Discernment September 6, 2013

From the Shepherd’s Nook, by John Frye

Jesus was the non-Bible Answer Man. He was asked, according to the Gospels, 183 questions and he answered only 3 of them. Usually Jesus responded to questions with his own questions. Jesus is notoriously known for telling down-to-earth stories that did not answer questions as much as provoke thinking.

Jesus was not a direction-giver. Jesus was a discernment artist. He trusted people’s ability to hear his stories and reach some startling conclusions about the kingdom of God. Some individuals wanted Jesus’ ready-made answers to their dilemmas. Jesus most often refused.

Jesus believed that farmers, housewives, tax-collectors, and lepers could imagine, think, and reach conclusions. He believed in the human ability to discern. Jesus knew that developing discernment in others was far superior than giving them point-blank directions. I am bothered that so many pastors and teachers, including myself, do not follow Jesus in this regard. Do leaders mistrust people? Do current leaders foster an informed, elite attitude over “the people of the land” as the religious leaders did in Jesus’ day? For all our teaching about the accessibility of the Bible to the common person and the compassionate, illuminating ministry of the Spirit to light Scripture up for ordinary folk, leaders seem intent on spelling the Bible out, making it clear, answering the burning questions, thus fostering a codependency in biblical, theological and spiritual issues.  To be proficient at giving biblical directions is no gift to people. Directions require no thinking, just compliance.

I know that this codependent relationship between leaders and people is fed oftentimes by people who cry, “Feed me. Feed me, pastor. Tell me what to think. Tell me what to do. Feed me.” This lamentable condition in Western pastoral ministry stunts thinking and erodes all possibility of the emergence of discernment.

I think leaders and people prefer direction-giving because it eliminates fear and offers the illusion of control. Everybody wants a playbook. Discernment, according to Scot McKnight, requires both courage and careful thought. Why courage? Discernment allows us to explore unknown territories of the soul and life. We can venture into those sometimes frightening areas not mapped out by the professional direction-givers. There are no playbooks for a very large percentage of life.

Direction-giving tempts us toward a dangerous spiritual condition: pride. We know exactly what to do and we go do it.  Developing discernment is a companion of humility because we feel awkwardly suspended in mid-air and our only hope is the Spirit, other discernment-oriented friends, and the Scriptures. Discernment is a community quest while I can follow directions all day long all by myself. Discernment is genuinely creative and, when matured, is called wisdom. Direction-giving tends toward boredom.

Jesus was a superb discernment artist. He provoked thought and he elicited unparalleled commitment in others.

We think we are so smart. The disciples are at their wits’ end in the boat on the hurricane-angered Sea of Galilee. Having awakened a sleeping Jesus, Jesus speaks, things change and Jesus asks, “Why are you so afraid?” We think, “Oh, come on, Jesus. They thought they were going to die!” The issue, my friends, for the disciples was not the threatening hurricane on the Sea of Galilee; the issue was: Who is this in the boat with us? Discern.

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