by Evan B. Howard
Originally written for Mark van Steenwyk and Kate Kissling Blakely, but with additions for Center Quest’s School for Spiritual Direction, and Sean Camarillo.
What I offer here is just a drop in the bucket of all the literature (and good literature) out there on discernment. I have limited myself primarily to books. I have mostly included a few basic introductions (for Sean), material relevant to personal discernment (for Center Quest), and to material helpful to the study of communal discernment and discernment of socio-political issues (for Mark and Kate). I suspect that over the years I will add sections to this site on the theology, history of discernment and so on. I will offer a few comments below referring to works by last name(s). You will find these names in the bibliography below.
The subject of Christian discernment covers a lot of ground. How do I know God’s will for my life? How can we tell if that wild experience I had was from the Holy Spirit or simply a result of the spicy dinner I ate? How can a congregation or community wisely discern their next step of direction? How can we find our place in the midst of so much injustice and so many social issues regarding which we feel obliged to respond? And on and on. The particular contexts determine some of the wisdom of different kinds of discernment, but some general principles hold for all kinds. Malatesta’s essay has been the standard overall introduction to the topic for decades. I have tried to update some of the material and make it a bit more practical in my own chapter on discernment in the Brazos Introduction. In my opinion it is especially valuable to pay careful attention to the development of how discernment is understood and practiced in the history of the Church. But I have not listed those works yet.
Introductions to Discernment
So much depends on how much educational background you have and why you are interested in discernment. The standard academic introduction to discernment for decades has been Malatesta’s Discernment of Spirits, which was originally the article on this topic for the Dictionnaire de Spiritualite. For an Ignatian approach to discernment, Gallagher’s introduction is good He also has a number of other resources to support those working through his work. Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way approaches the topic from the perspective of a guide for individuals, but it also serves as a great general introduction. Nouwen’s little volume is classic Nouwen. For a small general introduction, see also Warner and Willard. I have provided small introductions to discernment in my own works, with a slightly different angle in each work (Affirming – theory, personal, revivals; Brazos Introduction – personal and group; Guide – discerning formation and formation into discernment).
Scripture and Discernment
I should offer a few comments on a few works that discuss discernment with attention to the Scriptures. There are a few very interesting books which reflect on discernment-topics from a biblical perspective. Bob Mumford’s Take Another Look at Guidance was a standard among conservative Christians for decades. Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God was very influential among many conservative Christians in the late 20th century, offering a distinct view of pursuing the will of God. Nice moderate-evangelical discussions of discernment which address the Scriptures are Gordon Smith’s books, Hudnut, Willard and Huggett. More recently, I have used Smith’s The Voice of God as a biblical introduction to discernment and have found it to be an excellent introduction. Excellent discussions from Catholic scholars are found in Luke Timothy Johnson and Thomas Dubay. Finally, James L. Jacquette’s dissertation on the function of adiaphora topos in the Pauline epistles addresses an important biblical issue in discernment studies.
There are scads of books on personal discernment. Much help for individuals learning how to “find God’s will” or the like. I usually recommend Liebert and Willard as good overviews. Benner is helpful in moving the reader from technique to transformation. Johnson, Barry, Farrington, Dougherty, and Au, have all done a nice job of blending the psychological/pastoral and the spiritual. There is a lot of material on discernment from the Jesuit community and perspective. Ignatius of Loyola could be called the patron saint of discernment. See especially Jules Toner for a careful interpretation of Ignatius himself on discernment. Other good treatments of discernment from an Ignatian perspective include Lonesdale, Conroy, Brackley, Green and Wolff.
I find Sheeran on the Quaker process, Farnham and company in general, and from a Catholic perspective Elizabeth Liebert’s Soul and Mary Benet McKinney all to be helpful resources on community discernment. Jules Toner’s article on communal discernment in Ignatius and Spohn’s article on charismatic discernment are also helpful. Orsy is full of wisdom. Theologians in ecclesiology have a tendency to discuss “polity,” or forms of congregational government, rather than the concrete practice of discernment. My experience has been that when a congregation or community learns to practice discernment well, the form of government plays less significant a role in ecclesiological theory and practice in reality. I have led many groups in weekend retreats on discernment and over the long term I find that good discernment need not be linked to one ecclesiological framework. Some fascinating ecclesiological reflections could emerge from this discovery. The Alban institute has tried to assist congregations in learning to discern in a simple “practical” way. See Oswald and Friedrich, and Morris and Olsen for examples.
Discernment and Socio-Political Issues
Regarding socio-political discernment a few sources are worthy of mention. Libanio’s work is a classic, very worthy of reading. Holland/Henriot and Liebert’s “Linking Faith and Justice” summarize a development among Jesuits as well as religious Catholics in general regarding a social analysis pastoral cycle practice that developed from the Base communities and other related folks. Very helpful. Liebert’s article is the most current development of the practice. Jon Sobrino, of course is always excellent and his article on following Jesus as discernment is wonderful. Brackley is a helpful exploration of Ignatian discernment with social justice sensitivities and Wink is — well Wink is classic Wink here with a sensitivity to discernment.
A couple of other notes. The charismatic world has developed their own literature on discernment. As one might expect, the need is great in this environment. Ryle has often been mentioned among charismatics as a helpful guide. Less known, more academic, but very helpful is Parker’s exploration. A personal note — I was a pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of San Francisco during most of my doctoral studies. I was reading Jonathan Edwards, burying myself in discernment literature, and experiencing the Toronto Blessing all at the same time. I devote the last chapter of Affirming the Touch of God to an evaluation of the Toronto Blessing from the perspective of discernment theory.
Another theological exploration of discernment that is interesting is McIntosh’s work. He has a strong sense of the aesthetic. Finally I might mention Dick Anthony and company. I discovered this book long ago when I was doing research on the “New Age” movement. Then when I chose discernment as the topic of my dissertation I realized that this work was a classic reflection on discernment from a “new age” perspective.
Hope you enjoy the exploration. My doctoral committee recommended that I choose a dissertation topic that I was very interested in. They said that I needed something that would keep me interested through the hard times of the dissertation process. I loved, and still love, the study of discernment. How can you find a more fascinating research project than to explore what it means to know God (and to know that it is God you are knowing)?
By God’s Grace,
Evan B. Howard (spiritualityshoppe.org)
Anthony, Dick, Bruce Ecker, and Ken Wilber, Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation. New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1987.
Au, Wilkie and Au, Noreen Cannon. The Discerning Heart: Exploring the Christian Path. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006.
Barry, William. Paying Attention to God: Discernment in Prayer. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1990.
Benner, David. Desiring God’s Will: Aligning Our Hearts with the Heart of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
Brackley, Dean. The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola. New York: Crossroad, 2004.
Conroy, Maureen. The Discerning Heart: Discovering a Personal God. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1993.
Dougherty, Rose Mary. Discernment: A Path to Spiritual Awakening. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009.
Dubay, Thomas. Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment. Ignatius Press, 1997.
Farnham, Suzanne G., Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, and Susan M. Ward. Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community, revised edition. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1991.
Farrington, Debra K. Hearing with the Heart: A Gentle Guide to Discerning God’s Will in Your Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
Friesen, Garry, with Robin Maxson. Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View. Portland, Oregan: Multnomah Press, 1980.
Galilea, Segundo. Temptation and Discernment, trans. by Stephen-Joseph Ross. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996.
Gallagher, Timothy M. The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. New York: Crossroad, 2005.
Green, Thomas H. Weeds Among Wheat: Discernment: Where Prayer and Action Meet. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1984.
Holland, Joe and Peter Henriot. Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983.
Howard, Evan B. Affirming the Touch of God: A Psychological and Philosophical Exploration of Christian Discernment. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2000.
________. The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008, pp. 371-401.
________. A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation: How Scripture, Spirit, Community and Mission Shape Our Souls. Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerAcademic, 2018. pp. 211-230.
Hudnut, Robert K. Call Waiting: How to Hear God Speak. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999.
Huggett, Joyce. The Joy of Listening to God: Hearing the Many Ways God Speaks to Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986.
Jaquette, James L. Discerning What Counts: The Function of the Adiaphora Topos in Paul’s Letters. SBL Dissertation Series 146. Atlanta, Georgia, Scholars Press, 1995.
Johnson, Ben Campbell. Discerning God’s Will. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1990.
Johnson, Kevin Orlin. Apparitions: Mystic Phenomena and What They Mean. Dallas, Texas: Pangaeus Press, 1995.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Early Church. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
Lewis, Hunter. A Question of Values: Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices that Shape our Lives. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.
Libanio, J. B. Spiritual Discernment and Politics: Guidelines for Religious Communities. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2003 (originally published in English by Orbis Press in 1977).
Liebert, Elizabeth. “Linking Faith and Justice: Working with Systems and Structures as a Spiritual Discipline” Christian Spirituality Bulletin 5/1 (Spring 1997):19-21.
________. The Soul of Discernment: A Spiritual Practice for Communities and Individuals. Louisville: Westminster JohnKnox, 2015.
________. The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making. Louisville: Westminster JohnKnox, 2010.
Lienhard, Joseph T. “On ‘Discernment of the Spirits’ in the Early Church,” Theological Studies 41/3 (September 1980), 505-29.
Lonsdale, David. Listening to the Music of the Spirit: The Art of Discernment.
Malatesta, Edward, ed. Discernment of Spirits. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970. This is the same as Guillet, Jacques; Bardy, Gustave; Pegon, Joseph; Henri, Etal, Discernment of Spirits. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970.
McDermott, Gerald R. Seeing God: Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
McIntosh, Mark A. Discernment and Truth: The Spirituality and Theology of Knowledge. New York: Crossroad-Herder and Herder, 2004.
McKinney, Mary Benet. Sharing Wisdom: A Process for Group Decision Making. Allen, Texas: Tabor Publishing, 1987.
Morris, Danny E. and Charles M. Olsen. Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church. Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 1997.
Mumford, Bob. Take Another Look at Guidance, 20th Anniversary edition. Lifechangers Publishing, 1993.
Neufelder, Jerome M. and Coelho, Mary C. Writings on Spiritual Direction by Great Masters. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The Seabury Press, 1982, pp. 117-140.
Nouwen, Henri. Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life. HarperOne, 2013.
Orsy, Ladislas. Probing the Spirit: A Theological Evaluation of Communal Discernment. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1976.
Oswald, Roy M. and Robert E., Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. No location: An Alban Institute Publication, 1996.
Parker, Stephen E. Led By the Spirit: Toward a Practical Theology of Pentecostal Discernment and Decision Making. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Ryle, James. Hippo in the Garden: A Non-Religious Approach to Having a Conversational Relationship with God. Orlando, FL: Creation House, 1993.
Sheeran, Michael J. Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the religious Society of Friends. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1983.
Silf, Margaret. Wise Choices: A Spiritual Guide to Life Decisions. Bluebridge Publishing, 2007.
Smith, Gordon. Listening to God in Times of Choice: The Art of Discerning God’s Will. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
________. The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Toner, Jules J. A Commentary on Saint Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1982.
________. Discerning God’s Will: Ignatius of Loyola’s Teaching on Christian Decision Making. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1991.
________. “A Method for Communal Discernment of God’s Will” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 3/4 (September, 1971):121-52.
________. Spirit of Light or Darkness: A Casebook for Studying Discernment of Spirits. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995.
________. What is Your Will, O God? A Casebook for Studying Discernment of God’s Will. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995.
Sobrina, Jon. “Following Jesus as Discernment” in Discernment of the Spirit and Spirits, ed. Casiano Floristan and Christian Duquoc. New York: Seabury, 1979, 14-22.
Spohn, William C. “Charismatic Communal Discernment and Ignatian Communities,” The Way: Supplement 20 (Autumn, 1973):38-54.
Voaden, Rosalynn. God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late-Medieval Women Visionaries. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval Press, 1999.
Warner, Larry Discernment, God’s Will and Living Jesus: Christian Discernment as a Way of Life. Barefooted Publishing 2016.
Wiebe, Phillip H. Visions of Jesus. Direct Encounters from the New Testament to Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Willard, Dallas. Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999. (originally published by Regal Press in 1984).
Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1992.
Wolff, Pierre Wolff. Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well. Liguori Missouri: Triumph Books. 1993.