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What Is Discernment And How To Learn How to Use It

Ms. Carroll is a researcher and freelance writer who writes on a myriad of topics with which she has curiosity, experience, or knowledge.

Defining Discernment

The word discernment comes from two Latin words - ‘dis’ meaning apart and ‘centere’ meaning ‘to separate’. Therefore, discernment means seeing things as they really ARE instead of how you really WANT to see them. This is an important tool to help protect us from misreading people & situations. In other words, discernment can mitigate deception. Notably, however, the ‘Gift of Discernment’ as it's sometimes called, does not permit judgement or spotlight behavior but neither does it reward bad intentions!

Discernment is NOT judgmental -- it is GOOD judgment. It is not a call to criticism or malicious behavior, but a call to intercession, resolution, and/or healing. It is a reality check, however, and for that reason, it can be problematic for optimists who wish to see the good in everyone and in every circumstance. Optimists tend to ignore or miss the fine-point details. On the other hand, a gifted discerner usually zeros in on the fine-point details first.

An Example of Discernment

A good example of discernment is the ability to perceive hidden relationships such as an extra-marital affair. Both parties to such a relationship seldom divulge anything to anyone but each other. But a discerning mind can read body language and other cues to eventually, if not immediately, hone in on the fact that there is a special bond between two people. Less than casual glances, a slight touch, inflections in tone, the use of particular words, preferences in seating, particular avoidances, etc. all form a more complete picture than one of these observations viewed alone. Discernment requires looking at the sum of the whole rather than a part.

What Discernment Enables You to Do

The act of discernment is an active process in the human heart and mind. It requires analytical or critical thinking, connecting the dots, reading between the lines, imagining the unimaginable, and above all else - trusting your gut! Sometimes clues don't always point to the right conclusion, but an avid discerner will find the right conclusion through the process of deduction or other mental and emotional processes.

Here are just a few of the tools the savvy discerner can use to sniff out reality:

  1. Understand how the world works (street wisdom or experience)
  2. Objectively note differences
  3. Separate inconsistences from facts or reality (truth vs. lies)
  4. See what’s hidden or obscure and why (read between the lines)
  5. Question or examine carefully without judging
  6. Determine value & integrity of content or person (wheat vs. chaff)
  7. Trust your gut (when all else fails)
  8. Recognize that wolves will ALWAYS wear a sheep’s clothing
Seeing things with discerning eyes is like looking at a waterfall.  Each angle shows you something different. Be deliberate. It's always easy to miss things the first time.

Seeing things with discerning eyes is like looking at a waterfall. Each angle shows you something different. Be deliberate. It's always easy to miss things the first time.

Discernment Tools & Techniques

So how might a not so gifted discerner become one? Fortunately, the discernment toolshed is actually a small one and committing the acronym O'HEART to memory may help you remember what you need to do in any given situation.

Most of these tools should be used interactively, but in the absence of all of them, just remember that actions don't lie - only Words do!

  • Observe ACTIONS (fruits) rather than mere WORDS (Matthew 7:15)
  • Heed inconsistencies or contradictions (red and yellow flags) and check sources when necessary
  • Evade traps - like the same effort gets the same results universally
  • Avoid susceptibility to ‘fake’ news
  • Read body language & eye movements (emotional ques), not just verbiage
  • Tune-out peripheral issues and recognize when examination requires more time & analysis

The Voices That You Hear are Discernment

A lot of folks refer to the voices in their minds. Well, those voices can be the voices of discernment. As we all move through our daily lives, we either listen to ourselves or to someone else. Understanding the voices that you hear can help you become better at discerning what you're hearing. There are only four possibilities:

  1. Your Own Voice
  2. The Voice of Good/God
  3. The Voice of Evil/Satan
  4. The Voice of the World

The voice of Evil/Satan is distinguished from the voice of the World because good people can be misled and Wordly motives are not necessarily evil though they can be construed as such.

Knowing and understanding the voice you're hearing is the key to discernment. It's actually the hardest part. Liars are liars because they're good at it. Spinners are excellent at turning the truth on its head. While the way of the World may be capitalistic, it isn't necessarily laced with evil intent. Understanding the voice you hear provides you with the right amount of skepticism, understanding, objectivity, or other observational tools to form an accurate impression.

What is Group Discernment?

Group discernment requires that each individual first undergo their own internal decision making before making a decision that affects the group as a whole. Group discernment requires unanimous decisions before consensus can be formed, and consensus requires both discussion and persuasion before arriving at decisions.

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Group discernment is different than individual discernment processes because voicing one’s thought process out loud creates the vulnerability of being misunderstood or alienated. This vulnerability can contaminate the analytical process and skew individual results though the group may eventually form the correct conclusion.

What the Bible Has to Say About Discernment

What the Bible has to say about discernment could be the topic of an article all on its own. For the purpose of this article, just know that the Bible suggests we are constantly exposed to doctrinal deception. Not very flattering news for mankind, and certainly deflating news to any optimist. Finding the truth in doctrine apparently means turning up stones. In other words, it too requires discernment.

Ephesians 4:14 – ...we will be as “children, tossed here & there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”

Good luck on the road to gifted discernment. May the truth you find set you free.

Can you Pass the Discernment Quiz?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which one of these facts led you to conclude Joan is feigning overtime in order to shirk responsibility?
    • Joan claims she has worked overtime for the last six months.
    • Joan claims she is unavailable on Saturdays due to a 2nd job.
    • Joan is available for projects during work hours and lunch breaks.
    • Joan claims she and her boyfriend cannot attend Sunday meetings.
  2. Which one of these facts led you to conclude Mark & Diane are having an extra-marital affair?
    • Mark always sits beside Diane in the choir loft.
    • Diane avoids Mark when her husband, Joe, is in the room.
    • Mark was seen hugging Diane behind the choir room.
    • Diane frequently glances at Mark's wife, Jill.
  3. Which of these facts lead you to believe your accountant may be dishonest?
    • Sue is frequently late paying your invoices.
    • Sue pretends to be on the phone every time you enter her office.
    • Sue gets defensive when you press her about line item expenses.
    • Sue recently spent $500k on a new home.

Answer Key

  1. Joan is available for projects during work hours and lunch breaks.
  2. Diane avoids Mark when her husband, Joe, is in the room.
  3. Sue gets defensive when you press her about line item expenses.


dashingscorpio from Chicago on April 29, 2021:

Very interesting topic.

When it comes to relationships having a mate selection screening process and "must haves list" along with the (self-discipline) to stick to it are the keys to having discernment.

The problem is a lot of people want to be on (auto-pilot) when it comes to dating and courtship. "Follow your heart" is their mantra.

They think it's {unromantic} to observe and analyze before committing.

Never separate your mind from your heart when making relationship decisions. The purpose of the mind is to protect the heart.

Best wishes!

Liz Westwood from UK on April 27, 2021:

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking article. You make some good points and present them in a well-structured way. The gift of discernment is a valuable one to have.

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