As you may know I’ve recently written a book called Open to the Spirit. This post today is not in the book but something I’m posting just for this blog.
Tongues gets too much attention when it comes to being open to the Spirit. If we are open to the Spirit, it means we have to be open to a thousand ways the Spirit works.
Including the gentle but important art of discernment.
What do you think of “discernment” and “discernment groups”?
Gordon Smith, a theologian with an expertise in discernment and the author of The Voice of Jesus, “Every Christian should be able to answer two questions. First, what do you think Jesus is saying to you at this point in your life, in the context of the challenges and opportunities you are facing? Second (and just as critical), what indicators give you some measure of confidence that it is indeed Jesus speaking to you rather than someone or something else?” While some think discernment is but decisions on the basis of Scripture, the New Testament speaks of the inner testimony of the Spirit. What’s this “inner testimony”? Smith defines it as “a direct, unmediated impression on the heart and mind of the Christian believer.” This seems to take into the land of the mystical if not weird. Yet Smith hastens to add that genuine Spirit-prompted discernment is never against Scripture for it is the “personalization or application of the written witness to our lives.”
Let’s pause for two questions before we move on: Are you open to Spirit-prompted discernment? Or, are you more inclined to think and converse and then make decisions and ask the Spirit to bless your thinking? (Choose only one. Thanks.)
Each of us needs to discern major moves in life, including Henri Nouwen. After a rich time of ministry in Peru, back home Nouwen was in a “quiet place in New Haven, spending most of my time with prayer, scripture reading and meditation.” Why? He wanted to be confident that what he did next was a “real response to the Lord’s call and not just another exciting thing that I want to do.” But his state of “confusing” meant that it was “not yet a time for decision making.” Instead, what he most needed was to ready himself. How? To “deepen and strengthen my spiritual life and to listen very carefully to God’s voice.” (From Love, Henri) [Kris pointed me to this letter.]
Problems acknowledged, Spirit-prompted discernment is part of the Bible’s teaching about the Spirit. Before we offer some fundamental principles to practice in any kind of Spirit-prompted discernment, we need to take a good look at what the Bible says, and the best passage I know of is what Paul tells the Corinthians in chapter two of his first letter. In it we find five clear principles.
Discernment starts with God
Discernment involves a profound claim that must be acknowledged immediately: that a person or a group has a communication from God through the Spirit. Paul says Spirit-prompted wisdom is “not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age.” Rather, Paul makes our profound claim to say he is speaking of “God’s wisdom.” The only ones who comprehend this Spirit-prompted wisdom are those who acknowledge the crucified Jesus as the world’s true Lord. Only God can reveal such truths to us. Why? “no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Maybe Paul’s most complete thought in our passage is found in these words: “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.”
Discernment concerns God’s deep thoughts
What Spirit-prompted wisdom reveals is “the things God has prepared for those who love him” and these things are the “deep things of God.” Only the God knows these things and the Spirit makes them known. The deep things are not first of all specific plans for our life – take this job, marry that person, buy those shirts, read that book – but instead how each element of your life and my life fit into the plan of God for this world revealed in Jesus Christ. Discernment, therefore, is saturated with God’s redemption in Christ.
Discernment is revealed by God’s Spirit
God wants us to know the deep things; God wants us to discern how this world works under his gracious and loving guidance; and God sends the Spirit to us so we can embrace and indwell those deep things. The wisest person of all is the one most embraced by the cross-shaped and resurrection-shaped revelation of God in Christ. Paul says “these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” and the Spirit comes to know the depths of God’s mind because the “Spirit searches all things.”
Discernment occurs in our spirit
Permit me to geek out a moment about the original language of our New Testament because this geek-out-moment matters. The Greek word for Spirit and spirit is the same: pneuma. The Greek word behind “spiritual” is pneumatikos. It is impossible to know for certain in many texts whether we should translate Spirit (divine) or spirit (human). More importantly, the human spirit and the divine Spirit share a special connection in that the human spirit is given a share in the Spirit. Now the upload: God’s Spirit communicates to our spirit, Spirit to spirit, because only in the Spirit-to-spirit can Spirit-prompted communications occur. We are not talking about reading the Bible to know what the idea of reconciliation or anything along that line. We are talking about discerning the impact of the deep things of God on our life in this moment. For this to occur we have to be open to the Spirit’s capacity to communicate with our spirit.
Discernment needs the wisdom of others
At times God’s Spirit may well communicate to our spirit something and we accept it and act accordingly, but the way of wisdom is the way of being open to the Spirit’s communication in a circle of wisdom. There is something noticeable about the verses I have quoting above from Paul: he never says “I.” Time and time again it is “we”: “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom” and “we declare God’s wisdom” and “the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” I could go on but you get the picture. God’s Spirit speaks to our spirit in a circle of fellowship drawing upon the wisdom of others.
Before We Finish
I want sketch very briefly an approach to discernment found in Ruth Haley Barton. Ruth’s process begins with more focus on prayer and Spirit-shaped preparation. The process is very much about listening, about creating space for God’s Spirit to speak to our spirits, and about the wisdom of others. Here are the various phases through which the discernment group passes: they clarify the question and affirm the guiding values and principles; they pray for indifference and for wisdom and express their trust in God’s Spirit to communicate. Then they listen to the person in need of discernment, listen to each other, listen to the facts and information, listen to inner dynamics, they create space for silence and reconvene to listen again, they select and weigh the options, agree together (consensus for groups is very important) and then seek inner (Spirit-prompted) confirmation. This leads to communication of what they have discerned and they seek to live it out. From Pursuing God’s Will Together.
I believe in discernment as I believe God’s Spirit speaks to our spirit. Paul, to repeat what was quoted above, said “We have the mind of Christ.” Discernment, to repeat, must be constrained by the Bible and must abandon the reckless belief of some that God’s Spirit is now guiding away from what the Bible says. The impact of the discernment and the behaviors of the person should be Christ-honoring and God-glorifying.
Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2003), 9.
Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (IVP Books, 2012). Her approach is similar to others; for instance, Parker Palmer’s “clearness committee.” See http://www.couragerenewal.org/clearnesscommittee/