In Christianity, discernment is the ability to obtain sharp perceptions or to judge well (or the activity of so doing).[1] In the case of judgement, discernment can be psychological, moral, or aesthetic in nature.[2]

Discernment has also been defined in these contexts: scientific (discerning what is true about the real world),[3] normative (discerning value including what ought to be),[4] and formal (deductive reasoning). The process of discernment, within judgment, involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities.[4]

Discernment in the Christian religion is considered a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.[5]


In Christianity, the word may have several meanings. Discernment can describe the process of determining God's desire in a situation or for one's life, or identifying the true nature of a thing, such as discerning whether a thing is good, evil, or may even transcend such a limiting notion of duality.[4] It also describes the interior search for an answer to the question of one's vocation, specifically, whether or not God is calling one to the married life, single life, consecrated life, ordained ministry or any other calling.

"Discernment of spirits" is a term used in both Roman Catholic and Charismatic (Pentecostal) Christian theology to indicate judging various spiritual agents for their moral influence.

Process of discernment

The process of achieving a level of discernment takes place in steps. The following actions can be made in the course of discernment: taking time in making decisions, using both the head and heart, and assessing important values involved in the situation.

Time has been considered necessary in the process of making a smart choice; decisions made in a hurry can be altered by[clarification needed] lack of contemplation.[6]: 4  When time is available to assess the situation this improves the discernment process. When time allows, a tentative decision can be revisited and other people can be consulted to make sure that the person is satisfied with their choice.[7]

Deciding and discerning each require both the "head" and the "heart". To make a decision with the "head" one must first reflect on the situation and emphasize the rational aspect of the decision making process.[8]: 9  To make a decision with the "heart" one must decide based on feelings as well as rationality.[6]: 5–6 

Values in the discernment process are weighing options that determine what is most important to the person. Everyone’s value system is different which affects each person's discernment process.[6]: 6–7 

Group discernment

Group discernment is a separate branch of discernment. In group discernment each person in the group must first undergo their own discernment process.[9]: 2–4  That person must keep in mind what is best for the group as well as themself when making a decision.[7] The same guiding principles (of values, using the head and heart, and ample time) all still apply in group discernment. Group discernment is different because it requires multiple people to have a unanimous decision in order to move forward. Group discernment requires discussion and persuasion between people to arrive at a decision.

Christian spiritual discernment

Christian spiritual discernment is distinct from secular types of discernment because every decision is to be made in accordance with God's will.[8]: 12  The fundamental definition of Christian discernment is a decision-making process in which an individual makes a discovery that can lead to future action.[10] In the process of Christian spiritual discernment God guides the individual to help them arrive at the best decision. The way to arrive at the best decision in Christian spiritual discernment is to seek out internal external[clarification needed] signs of God's action and then apply them to the decision at hand. Christian Discernment also has an emphasis on Jesus, and making decisions that align with those of Jesus in the New Testament.[10] The focus on God and Jesus when making decisions is what separates Christian discernment from secular discernment.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) is often regarded as the master of the discernment of spirits.[9]: 2  The method of "Ignatian discernment" is his technique of Catholic discernment. Ignatian discernment uses a series of Spiritual Exercises for discerning life choices and focuses on noticing God in all aspects of life.[11]: 6  The Spiritual Exercises are designed to help people who face a major life decision. There are seven steps of discernment to be followed that include identifying the issue, taking time to pray about the choice, making a wholehearted decision, discussing the choice with a mentor, and then finally trusting the decision made.[11]: 7–8 


  1. ^ "Discernment". Cambridge English Dictionary. Retrieved 2020-11-01.
  2. ^ Zangwill, Nick (2019). "Aesthetic Judgment". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 2020-11-01.
  3. ^ Zhu, Weidong; Li, Shaorong; Ku, Quan; Zhang, Chao (2020). "Evaluation Information Fusion of Scientific Research Project Based on Evidential Reasoning Approach Under Two-Dimensional Frames of Discernment". IEEE Access. 8: 8087–8100. doi:10.1109/access.2020.2963936. ISSN 2169-3536. S2CID 210696252.
  4. ^ a b c Diamond, Stephen A.; Larson, Paul; Amlen, Jennifer; Madden, Kathryn; Madden, Kathryn; DuBose, Todd; Crusalis, Bonnie Smith; Giaccardi, Giorgio; Leeming, David A. (2010). "Discernment". Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Boston, Mass.: Springer US. pp. 237–241. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-71802-6_171. ISBN 978-0-387-71801-9. S2CID 241505880. Retrieved 2020-11-01.
  5. ^ Dominican Province of the Assumption. "The Journey of Discernment". Dominican Province of the Assumption. Retrieved 2020-11-01.
  6. ^ a b c Wolff, Pierre (1993). Discernment: the Art of Choosing Well: Based on Ignatian Spirituality. Liguori Publications.
  7. ^ a b Barton, Ruth Hayley (2005-02-23). "Discerning God's Will Together: Discovering a Process of Leadership Discernment". Transforming Center. Retrieved 2020-11-01.
  8. ^ a b Horton, Dennis (2009). "Discerning Spiritual Discernment: Assessing Current Approaches for Understanding God's Will". Journal of Youth Ministry. 7.
  9. ^ a b Waaijman, Kees (2013). "Discernment and Biblical Spirituality: An Overview and Evaluation of Recent Research". Acta Theologica. 32.
  10. ^ a b Kunz, Sandra (2011). "Respecting the Boundaries of Knowledge: Teaching Christian Discernment with Humility and Dignity, a Response to Paul O. Ingram". Buddhist-Christian Studies: 177.
  11. ^ a b Au, Wilkie (September 2010). "The Ignatian Method: A Way of Proceeding". Presence. 16.

Further reading