According to the Oxford American dictionary, the word 'discernment' in Christian usage means:
"perception in the absence of judgment
with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding."
In the Old Testament one of the words used to refer to discernment, bin, means "to consider carefully in order to gain insight or understanding." Another Hebrew word commonly translated as 'discern' is yada, or "to know." The book of Ezekiel translates the word sakal for discern and it means "to be prudent" or "to act with wisdom." In Matthew 16:3, Jesus uses the word diakrino, meaning "to distinguish or to judge." Paul in Philippians 1:9 uses the word aisthesis which the NASB95 translates as "discernment" or "perception." Finally, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:10 lists the "discerning of spirits" - diakri÷seiß pneuma¿twn - as a gift of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the Church.
In all of these definitions, there are several items worth noting. The goal of the act of discerning is to gain understanding, usually some type of moral or spiritual knowledge. Another aspect of the act of discerning, a character trait if you will, is wisdom. A wise person deliberates, considers and reflects "wisely" in the process of discernment. The act of discerning itself is a an act of perception. To discern is to perceive; an aesthetic act. Above all, discernment is a mark of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Why all this talk about discernment?
Well, it's because you and I live at a time and in a place where the ability to discern is crucial to our faithful following of Christ. The problem is that we don't understand the process of discernment and since I am in the middle of discerning several important issues, let me share some ideas with you. Maybe they will help you in your journey. These observations are in no certain order...
Discernment is manifest both instantaneously and deliberately.
There are moments when we realize instantaneously the 'rightness' or the 'wrongness' of an activity. We have this immediate sense that profoundly intrudes upon our conscience, dictating the nature of something. On the other hand, there are some issues that we must prayerfully consider and reflect upon over time. There are no easy answers and we must engage in a process of discernment. Even then, our course of action maybe only differentiated by degree. Our discerned answer may not be a right or wrong answer, but a better than or least likely to offend answer.
Discernment, as an act of Wisdom, is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Obviously I am not talking about judging which tomato is firmer or which cantaloupe is sweeter in the supermarket. I am talking about the spiritual and moral venue of discernment. Christians believe that the Trinity is God and that Jesus is Lord. With those presuppositions in mind, we believe that the Spirit of God will "guide us into all righteousness" and "teach us all things" (John 16:8, 14:26). Thus the discerning process does not depend solely upon our own intellect or experience. It depends on our connectedness to God. Are we 'asking' God in prayer about direction and desire? Are we asking God in prayer to guide and illuminate the decision He would have us make? If we are asking God in prayer, what is our criterion for hearing his answer? Are we willing to accept the difficult road as God's desire for us or do we believe that God only answers our prayers of discernment with the answer we desire or are we willing to say with Jesus, "yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39 NASB95)? I believe that God fulfills the desire of our hearts (Psalms 37:4), but I also believe that those who follow Jesus must also bear the cross on the way of suffering (1 Timothy 1:8). Those who of you who have ears to hear, listen.
Finally, discernment is best accomplished in community.
I came to faith in Christ after spending my childhood as a nominal Methodist. I was 'born again' at the age of 20 in the context of an Assemblies of God community, which profoundly influenced, and continues to influence my understanding of the Spirit's work in my life. However, as time as gone by and I have learned more and more, I have come to the conviction that discernment is neither truly private nor individualistic. Yes, the Spirit speaks to us as individuals, but how do we verify whether that discernment is 'from God' or simply our own reprobate flesh? According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, the gift of the discerning of spirits is a gift for the sake of the church. In other words, as a person is quickened to discernment by the Spirit, this person needs to a) measure the answer by scripture - in other words, does our answer line-up with how God has characteristically acted in and with His people over time? and b) prayerfully share that discernment with others; either with a similar disposition or with those to whom the individual is accountable. It is in the community of faith that discernment is qualified.
Today, I am a Baptist practitioner of my belief in Christ. In the Baptist tradition we practise 'congregational polity'. Most people think that means that we just vote democratically on those items of church business that comes before us once a month. This, however, is 20th century development. There was a time when Baptists understood their congregational polity differently. They understood it as an act of discernment. For example, a member would bring his or her proposal before the congregation. After discussion, the church would enter into a time of discerning prayer over the proposal in question. This time of discernment ended when the congregation came to a consensus on the Lord's answer in regards to the proposal. There were no quick up and down votes without discussion; there were no attempts to silence discussion and there was no voting by anonymous ballot. Sadly, many Baptists today, rather than gravitate towards congregational discernment, model their business meetings on congressional debate.
This has now become extremely long. Let me suggest to you that this year you rediscover the gift and practise of discernment. Draw close to God and He will draw close to you. Allow the Holy Spirit to guide your decision making making process and thus shape you into the person God wants you to be. You may not receive all the answers you want; but you will hear from God and that is worth everything.