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Discernment, An Overview

Discernment is one of the Four Essential foundations of the spiritual life. It must be practiced along with Lectio Divina, The Jesus Prayer, and Spiritual Direction.

Discernment of Thoughts is the central moral teaching of Jesus Christ. Meticulous observance of the Law of Moses, along with the traditional ritual and devotional practices, was the accepted way of seeking moral rectitude and communion with God in Judea at the time of Jesus. Jesus shifted the focus from these external observances to the inner dispositions of the heart.

A study of the relevant biblical texts presents a clear and consistent teaching on “thoughts” and “discernment of thoughts.”

The human spirit as agent of thought and action is open to influences from within itself, from other spirits: other human beings, other created spirits both good and evil, and the Holy Spirit. In everyday life we experience these influences as suggestions and inclinations that come to us unsolicited from other people or from our own mind. Whatever the immediate source of these influences toward action in thought, word, or deed, Scripture presents them as originating ultimately from God or from opponents of God, whether human or preternatural.

Whenever we experience a positive influence toward a way of thinking and acting that accords with the Truth and Love revealed in Jesus Christ, we are receiving a gift of Divine life in our mind and will. These blessed influences are gifts of God, rather than “thoughts”.

Whenever we experience a positive influence toward a way of thinking and acting that is not in accord with the Truth and Love revealed in Jesus Christ, we are being tempted by “evil thoughts”. These evil thoughts are sown like seed in our hearts by human beings who are not thinking the thoughts of God or by evil spirits who are trying to bring us to moral ruin and eternal death. In either case, God permits the evil thought to be sown only to for the purpose of our spiritual growth and final glory.

Every evil thought destroys the divine life in us by supplanting a Gift of God to our hearts and minds. If we recognize and cast out the evil thought, we will be progressively transformed in the image of Christ by the renewal of our minds. The ongoing inner work of recognizing and casting out evil thoughts is called Discernment of Thoughts.

The goal of Discernment of Thoughts
is to “live” the gifts of God and “put to death” the evil thoughts.

The Method of Discernment

Christians follow the example of Jesus in the spiritual warfare of discernment of thoughts. Our Lord’s whole life on earth was a continual struggle against the evil thoughts of his opponents or well-meaning but misguided friends.

The temptation of Jesus in the desert is detailed in Mt.4: 1—11 and Lk. 4:1—12. Here Jesus provides us with a demonstration of the manner in which we should struggle with evil thoughts. Jesus did three things in succession in his example of discernment. First He became aware of the evil thought, then he contradicted it, finally he cast it out with its inspiring evil spirit.
First Step: Become Aware

This is not one single act of reflection but a whole way of life. We must become aware of the thoughts, feelings, habits, prejudices, assumptions, and hidden motives that are influencing us in our thought and behavior. Otherwise, we will not live but be lived by these influences the way a computer is driven by a program. We have to discover the “behavior” programs in our unconscious or preconscious minds that are determining our conduct automatically. Assumed and unexamined “convictions” of one’s own personal inadequacy, or the unreliable nature of women (or blacks, or Catholics or Jews etc.) will continue to color all our behavior until we drag them into the light of awareness and hold them in the higher revealed light of Jesus Christ. By comparing our thoughts and impulses to the canon of truth and love we have in Jesus, we can discern which ones are from God and which ones are from the evil one.

To become aware is a way of life. We have to cultivate a life of prayer, contemplation of God, self-awareness, inner quietness, and moral sensibility. All this and more will be given to the one who trust God and entrusts her/himself to God in faith and prayer. The other three foundations of the spiritual life in Christ are the chief means of growing in awareness: Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, and particularly Spiritual Direction. In the visit between friends where spiritual direction takes place, the visiting seeker opens his or her heart to the receiving host. Once an evil thought is revealed, it loses power. But an evil though concealed grows in strength. Spiritual Direction is the time of shared discernment where evil thoughts are destroyed.

Second Step: Contradict the Evil Thought.

An evil thought is always a lie, although often hidden under the deceptive form of a partial truth. Bring the lie to light and then contradict it with the truth of revelation that is its contrary. For example, let us say you are feeling badly about yourself, unworthy and unacceptable. First become aware of what you are feeling and then contradict it with the truth that is in Christ Jesus. Say in your heart (or aloud) although I feel like trash I do not believe that lying feeling. I believe that God completely unconditionally accepts me and I am worth the shed blood of the Son of God. I am so precious that Jesus Christ loved me and gave himself for me.

Third Step: Cast out the Evil Thought by Prayer

Having contradicted the lying evil thought with the gospel truth, turn now to Jesus our Savior in prayer. All that Jesus did by His incarnate life, death, and resurrection was calculated to give us the victory over evil thoughts. Therefore pray with total confidence in your own words asking the Lord Jesus to forgive any agreement you may have given to the evil thought and in His love to free you from it. The gaze of faith in which you give this loving attention to Jesus in your prayer annihilates the evil thought from your consciousness. If it returns later annihilate it again in the same way.

Discerning God’s Gifts and Call Upon Your Life

The practice of Discernment of Thoughts gradually purifies the heart. The purer the heart is, the more easily and clearly it can recognize the special gifts and calls God gives the person. A living practice of Discernment of Thoughts is an indispensable prerequisite, and the best preparation for discerning the opportunities and “doors” that God places before us in our personal lives. By consistent practice of Discernment of Thoughts we will be able to know and do the will of God for us in the great choices of life (such the choice of friends, a marriage partners, a profession) and in the everyday details (such as what God would have you to do or say in the moment).

Discernment begins with casting out sinful impulses before they lead us into sinful action. Discernment ends when it enables us to perceive the perfect will and gift of God for us at each moment of our lives. To the degree that discernment is perfected within us, it will no longer be we ourselves who live…but Christ Jesus who will live in us.

- William Wilson



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