5 Guidelines for Discernment Prayer

Editor’s note: These guidelines are adapted from MaryKate Morse’s chapter Discernment Prayer in A Guidebook to Prayer. The chapter contains more comprehensive guidelines for praying for discernment including suggestions on forming a clearness committee and steps to use in a discernment prayer gathering.

1. The ability to discern God's Will comes from being transformed

As Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Acceptable means what is pleasing to God, like a fragrant offering. Perfect means maturing toward the end goal of being conformed to the likeness of Christ.

2. Discernment prayer happens in community

Discernment is a communal experience involving the individual, the Holy Spirit, others, and Scriptures. Group discernment requires a dependence on God and others for making major decisions. This does not mean, however, that in discernment we abdicate responsibility for making a decision. Instead, we listen for the Holy Spirit’s perspective on the decision.

3. We must be open to receive guidance

Discernment is based on trusting God and believing that the Holy Spirit will lead us. Whether the community is one person with the Holy Spirit or several people with the Holy Spirit, it requires openness to receive input from other sources of wisdom and insight (1 Corinthians 2:10-12; 2 Peter 1:19-21).

Or, to look at it from the other direction, discernment prayer is not possible if one or more people are already convinced they know the answer. Discernment requires humility of spirit and is based on a relinquishment of will to the will of God.

Parker Palmer wrote about the importance of community discernment in his book Reflections on a Hidden Wholeness. Since we are all masters at self-protection and denial, it is difficult for us to see clearly when we need to make a decision about a course of action that matters to the kingdom.

This is especially true when we are invested in a particular outcome or if there is a lot of fear. Palmer names three reasons why we desperately need to discern in community:

  • The faith journey is too taxing to do alone.
  • The path is too hidden.
  • The destination is daunting.

4. Discernment is a process

The word for discern means to put to the test, examine, discover, approve. The nature of the words suggests a process, a journey to discover. Discernment is a fine-tuning process in order to hear the Father clearly. We want to know the mind of God, but the way is not always clear. Discernment, therefore, will require some time, perhaps even weeks or months of prayer.

5. Discernment prayer creates the possibility for innovation

When the disciples followed Jesus, they left everything and heard and saw things that took them a while to understand. When Peter went to the house of Cornelius, he took a huge risk. Entering the house of a Gentile was breaking the Law as he understood it. He went because God prepared him to see things differently with the vision of the clean and unclean food. God spoke, so Peter went. We often get stuck in our personal lives or in our communities because our possibilities become more and more narrow, and we limit what God might do.

Innovation occurs when changes to established things are imagined. Innovation happens in environments that are willing to stretch and willing to fail. The discernment process directed by the Holy Spirit allows an innovative approach to a problem to emerge as the Holy Spirit breaks through our limitations and enables us to see new possibilities.

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