“…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:8-10).

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11).

On most days we have hard decisions to make and tough responses to give. Some are especially burdensome and can easily result in conflict. Negotiating a project with a co-worker. Saying “no” to a friend. Meeting with a child’s teacher. Building bridges with a neighbor. These challenges immediately raise our need for discernment.

Throughout the Bible’s stories, God’s people have urgent needs for discernment. Early in his reign, when God visited King Solomon in a dream, Solomon’s one request of God was for discernment to govern the people rightly (1 Kings 3:9-11).  The psalmists declare that they need God’s help to confess sin because God discerns our hearts better than we do ourselves (Ps. 19:12; 139:2). The prophet Isaiah exposes idolatry as a ridiculous lack of human discernment (Is. 44:18-20). We see the importance of discernment in the Apostle Paul’s command and prayer for the churches (noted above). How can we think more discerningly about our complicated decisions and challenging responses?

Below are five steps for a discernment process that I teach in leadership workshops and continue to work on in my own life. In describing each aspect, I’ll give a simple example of what it might sound like. The example scenario is that of a co-worker shouting in anger at us as she marches down the hallway past our office. With reliance on the Spirit, how do we respond with both grace and truth?

Pause. It is vital that we withhold our reaction, for discernment is hard work. It takes intentional time, even if just a minute. Discernment is work towards perceiving what is not obvious or comprehending what is easily misunderstood. Several Hebrew and Greek words are translated to forms of “discern” over 35 times in the ESV Bible (e.g., Job 6:30; Prov. 14:8; Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:10; Phil. 1:9-11; Heb. 5:14). These words focus on the heavy cognitive work of understanding, testing, delineating, debating, and/or approving. This thinking process changes our actions, beliefs, and emotions. Pausing to discern takes real effort and discipline in our fast-paced, non-reflective, reactive culture.

Remember. Discerning well requires we rely on Scripture and the Spirit to guide us in truth (John 14:17, 26). To sort the situation rightly, we must use biblical principles and the moral examples from Jesus’ life and teaching. We dare not trust our own opinions or emotions. By the time we’re aware that someone yelled at us, our emotions and judgments will already be swirling around in our brains. Our emotions respond much faster than our rational thought. We need those extra seconds of pause to remember that we are sinful, fully forgiven and secure in God’s love through Christ, belong to Jesus, and serve in His redemptive work in the world.

Observe. An ounce of reflective observations leads to a pound of learning. Creating a quick list of observations helps us see past our emotions and biases. What happened? What did we see and hear? What did we feel? Just the facts. No evaluation allowed. Observing well requires us to withhold our emotional reactions and knee-jerk judgments. Instead of calling our co-worker names or considering ways to rebuff her, we observe, “She didn’t look directly at me. She walked by quickly. I was in her path. She spoke loudly. She came in early and skipped lunch today.” Our discernment will be only as wise as our observations are rigorous.

Affirm first. Now we’re ready to sort out our observations according to the biblical principles we’ve recalled. Start by doing the harder work first, affirming what seems right and good. By God’s common grace and power, there is still much goodness and beauty in this world to rejoice in. All humans are image bearers worthy of respect. After naming affirmations, we will more wisely challenge what is wrong.

Living in a post-Christian society, we can feel threatened, defeated, and offended by much around us. This can lead us to react quickly with critique. But criticism is not wise discernment. It leads us towards self-righteous judgments, pride, bitterness, and legalism. Our emotions will likely be judgmental, “She always gets mad right before deadlines and blames me.” Instead, in this process we would affirm, “She’s an image bearer like me. I know how it is to feel anxious about deadlines. She really cares about this project. She has worked extra hard on it.” Only after affirming, are we ready to discern well what is wrong.

Respond. Decide to act based on what was learned through the discernment reflections. Pray and move. Perhaps we bring her a fresh cup of coffee. We let her know how much we appreciate her extra effort on the project. We ask what she’s thinking about how the project is going. “How can I help?” we might ask. “Would it be ok if I prayed quickly for us and this project now?”

With Paul’s prayer for the Philippian church, may the Lord grant us strength and wisdom to practice discernment: to pause, remember, observe, affirm first, and respond with truth and grace.

About the Author:

Dr. Tasha Chapman

Tasha is the wife of a NT professor, mother of two women who try to keep her tech-media savvy, and Professor of Educational Ministries at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Previously, she served in campus ministry and church children’s and women’s ministries. Her research interests include leadership, cross-cultural learning, and curriculum design. She co-authored The Politics of Ministry and Resilient Ministry, and contributed to the ESV Women’s Devotional Bible. She enjoys serving internationally, hiking mountains, and eating ethnic foods, having never met a chili she didn’t like.