Spiritual Discernment

Trusted governance involves leaders relying on the subtle dynamics of the Holy Spirit.


by Dan Busby



When we make our
decisions, we must use
the brains God has
given us. But we must
also use our hearts,

which He also gave us.
Fulton Oursler

Decisions by leaders and boards of Christ-centered organizations are made constantly. For leaders, decisions are made nearly every day. Boards make decisions every time they meet.

Many of these decisions are seemingly small or routine. Other decisions are of ministry-altering magnitude. Especially for more significant issues, spiritual discernment is a must for trusted ministries.

We are constantly confronted with new perspec­tives, emerging trends, and economic and regulatory developments. It is a daunting task to make biblical decisions against a mosaic of options!

We focus on the Bible, prayer, faith, and wise counsel—all important elements in biblical decision-making—but too often we do not consider spiritual discernment in the process. This element is a requirement for trusted boards.

“One of the miracles Jesus most commonly performed while he was on this earth was the healing of blind people. The reason this particular miracle was so common might have to do with the fact that it is a metaphor for the spiritual journey itself—the movement from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight. In fact, the spiritual journey can be understood as the movement from seeing God nowhere, or seeing God only where we expect to see Him, to seeing God everywhere, especially where we least expect Him.”[1]

There are many qualities
that contribute to good
leadership, but it is our
commitment to discerning
and doing the will of God

through the help of the
Holy Spirit that
distinguishes spiritual
leadership from other
kinds of leadership.
Ruth Haley Barton

Discernment together as leaders takes us beyond the personal to an increasing capacity to “see” what God is up to in the place we are called to lead. It calls us to be courageous in seeking the will of God and then making decisions that are responsive to that will as it unfolds in front of us.[2]

In 1 Kings 3:5–9 (ESV), we learn that while Solomon was at Gibeon to offer sacrifices to the Lord, God appeared to him and said simply “Ask what I shall give you.” We are commonly taught that Solomon asked the Lord for wisdom, but he requested more than wisdom; he asked for discernment to lead.

He became both wise and discerning. This teaches us that God honors discernment and those who seek after it.[3]

Discernment is evidence of God at work and is deeply rooted in both the Old and New Testaments. The early church used the language of discernment. Paul and Barnabas were sent to Antioch with a letter that said, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials” (Acts 15:28–29 NASB). This is the language of discernment.[4]

Romans 12:2 (ESV) directly refers to discernment: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Discernment is not
knowing the difference
between right and wrong.
It is the difference
between right and
almost right.
Charles H. Spurgeon

We do not get to listen to God’s voice thundering on the top of Mount Horeb. Instead, we must rely on the more subtle dynamics of the Holy Spirit witnessing with the human spirit about things that are true.

Discernment presents unique challenges in contemporary Western culture because it requires us to move beyond our reliance on cognition and intellectual hard work to a place of deep listening and response to the Spirit of God within us and among us.[5]

Spiritual discernment is thinking in a specifically Christian way about each issue. At the same time, our hearts have to be engaged in devotion to Christ. Then, and only then, will we find ourselves in tune with the mind of God and be able to make good judgments and appraisals because to the believer is promised the presence of the Holy Spirit.[6]

In her book Pursuing God’s Will Together, Ruth Haley Barton explains that one of the best descriptions of the inner dynamics of discernment is provided by Ignatius as he contrasts the spirits of consolation and desolation. He suggests that “consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our authentic self.”[7] By contrast, “desolation is the loss of a sense of God’s presence; indeed, we feel out of touch with God, with others, and with our authentic self. It might be an experience of being off-center, full of turmoil, confusion and maybe even rebellion. Or we might sense our energy draining away, tension in our gut or tears welling in our eyes.”[8]

Watch where Jesus went.
The one dominant note
in His life was to do
His Father's will.
His was not the way
of wisdom or of success,
but the way of faithflness.
Oswald Chambers

“Consolation and desolation are not mere emotions. They are visceral, in-the-body experiences that precede emotion, alerting us to truth that is sensed and known in the inward being before we are conscious of it.”[9]

“Experiences of consolation and desolation are not right or wrong; they just are. They need not be particularly momen­tous; in fact, they might seem relatively inconsequential until we learn to pay attention and listen for what they have to tell us.”[10]

Discerning God’s will is a spiritual dynamic beyond human wisdom. With national and world events occurring at a frenetic pace and the second coming of Christ closer than it has ever been, the importance of spiritual discernment is vital.

We hear countless voices in a given day—some belong to coworkers, the media, or friends. Other voices exist within us (memories, emotions, or desires), and these can be the hardest to filter. For the believer, hearing the Lord is most important, so discernment becomes critical in distinguishing His voice from the others.[11]

Spiritual discernment
is a sense of God's
ongoing tap-tap-tap
on the shoulder of
our hearts.
Stephen Macchia

Ephesians 3:14–21 provides a powerful reminder of our need to rely on the Holy Spirit:

My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.

Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!

God grants discernment in governance to those who seek it. That discernment builds trust.


  Questions   for reflection


  1. Are you personally committed to discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit?
  2. How could you personally improve your spiritual discernment?
  3. Does the board of the ministry you serve truly understand and practice spiritual discernment in the governing process?
  4. What steps could the ministry take to improve spiritual discernment?


[1] Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 20.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tim Challies, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007), 20–21.

[4] Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church (Herndon, Va.: The Alban Institute, 2012), 14–18.

[5] Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 194.

[6] R.C. Sproul, “The Lost Art of Discernment,” Table Talk (May 1, 2006), http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/lost-art-discernment/.

[7] Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together, 58.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, 67

[11] Charles Stanley, “Developing Spiritual Discernment.” In Touch Ministries: http://www.intouch.org/you/article-archive/content.aspx?topic=1005#.VBHlaGPru9Y.


From TRUST: The Firm Foundation for Kingdom Fruitfulness, ECFAPress, 2015, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.