Discernment is much more than mere decision making; it is, first of all, a habit, a way of seeing that can permeate our whole life. As it makes clear in John 9, it is the movement from seeing things merely from a human perspective to seeing from a spiritual vantage point, continually looking for evidence of the work of God in order to join him in it.
Discernment is a quality of attentiveness to God that, over time, develops into the ability to sense God's heart and purpose in any given moment. We become familiar with the tone, quality, and content of God's voice. We notice how God is present for us in the moment. We wonder, Where is God unfolding his work of love and redemption? and What is my most authentic response?
As Danny Morris and Chuck Colson wrote in Discerning God's Will Together, "As important as the practices of discernment are, it would be improper to list them before the habit of discernment, because if the Holy Spirit has not been welcomed into the life of the discerner, practices of discernment will be empty and impotent. The habit of discernment constitutes a way of being, by which we are steeped in spirituality as a way of life…the habit of spirituality precedes the practices of discernment."
Cultivating the habit of discernment means we are always seeking the movement of God's Spirit so we can abandon ourselves to it. Sometimes abandoning ourselves to the will of God is like floating down a river: we relax 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 large wave: we must keep our body and mind attuned to the dynamic of the water so 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 the best way to let the current carry us in the direction God has for us.
Testing the Spirits
Another crucial aspect of discernment is what Scripture calls "discernment of spirits" (1 Corinthians 12:10) or "test[ing] the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). The discernment of spirits helps us to distinguish the real from the phony, the true from the false, in the external world but also in the interior world of our own thoughts and motives. As we become more attuned to these subtle spiritual dynamics, we are able to distinguish between what is good (that which moves us toward God and his calling upon our lives) and what is evil (that which draws us away from God).
Ignatius describes the inner dynamics of discerning the spirits as consolation and desolation. 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. We may experience it as a sense that all is right with the world, that we are free to be given over to God and love, even in moments of pain and crisis. 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.