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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  • Rick

    Great post.
    My only disagreement would be the contention that those asking to be “fed” are just wanting to be told what to think. Those that I know who want to be “fed” are actually asking for more spiritual depth and spiritual challenges- much like what you described what Jesus was providing.

  • Terry

    That’s interesting Rick, as I thought while reading it that John hit the nail squarely on the head with that specific comment. In my circles the “feed me” request (demand), as well as the “I am the feeder” role, is mostly equated to having all answers, more right, most confidently, and with mere faith often being trampled by a fearful requirement of certainty.

  • Rodney Reeves

    Excellent post, John, and probably appreciated even more by those who are ministers/pastors. The expectations that come with sermons (for senders and receivers) can be overwhelming. Of course, Jesus seemed to frustrate the expectations of his hearers often. So, should we follow his example and take the challenge: rise before the congregation and tell a fictitious story, then end the “sermon” with a series of questions? I think that would get you in trouble, but you’d be in good company.

  • Rick

    Perhaps then that the term can mean different things to different people.

  • I think it is true. Many want to be told what to think, and the more prescriptive the better. Learning rules and doctrines is much easier than following principles like Jesus offered. And receiving truth from an ‘authority’ provides a stronger feeling of security than thinking through ambiguous issues.

  • Brian W

    I agree very much with the spirit of this article. I was blessed recently when congregants said of me, “He didn’t tell me what I should do, but he helped me process and think through how to….”

    Also, though, I think John is overstating his case a tad. Jesus himself said he taught as he did to hide; he taught as he did not because he trusted people’s discernment, but instead to drive people to a deeper reliance on him and the Spirit of God. I’ll have to think about this more, but it seems to me that Jesus didn’t answer questions to provoke thinking, but instead to show or reveal better or more important questions. I often will say to someone who asks me for my pastor-answer, “You know, I think there is a more important question than that.” Does that make them think? Sure, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to reveal that not all questions are equal and that you can have an answer to your question, but still miss Jesus and his grace.

  • macd50

    Interesting post. We are presently moving from a church that seems to have been built on the premise of telling you what to think. When they said “this is what the Bible says” what they were really saying was, “This is what we say the Bible says and that’s what you should believe.” Fortunately, our Bible study class was a bit more open for discussion and thought. However the bottom line to every divergent opinion was “Well, it’s been a good discussion, but this is what we believe as a church.” Not being negative here, just stating things as I understood them.

  • Mark Kennedy

    Interesting to compare this article with yesterday’s on the superiority of analytical thinkers, and the study that suggested analytical=more intelligent=don’t need ‘religion’

  • BradK

    Isn’t it likely that the style of Jesus’ (non-) responses to questions, particularly to his religious opponents, had a great deal to do with the honor-shame culture in which he lived?

  • Aaron Lage

    I was just going to say that… many of the unanswered questions have more to do with the honor/shame culture than simply being a teaching style. You’re precisely right.

  • Trin

    “Usually Jesus responded to questions with his own questions.”
    Well, so did every other rabbi, and their talmid. The better your understanding, the greater your skill at answering a question inside another question. It’s part of Jewish dialogue. Go have dinner in a Jewish household and you’ll still see this type of passionate ‘conversation’ practiced.
    I don’t think he was being difficult; he was Jewish!
    Yes, his interpretations differed from the other rabbis of the day, teaching as one having authority, rather that offering just another interpretation.