Discernment is a term used to describe the activity of determining the value and quality of a certain subject or event. Typically, it is used to describe the activity of going past the mere perception of something, to making detailed judgments about that thing. As a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.



In Christianity, the word "discernment" may have several meanings. It can be used to describe the process of determining God's desire in a situation or for one's life. In large part, it describes the interior search for an answer to the question of one's vocation, namely, determining whether or not God is calling one to the married life, single life, religious life, ordained ministry or any other calling.

Discernment of spirits

Discernment can also refer to the "discernment of spirits", the act of judging from what spirit (whether good or evil) the impulses of the human soul emanate. This judgment can be made in two ways. The first is by a charism or spiritual gift divinely granted to certain individuals for the discerning of spirits by intuition (1 Corinthians 12:10). The second way to discern spirits is by reflection and theological study. This second method then is an acquired human knowledge; however, it is always gained "with the assistance of grace, by the reading of the Holy Bible, of works on theology and asceticism, of autobiographies, and the correspondence of the most distinguished ascetics".[1]

Ignatian view

For St. Ignatius of Loyola, the discernment of spirits is part of everyone's spiritual journey. No one who is trying to make spiritual progress should attempt to do so alone - a spiritual director is required. A director assists a Christian in examining the motives, desires, consolations, and desolations in one's life. Objectively, one can know what is right from looking at the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins in a thorough examination of conscience. But the broader picture of one's life is often not so clear. A Christian should, according to St. Ignatius, share everything with a director who can see things objectively, without being swayed by the emotions or passion. Discerning whether the good spirit (the influence of God, the Church, one's soul) or the bad spirit (the influence of Satan, the world, the flesh) is at work requires calm, rational reflection. The good spirit brings us to peaceful, joyful decisions. The bad spirit often brings us to make quick, emotional, conflicted decisions. A spiritual director can assist both by personal experience, listening with care, and giving an objective analysis.

Pentecostal and charismatic view

Discernment of spirits is particularly important among Pentecostal and charismatic Christians because of their emphasis on the operation of all the spiritual gifts within their churches. It becomes necessary then to be able to determine whether the exercise of a spiritual gift (such as prophecy or an interpretation of tongues) comes from the Holy Spirit, an evil spirit, or merely the human spirit.[2] They believe that every Christian is able to judge and responsible for judging whether such an occurrence is helpful and edifying to the church; however, they also believe that there are those individuals who have been given the spiritual gift of discerning of spirits by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is important to note that the discerning of spirits does not involve the judging of people. The gift of discerning of spirits is also believed to be necessary in distinguishing demonic possession from mental or physical illness.[3]


  1. ^ Debuchy, Paul (1909). "Discernment of Spirits". The Catholic Encyclopedia. 5. Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05028b.htm. Retrieved 18 June 2011. 
  2. ^ Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, 1983, (Los Angeles: Foursquare Media, 2008), p. 340-341.
  3. ^ Duffield and Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, 497-501.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 

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