Pastors, the Spirit, and Discernment

Pastors, the Spirit, and Discernment by John Frye (operating with a bum arm … thanks John):

I want to seriously address the concept of discernment one more time. I have always been taken by the brief description of the promised Messiah in Isaiah 11: 2-3 (in context). These verses read:

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD – and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears…

Professor Bryan E. Beyer in his Encountering the Book of Isaiah summarizes these verses, “His [the Messiah’s] wisdom and discernment enabled him to get beyond what he saw and heard to the heart of the matter and to rule with true justice, righteousness, and faithfulness (11:3-5)” p 90. One of the essential traits of the promised Messiah is discernment. Other leaders in the Davidic line ruled for power or for selfish ends, but the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” would be saturated with the Spirit of God and rule righteously. Discernment was a major aspect of his rule.

The tendency of too many evangelical pastors is to pronounce endless moralisms and to offer a smorgasbord of holiness hints and rules. There is musty smell to this approach. The odor is the absence of the Spirit. We create a distasteful atmosphere driven by what we hear and what we see. Very few take the time to contemplate why this endless litany of “Bible-based” principles, guidelines, steps and how-to’s is not producing a holy church. These holiness helps pile up and begin to smell offensive. In our sincere desire to urge holy living, we think we are smarter than the Holy Spirit. The Spirit cannot do without our intrusive two cents’ worth. What does it tell us about ourselves if we do not trust that the Holy Spirit of the Living God can lead teenagers into holy living? We actually believe hormones trump the Holy Spirit. We do this in all good conscience. Leveraging holiness insults the Spirit and condescendingly disrespects teenagers.

The Spirit-empowered Messiah (of Isaiah 11) was on a revolutionary mission from God (with all due respect to the Blues Brothers). I do not think pastors give a compelling enough kingdom of God vision to the church for which holy living even matters. How much holiness is required to be part of the average local church? Does holiness even come up? We are so busy reacting to the sometimes turbulent obvious that we miss the weightier, unseen matters of hearts and souls. We harp about external issues–what our eyes see and our ears hear–until people can’t stand it anymore and give up. We are long past “the tyranny of the urgent.” We are in the mediocrity of the minutia. “Directions! Give the people more and more holy directions! Teaching discernment? We don’t have time for it.” O, sisters and brothers, we better make time.  Jesus did. Paul did.

Holiness is about being long before it is about behavior(s). God urges us to “be holy, for I am holy.” God does not say “Do holy things because I do holy things.” We try to get people to tie holy behaviors on lives driven by ill-equipped, disinterested hearts. As if I would tie apples to a dead apple tree and say, “Look! It’s an apple tree.” Not for long. Soon it will begin to smell. The Spirit works, always works from the inside out. That is the beauty of the Spirit. Discernment is an inside job. Any hack can give directions.

Discernment, the Scriptures, and the Spirit are happy allies. Discernment presupposes that Jesus is in the process of making all things new. Discernment is newness directed to a specific situation or person, to a specific community or missional venture. Discernment is much more like a compass in a wilderness than like a GPS on a busy urban freeway. Discernment provides space to maneuver and learn and does not scream, “Take this exit!” Discernment is not frantic. Discernment is not judgmental, though it will lead sometimes to tough moral decisions. Discernment will never violate Scripture or the character of Jesus Christ. To the contrary, discernment will always honor Scripture and express the presence of Jesus. Discernment will rarely feel like a law. It will feel like a strong, loving arm around the shoulder of someone confused or questioning.  Because discernment cares more about the heart and maturity, it will often ask more questions than it gives answers. Discernment will not get antsy when someone suggests something new or something never tried before. Discernment, moving in the strong currents of the Spirit, will often carve new paths in old ground. The “rivers of living water” that the Spirit is will not be bottled and sold for profit. Discernment is not for sale like so many of the packaged holy moralisms of our day. Discernment will never be a commercial template on sale at the local Christian bookstore. Discernment is ferociously local and specific, communal and situational. Discernment is the Spirit guiding a surrendered community who are fascinated with the person and mission of Jesus Christ.

Some folks may bristle with the old barb: “This discernment stuff will lead to unholy living, you just wait and see. People need rules. They need direction.” My response is: “Where has all the unceasing holy rules and directions gotten the church?” Not very far.  Most Christians in the U.S.A. are living by the same prevailing values as the surrounding culture. Data confirm it. Come, Holy Spirit, come. The time for discernment is now.

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  • patricklmitchell

    Grateful for this post. Thank you. Stan Hauerwas just posted a blog on writing a theological sentence here It seems to go hand-in-hand with the thrust of your argument for the practice of discernment rather than best practices. In his usual manner, Hauerwas writes, “We live lives that would make sense if the God we worship did not exist,
    so we should not be surprised that our theological writing reflects our
    lives.” I believe “theological writing” could just as easily be “preaching.”

    We don’t push for holiness for any number of reasons, but one I suspect is that it’s hard to measure. At least it is for me. But I love how you connected discernment with the local body, especially in the digital age when a sermon preached in NYC is copied in East Tennessee and the pastor wonders why people aren’t connecting.

    How would honing in on holiness change our sermons and leadership?

  • Gearoid

    “holiness hints and rules” – Can you give me some specific examples of this beyond sex-proofing teen-agers?

  • GaryLyn

    I agree with everything that is being said in this post, and I realize that this is a post addressing pastors, but it can leave the impression that the discernment process is something done primarily by pastors and the results of that process is shared with everyone else. I don’t think that is the writer’s intent. I just want to use that as a jumping off point to say that discernment as both a way of living and a specific spiritual practice has a long history in the Christian tradition. Specifically, the work of Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises invite a discerning stance towards life that invites us to experience God in the everyday of living. And he also offers some specific ideas about discernment as a spiritual practice.

  • Ken White


    Thanks for your post. It’s clear that you put a lot of thought into it, and your passion shines through. It’s made me think, and that’s a good thing for me, as far as articles go. Here are a few thoughts in response.

    On “The tendency of too many evangelical pastors is to pronounce endless moralisms and to offer a smorgasbord of holiness hints and rules.” Our family has attended a family camp of pastors for about twenty years. The twenty plus or so pastors and pastor’s families are filled with bright, energetic, discerning folk from a cross section across America and internationally. I’ve been struck by their wisdom and discernment. The same holds true for ten or so pastors I know in our town. Of course people may not think I’m altogether too discerning and just give hints and rules. So there’s that. My thought on this is that the pronouncement you make seems too broad.

    Another things is that, in my twentieth year of pastoring I’ve come to be suspicious of my ability to discern. Not that I stop or turn it off. I just think it’s healthy not to think I’m all that.

    And finally I think discernment can only be done within the context of a local body, after having been in our body for a number of years. I’ve currently been at the same church for over fourteen years. This goes back to the second thing I said: I’m suspicious of my own abilities. I’m broken and have personality quirks and I don’t make it easy all the time on myself or others. The same can be true of others toward me and toward the body. That’s not to say we throw up our hands and do nothing. I don’t think you can turn off the discernment process. But I’ve found that being in one place has helped me to be a little more patient. And, hopefully discerning.

    Again, thanks for your post!

    –Ken White

  • Patrick O

    Discernment was seen as one of the most essential qualities for early monastics, for a number of reasons.

    The trouble with discernment is it tends to get stuck in narrow categories of validation. We’re moving from an era of discernment by right beliefs to an era of discernment by right actions. But, we can ‘t leave behind those right beliefs. Add to that the importance of right feelings. What are, after all, faith, hope, love?

    So, it’s more than orthodoxy, it’s also orthopraxy and orthopathy. Triangulating discernment in each situation.

    I would, by the way, highly recommend the recent book A Future for Holinessedited by Lee Roy Martin, which gathers together some of the essays presented at this year’s Society of Pentecostal Studies conference.

  • Mark Kennedy

    I think we could ditto some of this for discipleship: cannot be reduced to a commercial template; ferociously local, specific, and even personal; apprenticed to elder brother/Lord/master Jesus, the most brilliant, humble, truthful man of all time. This must also lead to holiness.

  • JK

    Here’s to hoping 100 people send this to Andy Stanley.

  • labreuer

    Hold on a second here. Are you saying that we ought to clean the inside of the cup and not the outside? Blasphemy! On a more serious note, I think it is too often forgotten that rules are useful to help point the way, but only in a tutor/guardian kind of way. One mature in “the way” (whether it be following Jesus, being good at a sport, being a good scientist, etc.) no longer needs to rigorously remember the rules, because he/she can generate them from within himself/herself. Almost as if the Law were written on the heart…

  • DMH

    Very well said. Connects nicely with the post of a few days age, New Freedoms at Moody, and the discussion there.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Great word. I really want to reflect on this. And I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, John.