010 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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