The spiritual foundations for discernment


Foundations matter

A long time ago I built a retaining wall in the backyard of my new house. At its highest point it was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) high. It was made up of large keystone blocks that weighed 20kgs (44lbs) each. There were over 200 of them across 25 meters (27 yards) of ground and five high at their peak. It took six months before they started to tumble.

I spent so much time getting that foundation of concrete wide and deep and flat enough to hold them. But I didn’t quite get it right. I was lucky that I only had to pull out 25 blocks to fix it.

The solid foundation for discernment is that it must have spiritual foundations. So there is no Christian discernment that does not have spiritual foundations. Discernment is the process of determining God’s desire in a situation, or being able to distinguish that which is of God and that which is not. Hanging out with God is inherently a spiritual activity.

From this understanding we can identify the spiritual attitudes and practices that support discernment.

Commitment to Jesus

Commitment to Jesus is the first prerequisite for discernment. Christ can only be known through the presence of the Holy Spirit made accessible through faith. The Holy Spirit makes possible an awareness of God’s character and desires.

God’s work in Jesus makes it possible to have unity with God. So all the barriers that prevent this relationship and the capacity to faithfully follow God’s way have been overcome. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are sustained in relationship with Christ, invited to serve God and empowered to do so.

A yearning to find God

Discernment presupposes that the people want the will of God to be achieved and not their own. So nourish the spirit in you that hungers after God. Yearn to know and please God – it is not limited to the prayer cells of mystics.

Self-emptying and being filled with the Holy Spirit is a core practice of the Christian life. This is what makes it possible for us to distinguish between willfully pursuing our own preferences and willingly surrendering to the will of God. Radical openness is required in group discernment as well as is in our personal life.

Believing in God’s goodness

Discernment will often take us where we do not want to go. The Spirit will lead and at times we will be afraid. When we walk in the Spirit we go where God takes us. We can only let go of our own wisdom, fears and great ideas if we have embraced at a deep level the goodness of God. When we have developed spiritual confidence we can go anywhere in response to what we discern because we know that God desires good for us.

The goal of Christian discernment is to put people of faith in a place where they can participate in the hopes and purposes that God has in store for the community of which they are a part. That is always a good place to be.

Belief that we have no higher calling than love

The Christian life is a journey towards living a Christ like life. Christ reveals the true character of God. God is love and we show our allegiance to God as we love God, others and the world (1 John 4:8).

Cultivate a loving disposition because it is foundational for discernment. God will never do anything that does not show love towards people. A core spiritual foundation for discernment is to keep asking “What does love require?” And then listening for the answer!


The Christian life is impossible without obedience to the will of God. So there is no point making decisions in church meetings if we have not nurtured our capacity to follow God – come what may.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German martyr and theologian said about the Christian community “It is a gift that we cannot claim. It is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in which we must participate. … Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ…” (Life Together, NY, Harper Collins, 1954, pp30-31.)

The community of discernment finds its identity as it gathers around the person of Jesus. This community is transformed and reshaped by Jesus who stands at the center of our community.

Only when Christians convert to this sense of identity – as a community in Christ – is it possible to see that we are not just meeting to do business but that we are a spiritual community.

Spiritual foundations for discernment

Commitment to Jesus, yearning, confidence in God’s goodness, love, obedience and community.

Which foundations have you applied? Do you have any to add to the list? Please share them in the comments section.

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Author: Terence

I am a Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. My current ministries focus on consultancy and teaching about consensus based decision-making, mediation, governance training and professional supervision for Ministers. I am co-author of the book "The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together". I live on the beautiful Far South Coast of NSW from where I undertake ministry across the globe. Contact me at

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