Conversatio Divina

Part 3 of 17

Discernment: Recognizing and Responding to the Presence of God

Ruth Haley Barton

Discernment in its fullness takes a practiced heart, fine-tuned to hear the word of God and the single-mindedness to follow that word in love. It is truly a gift from God, but not one dropped from the skies fully formed. It is a gift cultivated by a prayerful life and the search for self-knowledge.

—Ernest Larkin, O. Carm.


©Ruth Haley Barton. Adapted from Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

Life is full of the need to choose.

Sometimes the choices are momentous—choosing a marriage partner, entering a vocation, having children. Other choices are not quite as momentous, but they are important, nonetheless, because they give shape to our lives. The pursuit of further education, what church to attend, moving to a new geographical location, how to care for aging parents, appropriate sexual expression in a dating relationship, how long to stay in a marriage that’s not working, whether to pursue a particular friendship or not, what spiritual practices are appropriate for my life at this time . . . all these decisions shape who we are and who we are becoming.

When faced with life’s choices, we become aware of one of the soul’s deep longings: we want to know we are making our choices in God and living our lives according to the purposes for which God brought us to this particular time and place. We long to see our own lives as part of a larger whole, contributing to some larger purpose. Within the broader Christian framework, we long to find our own unique path, the one that God knew and marked out for us before the foundations of the earth (as David talks about it in Psalm 139). We desire to experience the presence of God in our lives and respond faithfully to that Presence rather than living our lives disconnected from spiritual reality. It is for lack of this kind of vision that people perish.

The promise of discernment is that as we become more practiced at recognizing the presence and the activity of God, we are able to align ourselves more completely with what God is doing in any given moment. That is when life gets really exciting!

01.  The Essence of Discernment

While discernment is listed as a spiritual gift, it is also a mark of Christian maturity. Paul identifies the ability to discern the will of God as a natural by-product of spiritual transformation (Romans 12:1–2). John instructs normal Christian people to “test the spirits” to see which ones are from God—as though this is something we are all capable of doing. (1 John 4:1) So, whether we feel gifted in this area or not, discernment is a gift for all of us who are seeking the fullness of life in Christ.

Discernment is, first of all, a habit, a way of seeing that eventually permeates our whole life. It is the journey from spiritual blindness (not seeing God anywhere or seeing him only where we expect to see him) to spiritual sight (finding God everywhere, especially where we least expect it). Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and best known for developing a set of spiritual exercises intended to hone people’s capacity for discernment, defined the aim of discernment as “finding God in all things in order that we might love and serve God in all” (italics mine).

The habit of discernment is a quality of attentiveness to God so intimate that, over time, we develop an intuitive sense of God’s heart and purpose in any given moment. We become familiar with God’s voice—the tone, quality, and content—just as we become familiar with the voice of someone we know well. We are able to notice who God is for us in the moment, where God is at work continuing to unfold his work of love and redemption, and who we most authentically are in response.

Discernment is a way of approaching life that has to do with sensing the movement of God’s spirit and abandoning ourselves to it, just as we might give ourselves to the experience of being in water. Sometimes it is like floating down a river: we lie back and allow the current of the river to carry us along. At other times, it is more like trying to run the rapids or ride a wave: we must keep ourselves alert and attuned to the dynamic of the water as it flows over rocks and around corners and over rapids so that we can ride it to its destination rather than being toppled by its force. Either way, we do not set the direction or the speed of the current; rather, we seek to read the elements so that we can move with it and find the best way to let it carry us in the direction God has for us.

02.  Foundations of Discernment

For many of us, however, knowledge of God’s will is a subject fraught with doubt and difficulty—something as elusive as the Holy Grail. At times, we think we are getting closer to it, but it always seems to be slightly out of reach. This is where a few foundational beliefs and then some practical ways actually to enter into discernment as a spiritual practice can be helpful.

The first foundational belief is that discernment, when it is given, is always a gift. We cannot force discernment (1 Corinthians 2:13–15), but we can find ways to open ourselves to it. Second, the capacity to discern and do the will of God arises out of friendship with God and is cultivated through prayer, times of quiet listening, alert awareness, and community that is cultivated for this purpose. As our friendship with God deepens, we develop a deep confidence in the goodness of God, enabling us to trust that God’s intentions towards us are always good and that he has the power to carry out those good intentions. Belief in the goodness of God is a prerequisite because discernment requires interior freedom—a state of wide-openness to God and the capacity to relinquish whatever might keep us from choosing for God. It is impossible to experience this kind of interior freedom with someone you don’t trust!

A third foundational building block of the discernment process is the belief that love is our primary calling. Although we often lose sight of it, love is the deepest calling of the Christian life, the standard by which everything about our lives is measured. Any decision-making process that fails to ask the question, “What is the loving thing to do?” misses the point of a distinctly Christian practice of discernment.

The final building block is the belief that God does communicate with us through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is given to help us know the demands of love in our situation. Moment by moment, the Holy Spirit expands Christ’s teaching about the primacy of love by counseling us and guiding us in living the demands of love as it relates to the particularities of our lives. The practice of discernment is rooted in the theological belief that Christ is present and active in the here and now through the Holy Spirit.For a more complete discussion of the foundations of discernment, please refer to chapter 7 of Sacred Rhythms.

03.  Crossing the Threshold Into Discernment

The practice of discernment, like every other spiritual practice, offers us a way to make ourselves available for what only God can give, and it begins with prayer—two prayers, actually. The first is the prayer for indifference. While we might think of indifference as a negative attitude characterized by apathy and not caring, in the realm of discernment, indifference is a positive term. It means, “I am indifferent to anything but God’s will.” This is the state of “interior freedom” we mentioned earlier—an inner condition of the soul in which we are free from undue attachment to any particular outcome. There is within us a capacity to relinquish whatever might keep us from choosing for love. We have gotten to a place where we want God and his will more than anything else—more than ego-gratification, more than looking good in the eyes of others, more than personal ownership, comfort, or advantage. We want “God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”Danny Morris and Charles Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together (Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 1997) 115.

For most of us, coming to a place of indifference is no small thing—especially if it is in regard to something that really matters to us or something about the outcome of which we already have a strong preference. In fact, this is one of the most demanding aspects of the discernment process. Mary the mother of Jesus is one of the most compelling examples of utter indifference, of being completely given over to the will of God. Despite the possibility of being ostracized by her community, judged harshly by those who didn’t understand the will of God in her life, rejected by her husband-to-be, enduring inconvenience and much pain, her response to the angel who announced God’s will for her life was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

The movement toward indifference is the threshold between two worlds: the world of human decision-making and the world of discerning the divine will. Indifference is not something we can accomplish on our own. Just like everything else of significance in the spiritual life, God must accomplish it for us. All we can do is pray and wait. The question we ask at this place in the discernment process is, “What needs to die in me in order for God’s will to come forth in my life? Is there anything I need to set aside so that I can be open to what God wants?”

Asking this question may take us into a period of waiting, when we know we cannot accomplish for ourselves what most needs to be done. All we can say to God is, “I know I am not indifferent. I know something in me is still clinging to my own agenda. If I am to become indifferent, you will have to do it in me.” This period of waiting may feel very dark. But it will also feel strangely, deeply right—as if we are right where we need to be.

In this waiting room of the soul we are ready to pray the second prayer—the prayer for wisdom. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you,” Scripture tells us (James 1:5, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). Here we learn why the prayer for indifference was so important: because the wisdom of God is foolishness to this world. Discerning people are able to recognize God’s guidance sometimes by the very fact that it may appear, at some level, to be foolish to onlookers. But because we have come to a place of indifference, it doesn’t matter. When we have died to our need to be wise in others’ eyes or prove ourselves according to human standards, we are finally ready to ask for God’s wisdom and receive it. Without having come to the place of indifference, our prayer for wisdom can become something akin to a rigged election.

04.  Notice Without Judging

Most of us are accustomed to observing the obvious as we make decisions—circumstances, the clear meaning of pertinent Scriptures, the advice of friends who are wise in the Lord, the wisdom contained in our faith tradition. These form the basic framework for our Christian living, and we assume we are making decisions within this framework. In fact, Ernest Larkin calls this “pre-spirituality.” Discernment requires us to go beyond the basics of Christian living to notice our inner dynamics as well—dynamics such as consolation and desolation. Beyond surface emotion, consolation is an interior movement of the heart that gives us a sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our most authentic self in God. It is an unexplainable sense that everything is as it should be and that we are free to be given over to God and to others in love—even during times of pain and crisis. Conversely, desolation is the loss of a sense of God’s presence. It is a sense of being out of touch with God, with others, and with our most authentic self. During times of desolation, we might feel as though we are “off-center,” full of turmoil, confusion, and maybe even rebellion. Or it might be a subtle feeling of “dis-ease” that indicates something is amiss.

The dynamics of consolation and desolation are subtle, but they give us clues as to whether or not the choice we are considering will nurture the life of Christ lived in and through our most authentic selves. A mature approach to discernment acknowledges that the will of God is manifest deep within, where the Spirit dwells and bears witness with our spirit about things that are true (Romans 8:16). Quaker author Thomas Kelly calls this the Light Within.

Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice to which we may continually return. Eternity is in our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly submitting ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely to the Light Within is the beginning of true life.Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: Harper and Row, 1969) 3.

In listening to patterns of consolation and desolation, we start to come in touch with our own deepest orientations and desires, the essence of ourselves that God knew before we were even created in physical form. There are desires that are deep, true, and fundamental to our being in Christ; these are the “desires of your heart” that God promises to fulfill although oftentimes differently than we might have envisioned. A profound life orientation is revealed in these deepest desires, and when we come in touch with them, they provide important clues to God’s direction for our lives.

Discernment also has something to do with staying faithful to our calling—the purpose for which God created us. This is the passion or burden we carry that is uniquely ours and cannot be set aside lightly. Jeremiah recognized this part of himself when he came to a crossroads in his own life. Midway through the book of Jeremiah, he was thoroughly disillusioned with his life as a prophet—and with good reason! He was often the bearer of bad news, he was called upon to illustrate his message in ways that made him look very foolish, and he cried a lot—which is no fun for anyone! It got so bad there came a point when he determined God had tricked him into a calling that was full of such hardship, and he decided he wasn’t going to do it anymore. But being a prophet was such an essential part of who he was that he could not set it aside.

“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot’” (Jeremiah 20:9, NRSV).

Something like that is in all of us—something so essential to who we are and who God made us to be—that we cannot set it aside without imploding. We need to have the capacity to listen to these inner truths without judging them. This includes facts that are rational and objective and feelings of consolation and desolation that are deeper than surface emotions. We pay attention to what is conscious and also to any unconscious matter that presents itself in a dream or slips out in conversation before we have a chance to edit it. We listen to the stirrings of our desires and learn to distinguish them from the oughts and shoulds that others impose on us.

05.  Gather and Assess the Data

In the realm of spiritual transformation, the questions we are willing to ask ourselves are more important than the questions we think we know. This is certainly true when we are involved in discernment. There are many questions that help us reflect on the objective facts in God’s presence and also to gain insight into the inner dynamics involved in the decisions we face. We do not approach such questions in a purely academic fashion (as though trying to complete an assignment); rather, we enter into them as a spiritual practice, asking God to draw us to those questions that will be most helpful in bringing clarity to our situation. Different questions will resonate at different times and help us attend to the ways in which God’s will is manifest deep in our being:

Direction and Calling. How does this choice fit with the overall direction and calling of God upon my life? Is there one word that captures my sense of calling these days, and does this choice enable me to continue living into my calling?

Consolation. Which choice brings the deepest sense of life, inner peace, and freedom? (John 10:10, 2 Corinthians 3:17) Is there a growing sense of wholeness, authenticity, and congruence with who I am in God?

Scripture. Is there a particular Scripture that God is bringing to me relative to this choice? What is it saying to me?

Life of Christ. Is this choice consistent with what I know about the mind and heart of Christ and his redemptive purposes in the world?

Character Growth and Development. How will this direction nurture the fruit of the Spirit in me—particularly the fruit of love? What does love call for? What is God doing in my spiritual life currently, and will this choice continue to nurture this growth?

Eternal Perspective. Does this choice value what is eternal and permanent and holds the deepest value, rather than what is transient and impermanent? If I imagine myself on my deathbed, which choice would I wish I had made?

Community. How does this choice fit with others’ observations of who I am and what God is doing in my life? Am I willing to open up every facet of this decision to a trusted spiritual friend for her or his wisdom and insight? Is there anything in the overall tradition of the Christian faith that might inform my decision?

When we face significant choices that require discernment, we may need to increase our time in solitude so that we have the time and space for silent listening around these and similar questions. Jesus himself was very intentional about setting aside times of solitude for intense prayer and listening to God at important choice points in his life. The very beginnings of his public ministry came as a result of listening to the voice of his Father affirm his identity as a beloved son. In Matthew 4, we find Jesus in the wilderness struggling with subtle temptations regarding his calling. Would he carry out his calling according to what he understood from His Father, or would he follow a path that made more sense from a human standpoint?

In Luke 6, we observe Jesus’ choice to spend the night alone in prayer before making his decision about which disciples he would choose—certainly one of the most important decisions of his life in ministry. Luke 22 describes another night spent in solitude, when Jesus struggled mightily with his choice to go to the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane he poured out his heart to God, and he did not stop until he had wrestled all the way through it, becoming certain this was God’s will, and was ready to submit himself to it. If Jesus felt the need for this kind of presence to God as a context for discernment, it is certain that we need it as well.

06.  Seek Inner Confirmation

At some point, the way ahead starts to become clearer. There may even be a couple of options that seem equally good. Now God invites us to make a choice—at least interiorly—and to seek inner confirmation. Again the dynamics of consolation and desolation can be very helpful. We can make a choice inside ourselves first and then take some time to live with our choice privately and notice whether there is a sense of rightness about it, a sense of being in harmony with ourselves—the persons God created us to be and the persons we want to be. If we have time, we can take several days to walk around “as if” we had made a certain decision and notice where there is the greatest level of life and sustaining energy.

During this time we can ask ourselves what the truest and most authentic expression of the Spirit in and through our lives is at this time. It is important for me to be able to recognize in what part of myself this peace and consolation rests. Is it the ego part of me that is at peace because I am choosing something that will keep the ego in control? Is it the fearful part of me that is at peace because I am choosing a path that keeps me safe and secure? Or does this peace reside in the deepest, truest part of me—the part that has the capacity and willingness to be completely given over to God?

If we are trying to decide between two options, we can then take several days to walk around as if we had made the other choice and notice the same dynamic.

Ernest Larkin observes that a mature capacity for discernment

depends greatly on our spiritual and psychological maturity. If we are ambivalent and divided by chaotic emotions and neurotic conditions, our affective states will provide no positive guidance. Our task will be to understand our condition and bring order into our affective life. But as we come to achieve that discipline, in proportion as we die and our lives are hidden with Christ in God, discernment becomes more effective.Ernest Larkin, Silent Presence (Denville, NJ: Dimension, 1981) 13.

07.  Just Do It!

Once we have asked God for wisdom and we are at least clear on the next step in following God’s will for our lives—God rarely gives us more than the next step—there is nothing left but to follow God’s will to the best of our ability. This will involve making plans and working hard to implement those plans, but now all of our planning is done with a sense that God is in it, leading us along, and that we are connected with his larger purposes for our lives.

Discernment is risky, and there are no guarantees; we can never be absolutely sure that we have discerned everything correctly. We are, after all, human. But what we can know for sure is that God is with us. As Thomas Merton prayed,

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself. And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire, and I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and will never leave me to face my perils alone.”Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1956).


Ultimately, discernment is about falling in love and letting that decide everything. It is about falling so deeply in love with God that nothing else matters. It is about trusting God so much that all we want in this life is to abandon ourselves to the goodness of his will. It is about knowing God so intimately that we can tell what he wants just by turning our hearts towards him. It is about loving ourselves and God and others so much that we will wait until we understand what love calls us to and then give ourselves to it, even when it costs us.

Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything else. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evening, how you spend your weekend, what you read, whom you know; what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.Pedro Arrupe, S.J., 28th Superior General of the Society of Jesus.

08.  Practice the Habit of Discernment

Adapted from Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995.As a way of cultivating the habit of discernment in your life, take a few moments in your times of solitude to notice the dynamics of consolation and desolation.

Ask God to bring to your heart a moment over the last few days for which you are most grateful. When were you most able to give and receive love? Which moment seemed to have the most life in it for you? What was said or done that made it life-giving for you?

Ask God to bring to your heart a moment over the last few days for which you are least grateful. When were you least able to give and receive love? Which moment seemed to drain life from you? What was said or done that made it so draining for you?

What wisdom, insight, or further questions seem to arise from this awareness? How might God be inviting you to incorporate into your life more of that which gives you life and less of that which drains life from you?

Thank God for his presence with you during this time and for whatever wisdom, guidance, and questions came.


Ruth Haley Barton is cofounder and president of The Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to caring for the souls of pastors, ministry leaders, and the congregations they serve. A teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of several books, including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence. This article is not to be reproduced without the permission of the author. For information about reprints or to download this article please visit