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by Dr. Alex Tang

1.                  What is Discernment?

More than at any time in the history of the church, we live in an age of discernment. Individuals and religious communities are called to discern the Lord’s will for them in the concrete circumstances of their lives. Charismatic communities discern the source and meaning of the prophetic words spoken in their prayer meetings. Young people discern their vocations, and their elders discern the meaning of the challenges and opportunities, which arise in the living of their chosen vocations. And spiritual directors are now co-discerners, asked to be interpreters who guide others to a mature understanding of the call of the Spirit speaking within them.[1]


Guillet describes our present situation as a ‘three fold darkness’:

Man is plunged into a threefold darkness. God commands without being seen;  Satan conceals himself, suggests more than he affirms, proposes more than he demands….Finally, there is the darkness in man himself who is incapable of grasping completely the seriousness of his actions and the results deriving from them (Ex 32:21; 2 Sm 12:7)[2]

It is this ‘threefold darkness’ that a man or a woman is required to choose. To decide which voice he or she  hears is the voice of God and to differentiate from the other voices he or she hears.  There is a need to discern.


Webster Dictionary (online) defines the verb, discern, as [ Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French discerner, from Latin discernere to separate, distinguish between, from dis- apart + cernere to sift
1 a : to detect with the eyes b : to detect with senses other than vision
2 : to recognize or identify as separate and distinct : Discriminate
3 : to come to know or recognize mentally
intransitive senses : to see or understand the difference

Discerning involves using what we can see with our eyes, feel with our others senses and think with our mind.


2.                  Discernment in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the Israelites recognize that God speaks through the prophets. Hence it is important to differentiate the false prophet from the authentic prophets. Only the authentic prophets will be speaking with the voice of God. The Israelites believed that the prophets actually speak the words of God, and not a paraphase. Hence discernment at that period is to discern who the authentic prophets are.


Guillet cites six criteria for discerning the authentic prophets; those who are actually speaking with the voice of God.[3]

2.1              Prophecies of misfortune are more likely to be authentic than prophecies of good fortune. 


Nobody likes prophecies of bad fortune. Hence if someone prophecies bad fortune, he or she is more likely to be speaking the truth. False prophets will often pander to what the audience wants to hear and that is favorable prophecies. A good example is the problems Jeremiah faces with the Temple prophets.


2.2              Authentic prophecy is confirmed from the prediction of ‘signs’, which actually do come to pass.


One of the ways ancient Israel judges the prophets is to see if their prophecies come true. If it does, then he or she is a true prophet of God. If not then they are to stone the false prophet.


2.3              Fidelity to the fundamental faith of Israel.


At times, it can be difficult to judge the prophecies, especially if the prophecies are in the future. Another principle used is that whether the prophecies are consistent with the fundamental faith of Israel. Yahweh does not contradict Himself and the Mosaic Law.  If the prophet contradict the basic faith of Israel or of the church, he or she could not have been moved by the Spirit of God.


2.4              Life witness of the prophet


The false prophet is betrayed by his sinful life. He or she may deceive people for a time but the truth will be known.


2.5              Intention of the prophet.


What is the intention of the prophet is speaking the words. Is it to appear spiritual in the eyes of the world? To stroke his or her ego. Or  to turn people to God.


2.6              The prophet’s own experience of his or her prophetic call.


The calling of the prophet is another way the Israelite can validate the authentic prophets. Hence the emphasis placed of the calling of almost all the prophets (Isa 6; Jer 1:4-10;Ex 3; Hos 1-3). It is this experience that stands them apart, cleansed their lips, firmed their convictions and empowered them to speak the words of God.


Hence discernment in the Old Testament is mainly discerning whether those who claim to speak with the Voice of God are truly prophets. If they fulfil these 6 criteria, the chances are good that they are speaking with the Voice of God.


3.                  Discernment in the New Testament

 In the New Testament, discerning the voice of God or discernment of which is of God and which is not of God is accurately explained in the synoptic gospels and the epistles of John and Paul.


3.1.            The Synoptic Gospels

The synoptic gospels did not have explicit teaching of discernment. Jesus did not teach us specifically on how to discern the voice of God. Instead He lived it. Jesus’ life is a life of lived discernment of the voice of God. If we study the synoptic gospels carefully, we can see that there are two lived discernment of the voice of God:

3.1.1.      Jesus’ own discernment of his identity and mission

3.1.2.      The disciples’ discernment of Jesus’ call to them, of His identity and mission as it touches their lives.


3.1       Epistles of John and Paul

The apostle John and Paul, learning from the example of our Lord Jesus Christ has attempted to formulae the rules of discerning the voice of God in their epistles or in Paul’s word, the discernment of spirits.[4] 

3.1.1         Good and evil spirits are recognizable by their fruits. And the fruit of the spirit is love and peace.

Gal 5:19-22  works of flesh compared to the fruit of the spirit. Eph 5:8-10

Rom 7:4-5


The authentic gifts are those which edify the Church (1 Cor.14:4,12,26); bring some improvement (1 Cor 13:7) and contribute to the growth and unity of the body of Christ.

Love holds an important place among the fruit of the spirit. Gal 5:22-23

Love is an unchanging sign of the Spirit.

Phil 3:9

Eph 4:14-15

1 Cor 13:4f


3.1.2.   The supreme criteria of discernment for Paul and John is

 one’s attitude towards Jesus Christ.

1 Cor 12:3


Hence for Paul and John, the basis of their discernment whether the voice they hear is from God or not are (1) supremacy of love and (2) influence on our relationship to Jesus Christ.



4        Prerequisite to Discernment


4.1        A desire to do God’s Will.

Discernment presupposes a committed faith in Christ. A  committed faith means a person who desires to do God’s will, to accomplish His work in this world. Unless it makes a difference to me what He desires, unless it matters to me to do God’s will, discernment is impossible.


4.2       Openness to God.

All of us – even the best of us – will find that our idea of God frequently block us from truly experiencing him as he reveals himself. This, it seems to me, was the problem of the Pharisees: they could not properly discern the person and mission of Jesus, and his call to them, because they were blinded by their own preconceptions, their own attachments. They were religious zealots but, perhaps without realizing it, they sought “God and” their own ideas rather than “God only.” Even the apostles, on Ascension day, were still asking the Lord: ”Lord… are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) even after they had been with him for three and a half year.[5]


4.3       A  knowledge of God

A committed faith must also be an enlightened faith; a faith based on solid experiential knowledge of the person to whom I commit myself. If I don’t know you, I can scarcely  know what pleases you.[6]


5        How to discern the Voice of God

The classic source is the Rules of Discernment of Spirits in the Spiritual Exercises of  Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits.  What Augustine has done for the study of the problem of evil, or St. John of the Cross for the phenomenology of prayer, Ignatius has done for the art of discernment. In his Exercises, Ignatius has developed 3 occasions to discern the voice of God and to make a good choice.[7]


5.1          First or  revelation time is ‘when God our Lord moves and attracts the will so that the devout soul, without question and without desire to question, follows what is manifested to it. St. Paul and St. Matthew did this when they followed Christ our Lord.’  This is discerning God’s voice by our SPIRIT. God speaks to us so clearly that there is no doubt in our mind that He has spoken.


 Friends recognize friends. Hence the importance of friendship with God. We are able to recognize the voice of God due to our familiarity with God.


5.2       Second is present ‘when one has developed a clear understanding and knowledge through experience of consolations and desolations and the discernment of spirits’. This is discerning God’s voice by our EMOTIONS.


5.2.1        Consolations

Consolations can take many forms: It may involve strong emotion – being inflamed with love, shedding of tears of love and praise – or it may be quiet and deep. The common denominator  is peace in the Lord.

5.2.2        Desolation

Desolation also can take many forms, from emotional turmoil of spirit to a deadening tepidity and sadness. The common denominator is loss of peace.

5.2.3        Discernment of spirits

‘Then it is characteristic of the evil spirit to harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul. Thus he seeks to prevent the soul from advancing. On the other hand, it is characteristic of the good spirit to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This he does by making all easy, by removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good.’


The devil as angel of light but watch for the ‘tail’ of a snake.

q       ‘If a committed Christian loves to pray, he will encourage this love (and even reward her with visions and revelations and other unusual experiences) in order to foster pride or to cause her to neglect her other church activities.

q       If she has found a new life in a charismatic community. He will encourage dependence on the community in such a way that leads to exclusivity and disdain for ‘outsiders’.

q       If she is generously committed to the works of  justice and charity, he will foster this commitment to the point where ‘mediocre’ church leaders are despised and prayer seems an irrelevant luxury.’


5.3         Third is ‘a time of tranquility’ or reasoning time. This is discerning God’s voice by our MIND. This is making decision by weighing the pros and cons. When we have come to a decision, we then submit it to the experience of consolation and desolation. Do we have peace or confusion?


5.3.1        Logical reasoning

This reasoning time is when we are to sit down and think through the situation. To assess in a logical way when it is indeed the voice of God who spoke to us.

5.3.2        Guideline of Scriptures

The Voice of God does not contradict Scriptures. This is an acid test. If any voice that tells of plans that are in conflict with the teachings of Scriptures, it should be suspected.

5.3.3        Rational appraisal of our circumstances

Acknowledging that God is sovereign also means acknowledging God is in control of our circumstances. The apostles acknowledge this when they chose the replacement for Judas Iscariot by drawing lots. Maybe God is speaking to us when doors are closed in our faces, opportunities are not given to us or our plans misfire.

5.3.4        Wise counsel of friends

Friends, especially Christians who are mature and know God will be able to help us discern the voice of God.



6          Principles for Discerning the Will of God


When we discern the voice of God, we often discern it so that by knowing what He says, we can also please Him by doing what He wants. Hence discernment is closely linked to doing the will of God. In my own faith journey, I find discerning God’s voice by using the ‘three lights’ as suggested by Dallas Willard useful. The three lights are circumstances, impression of the Spirit and passages from the Bible. When all three lights point in the same direction, we can be sure  that the direction it points to is the direction God wants us to go.[8] I find that the three lights are inter-related. If there is a conflict, I should keep still until God shows me why.


6.1         Circumstances


When God speaks to me, He speaks to me in my own context, my own circumstances, which is unique and different from what other people are going through. He comes to me through the filters of my worldview, my lived experience and my present situation. Hence I must hear Him in my own context. I believe that God wants me to hear Him and obey His Will. Thus I believe that He will open a way into His Will if I am ready to follow Him.


6.2     Impressions of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit was given to us as the Counselor (John 14:26) who will lead us into all things of God. I believe that the Holy Spirit can and do speak to us. He can speak to us through supernatural or natural means as indicated above.


Roger Barrister, a pastor have developed a checklist[9] to see if the impression is from God:

(i)                  He speaks in my innermost spirit. Satan and self speak in my soul or human mind. Discerning between soul and spirit requires patience, practice and careful cultivation.

(ii)                He speaks with gentle leading (1 Kings 19:11-13)

(iii)               His impression produces freedom (Matt 11:30)

(iv)              He speaks when I am seeking Him (Jer.29:12-13)

(v)                There is a sense that everything is under control.

(vi)              He gives specific directions.

(vii)             He convicts us of sins (John 16:8)

(viii)           His impression can be tested by the Word of God.

(ix)              His impressions lead us to a deep, abiding sense of peace. (Phil. 4:7)


      Aside from the checklist above; another way to discern the impression is familiarity. Our Lord Jesus said that His followers listen to the Shepherd’s (His) voice and train them to recognize it easily. They know how to follow (obey) because they know His voice[10]. (John 10:3-5,27) I believe that we can be so familiar with God’s voice or impression that we can recognize it, just as we can recognize a friend’s voice over the telephone without seeing his or her face.


6.3         Passages from the Bible


God speaks to us through His Word. As we spend time in bible study, in meditation and in spiritual reading (lectio divina), we find that God does speak to us about our particular situation and about His Will for us.(2 Tim 3:16,17)


            Aside from using the three ‘lights’ in discerning the voice of God, it is  advisable  to discuss the choice with a spiritual friend or a more mature Christian. Spiritual direction[11] is useful in helping us in making reliable discernment.




The ability to discern God’s voice and not be let astray by other voices is a basic essential skill as we seek to follow His Will. Without this basic skill, we will not be able to grow in Christ. We will be running round in circles as we listen to a hundred conflicting voices. There will be no peace. No spaces to grow spiritually.


‘Discretion (Discernment), then is able to pick out the word and will of God amid all the conflicting voices emanating from the devil, from oneself and from others. The discerning, balanced person is that way partly because of natural, God-given endowment, partly through experience, and completely by grace. Experience teaches us when our asceticism or our self-indulgence is likely to be harmful. By discernment we know ourselves, and so humility presupposes discretion, just as discretion presupposes humility. None of this happens without experience and imagination. Through them, we learn the boundaries marked out by discretion. Discernment then is the opposite of naivete; it is wisdom won at the risk of error.’[12]


It is reassuring to remember that if we are sincere to discern God’s Will, He will not disappoint us.


                                                                                                                        Soli Deo Gloria

Recommended Reading

Green ,Thomas, Weeds Among the Wheat (Indiana: Ave Naria Press, 1970)


The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, translated by Antony Mottola, (New York: Doubleday, 1964)


Guillet, Jacques el al, Discernment of Spirits (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Lithurigical Press, 1970). This is the English translation by Sr. Innocentia Richards of the classic article from the Dictionnaire de Spiritualite Ascetique et Mystique: “Discernment des Esprits”.


 Johnson, Jan When the Soul Listens : Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer (Colorado Springs CO: NavPress, 1999)




[1] Thomas Green, Weeds Among the Wheat (Indiana: Ave Naria Press, 1970)

[2] Jacques Guillet el al, Discernment of Spirits (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Lithurigical Press, 1970). This is the English translation by Sr. Innocentia Richards of the classic article from the Dictionnaire de Spiritualite Ascetique et Mystique: “Discernment des Esprits”.

[3] Jacques Guillet el al, Discernment of Spirits (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Lithurigical Press, 1970). This is the English translation by Sr. Innocentia Richards of the classic article from the Dictionnaire de Spiritualite Ascetique et Mystique: “Discernment des Esprits”.

[4] Adapted from Jacques Guillet el al, Discernment of Spirits (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Lithurigical Press, 1970). This is the English translation by Sr. Innocentia Richards of the classic article from the Dictionnaire de Spiritualite Ascetique et Mystique: “Discernment des Esprits”.

[5] Thomas Green, Weeds Among the Wheat (Indiana: Ave Naria Press, 1970) p. 59

[6] Ibid,  p. 61

[7] The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, translated by Antony Mottola, (New York: Doubleday, 1964)

[8] Willard, Dallas Hearing God. Downers grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984,1993,1999 p.169-172

[9] Barrister, Roger Listening to the Voice of God.  (The Pastor’s Soul Series) Minneapolis MN: Bethany House, 1998  p.53-59

[10] Johnson, Jan When the Soul Listens : Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer (Colorado Springs CO: NavPress, 1999) p. 42-45

[11] See Baker, Howard for a useful discussion on Soul Keeping:Ancient Paths of Spiritual Direction (Colorado Springs CO: NavPress, 1998)

[12] Feiss, Hugh  Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1999)  p. 113


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