Discernment

In the church, there seems to be an idea that “discernment” means “praying and waiting for God’s specific, personal direction on every decision in my life” — see John Eldredge’s book, Walking with God for a classic example. But is that the view of Scripture? I think not. Such an understanding of discernment leads to several errors:

1. A separation between Christians who “know God’s will,” i.e. the super-Christians that God speaks to, and the “ordinary” Christians who seem not to hear from God about stuff like the color of their wallpaper.

2. Using “discernment” to excuse unwise behavior and even sin. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “Well, I’ve prayed about it for months and the Lord has told me it was OK,” even if “it” was buying a $300,000 house when you’re $60,000 in debt, or living with but not sleeping with your fiance, or being slack in disciplining your kids. Those are not areas about which we ought even to pray. The best advice I can give people who encounter this “God told me” business from people is to remember that it’s not a trump card. We have a responsibility to one another in the body of Christ, and letting someone off the hook just because they played the “God told me” card is hardly showing love to our brothers.

3. Total paralysis in decision-making, stemming from not using your brain and instead waiting for some sign or feeling to show you that God has given you direction. I strongly believe that for the Christian, the ordinary way of making decisions goes like this: Learn, study, and love God’s word. Use the mind that God is sanctifying to make wise decisions. Rinse and repeat. But too many people seem to think that’s just not “spiritual” enough. A Christian’s life IS spiritual — it’s life IN the Spirit! And it can look very ordinary, but an ordinary life lived faithfully still results in “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That’s not to say that I don’t think God sometimes uses other methods to reveal his will to us — I certainly do believe that he does! But the ordinary way seems to be knowing God’s word and living wisely in accordance with that.

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11 thoughts on “Discernment

  1. Umm… look, we have the following:

    1. God's perfect word, his self-revelation to us
    2. The Holy Spirit
    3. A mind that is being conformed to the likeness of Christ

    I don't think some mystical “sense” of God's leading is necessary for the Christian life. God's will for our lives is our sanctification, among other things. If something contributes to that, it's good; if it detracts from that, it's bad; if it does neither, it's a matter of making the wisest choice. Period.

    I'm talking like a cessationist here. I do absolutely believe that God uses things like prophecy to communicate to his people — but to individuals I think it's far less common (both in the NT and today), and about the minutiae of life even less. It's not that God doesn't care about those things; quite the opposite! That's why he's given us his word, his Spirit, the Church, etc. — to communicate to us how we are to live in those ordinary moments.

  2. My concern is when “sensing God's leading” is that it might conflict with the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture. I know many people who “sense God's leading” who would agree that it is subordinate to Scripture, but I'm still uncomfortable with it.

  3. That's the same concern that many cessationists have with the idea of prophecy and other revelatory gifts. The thing is, even in the first century, prophecy, tongues, words of knowledge and wisdom, etc., were supposed to be “tested” and “judged” — see the instructions in 1 Corinthians and Paul's other letters about that. One of the misconceptions about revelatory gifts is that they were designed only for the time when the canon of Scripture was still being written BECAUSE they were perfectly authoritative. I find that to be patently untrue — revelatory words were ALWAYS supposed to be tested against God's prior revelation, even in those heady early days.

    If you have Grudem's Systematic Theology, he explains this concept much, much better than I do.

    The issue I have with “sensing God's leading” is not only the fact that it seems unnecessary, but the fact that it is virtually untestable by the body of Christ. Revelatory gifts are primarily for the edification of the Church. But I do think that on occasion God uses the means of an inexplicable drive or desire to show a believer his path. Paul often wrote of a “compulsion” to do one thing or another, right?

    Any of this making sense?

  4. Too many Christians today think we need individual words from God to dictate our daily decisions. Faugh! God isn't an integrated ATM system dispensing things all over the globe to people who punch the right numbers in.

  5. While I certainly don't have as informed an opinion of the matter as I would like, I think I fall into the “cessationist” camp (probably no surprise there). I've not read Grudem but its interesting that he comes up because I happen to have a number of Reformed Charismatic friends from whom I hear “sensing God's leading” language.

    I think I see what you're saying about that “inexplicable drive” and would agree that there is something there. Do you take the hardening of Pharaoh's heart as an instance of this, or would bringing him in be a case of apples and oranges?

    While it is a secondary issue, at best, I think the “charismatic question” is clearly something our generation of Christians are doing to be dealing with more. My friend things this may be the time when we hammer out a more definite doctrine of the Holy Spirit, just like the councils and creeds of old did for the Christological doctrines.

  6. A really superb Australian book on this subject is “Guidance and the Voice of God” by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. It has been a great help to us. It's published by Matthias Media, and I think they have an online store in the US too.

  7. Neil, thanks. I agree. Eldredge's opinions on the subject are so preposterous… as are his opinions on most subjects. 😉

    Jacob, I'd strongly encourage you to take a look at Grudem. He's a smart, articulate, strongly reformed dude who also believes in the continuance of the “sign” gifts. If nothing else, it'll help you understand where Reformed Charos like me, CJ Mahaney, Piper, Driscoll, etc., are coming from.

    Mikey, I've heard some good and some not-so-good about Jensen's understanding of God's guidance — sort of a “God speaks through the Bible and that's it” position. I haven't read it and I'm sure that's not the most fair characterization. Can you give me a short rundown in your ridiculously busy schedule? Also, say hi to the Crossroads gang for me.

  8. Hi Laura, Phillip is one of those prophetic-type guys whose caricature is a far cry from his actual teachings and behaviour. People experience a sound-bite of his teaching, or encounter a less nuanced disciple of his and assume that's all he is.

    The book establishes the following framework (in brief):
    1. God guides us all the time, providentially behind the scenes.
    2. God has spoken to people in the past in a whole range of ways.
    3. God has now spoken to us in a final and sufficient way in the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
    4. God still speaks now through the written record of the gospel, in the Bible. This gives me all I need to serve him.
    5. God can speak to me in any sort of way he might choose, but he has given me no reason to expect this. In fact he has given many reasons to be wary of it.

    The helpful thing that Jensen clarifies is that if God doesn't speak to my particular question or problem that may well be the answer I need: it's not that important!

    It is very important to be godly in marriage. It is comparatively unimportant who I marry…. and yet we worry more about who to marry rather than how to be a good husband/wife.

    If you go to AFES.org.au and find their audio resources page, download “National Training Event 1992” and that should have a sermon called “Are you led by the Spirit” that'll unpack it.

  9. Thanks Mikey, very helpful. I definitely agree all the way to 5.1! Good to know there's so much unity among believers… 😉

    Thanks Radagast.

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