• Debbie Salter Goodwin

Is Spiritual Discernment a Lost Art?



Are we haphazard listeners to God? Do we practice listening only when it’s convenient or super important? Are we guilty of listening mostly for what we want to hear?

In the Bible we find person after person who heard from God. We can even read a transcript of their conversations. Do we believe that God doesn’t speak to His people anymore?


Is spiritual discernment a lost art?


Sometimes I fear we have mixed good business practices with discipleship strategies in ways that minimize our need for soul-ful listening to God. We know how to make goals, establish a timeline, check progress. While there's nothing wrong with using these processes, we need to be careful not to turn too quickly to expediency in decision-making.


I believe that God wants to help us make decisions that fit what He is planning for us. That's why I prefer to use the words spiritual discernment to talk about listening to God. Spiritual discernment is a way to train our minds to be always open to God's ways and strategies. It is a sorting practice. We divide what we hear into categories. We learn the difference between our self-protecting considerations, the push from other voices, and God’s inviting whisper. As Charles Spurgeon once said, “Spiritual discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”

Spiritual discernment helps me to recognize what messages are fighting for my attention. I listen to God so that I can put them aside in favor of God’s peaceful whisper and loving affirmation.. God brings a one-of-a- kind invitation to a certainty beyond my wisdom and understanding.

I like the definition from Steve Macchia, author of The Discerning Life. He says that spiritual discernment is “living out a preference for God.” It means we prefer God’s ways about our priorities in finances, leisure, relationships, family, anything that fills our day. We vote for God’s ideas at every chance we get and live them. Spiritual discernment doesn’t ask what is good for me. Spiritual discernment asks what is good from God’s perspective.

How do we practice spiritual discernment? Here are four important principles..


1. Refuse to divide decisions between spiritual and non-spiritual..

I listen to a podcast by Emily P. Freeman every week about decision-making in the life of a Christian. She reminds me that “daily decisions make our life.” It means that decisions, even the thoughtless, routine ones, affect our daily priorities, values, perspectives, and agenda. They lean us in self-centered ways or God-ordered ways. That makes them essential. We discern what is best, redemptive, productive in direct response to what God says is important. We listen to find out what that means.


2. Find a question that helps you listen to God.

We don’t ask enough of the right questions of God. Too many times we ask God to change something or do something or open something. What if we asked, “What do you want from me?” See the difference? The only way we get that answer is by listening. Other questions might include: What do you want to say to me? What do I need to hear? It doesn’t mean you can’t ask your specific questions. It means you ask your questions after you ask a listening question and do the work of listening.


3. Test listening by God’s character and commandments.

There is no other standard. The world came apart when the first person did what seemed right. We keep reproducing the same response without careful examination. God’s greatest gift to us is His Holy Spirit whose primary responsibility is to lead us into God’s Truth. Listen for His “Yes” and never substitute someone else’s “yes” for God’s.


4. When there is confusion, seek godly counsel from someone who has a proven lifestyle of listening to God.

How do we find that person? Their life unites people and brings them to God. They share God more than ideas about anything else. They usually aren’t the loudest voice; that’s why we notice their life first. We sense more peace than push. That doesn’t mean they’re quiet or reserved; just very focused on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” They won’t tell you what to believe as much as they send you to God to listen.


Listening this way can’t be scheduled as much as it is an open line where God can say “no” or “not now” or “try this” or “let go of that.” When I hear one of these lines from God, I have learned not to argue. Arguing with God is an exercise in futility. He’s always right. Always! When I submit to wisdom beyond my own, it opens a longing for more listening because the connection to God is so dear, so deep, so completing; I want to live no other way.


Here are two 5-minute exercises for practicing discerning. They are stepping stones, not a one-way formula. Will they help? Let me answer this way: God is a speaking God. He spoke the world into being and hasn’t stopped speaking to anyone who listens. The first question we need to answer is do we want to listen? Start there and then, listen. Share in the comments what you learn. It will encourage all of us to listen more!


Listening Exercise 1: Listening for who God says I am.

  • Quiet your mind the best way you can. While music or scripture may help you find a quiet place, when you find it, put away anything that distracts your mind and heart from silence. I often use the verse “Be still and know that I am God.”

  • Ask your listening question: “Who am I?”

  • You know the difference between how you have always answered that question and when God brings a word or description before you that you don’t use for yourself. Keep listening when that happens.

  • Even if nothing else comes, consider the answer and “try it on” for a day. Keep asking, “Is this who I am?” Keep listening for an answer.


Listening Exercise 2: Listening for what do I need to do next..

Note: Start with medium priorities like what to do first or how to help somewhere, something that allows a margin of error that wouldn’t create a bigger problem as you learn to confirm what you hear.

  • Use the same quieting exercise from above until you need nothing to help you quiet your mind and heart.

  • Ask your listening question: “What do I need to do?”

  • Apply God’s standards to what comes to mind. God’s answers usually bring redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, anything that God has always prioritized.

  • Act on your best understanding and see if it brought more peace, more unity, more of anything God says He always wants to give.


Listening to God for discernment is a learned prayer activity. Since we have so many people in our world who want to tell us what we should think and do, it is critically important to make sure we listen to God first.


Remember Paul's prayer?.


That's what I'm praying for myself.

Why not make it your prayer, too!



More Resources:


Are You Listening?

Less Struggle-More Joy

A Guide to Truth

Just Listen

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