The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

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Tim Challies is a well-known name among the Christian blogosphere. Challies provides readers with insightful and sometimes provocative articles daily at Challies.com, as well as snippits of interesting stories around the internet. But he is perhaps best known for his controversial review of the equally controversial book, The Shack (his review can be read here), a review that shows us why he is more than qualified to write on the topic of discernment, which he does quite ably in The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment.

So why write a book on discernment? Do we really need a book on this subject?

Challies answers that question right away: Yes!

We live in a culture where “anything goes” is the epitomé of all wisdom, even in the church. This book is written for those who look at all that is said and done and ask the hard question, “how can this be right?”; for all who (rightly) “believe it is the duty of every Christian to think bibically about all areas of life so that they might act biblically in all areas of life” (p. 16).

Why does discernment matter? Because God values it and honors those who seek it. It is:

  1. A sign of spiritual life: “Those who fear the Lord, those who know God, must be discerning, for God himself is the very source of discernment… Those who know the Lord and have been brought into his kingdom of light will do their utmost to seek God’s will in discerning what is pleasing to him” (p. 28)
  2. A sign of spiritual growth: “Jesus continually emphasized discernment during his ministry, sometimes scolding those who did not have it and sometimes commending those who did” (p. 28).
  3. A sign of spiritual maturity: “Christians who are mature are those who have exercised discernment and have learned how to distinguish good from evil” (p. 29).

What does a lack of discernment tell us about ourselves?
One of three things:

  1. We  spiritually immature (Heb. 5:11-14): Because we lack discernment, we confuse a childlike faith with a childish one. “We live in an age…where nay consider spiritual immaturity a mark of authenticity, and when people associate doubt with humility and assurance with pride… [I]f you are not a person who exhibits and exercises discernment, you are not a mature Christian” (p. 23).
  2. We are backslidden (Heb. 5:12-13): Our lack of discernment may also be a sign of a faith that is diminishing rather than increasing. “[A] person who regresses from solid food to milk is a person who is desperately unhealthy, and who will soon wither away and perish” (p. 25).
  3. We are spiritually dead (Rom. 1:28-32): To be undiscerning is found among the many sins listed in Romans 1:28-32, and provides a shocking indictment to our spiritual well-being. “An absolute lack of discernment or lack of concern for the discipline of discernment is a sure proof of spiritual death” (p. 27).

Chapter 2 describes the challenges of discernment, particularly in a time when a low view of Scripture and a low view of theology (which in many circles is treated as though it were a cuss-word) and a low view of God Himself are so pervasive. But we must stand firm because “while discernment is a difficult calling, it is one with ultimate benefits” (p. 51).

Chapter 3 defines discernment, with Challies providing and expounding upon the following (very helpful) definition: “Discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong” (p. 61). It’s a mouthful, but it’s exceedingly practical. Discernment is not merely a mental assent to, but an applied understanding of God’s Word in every aspect of our lives.

Chapter 4 deals with the heart of discernment, appropriate judgment. There are things we cannot judge, which are things that are hidden such as motives, personal piety (the things only God can see) and matters of conscience. We must test and prove every aspect of our lives against the clear teachings of Scripture.

Chapter 5 brings to light the relationship between truth and discernment. “We can best know what is wrong by first knowing what is right” (p. 101). If we do not think rightly about God, we cannot live in a way that is consistent with His will. We must seek to know the Scriptures and His character as presented therein.

Chapter 6 explores determining God’s will for our lives. Challies tells us that “we do not need to wait for a prophetic voice or inner promptings or a vision to guide us…We obey the will of God as it is revealed to us in the Bible and thus have confidence that we are doing the will of God” (pp. 115-116). We are not to make decisions based on God’s hidden will, but His revealed will. “Discerning God’s will…is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating right from wrong” (p. 117).

Regarding the spiritual gift of discernment, Challies reminds us that “[e]ven though not everyone has been given the spiritual gift of discernment, we are all to pursue this discipline” (p. 137). Those who have the gift of discernment are to use it to serve the Body of Christ, separating truth from error and discerning whether something originates from God or Satan.

Next, we find the dangers of discernment. “Spiritual discernment is a matter of the heart, and must be done with a pure heart and for pure motives” (p. 152). For many, discernment can be a trap that causes us to witch-hunt, speak the truth without love, and be consumed with learning all we can about evils of which we should seek to remain innocent.

Chapter 9 describes how we must develop discernment—through a spiritual posture of teachability and training, alongside other believers. “Those who wish to be discerning…must commit to reading and studying the Bible, to participating in the local church, and to pursuing the character traits of a Christian. The lives of these people will display the proof of discernment in their obedience to the Bible and in their maturity as Christians” (p. 162).

Finally, Challies provides 17 steps in the practice of discernment. We learn to discern by seeking to verify, clarify, and assess the issues of a particular teaching or statement. We pray, assess our instinct, and our consciences. We search the Scriptures & observe the Scriptures. We compare and contrast, research and summarize. We expand on our research, write a conclusion, and make a list on a subject’s points of agreement with truth. We then judge whether to abstain or hold fast, then apply it to our lives, either integrating new biblical teaching or substituting false doctrine with biblical truth. “When a doctrine is false, we flee from it and substitute instead what is good. When a doctrine is true and pure, we cling to it and rejoice in it” (p. 182).

So that gives you an idea of the content of the book. The next question is: How did I find this book profitable, and how am I applying it?

As one should expect from a book on this subject, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is packed with Scripture. Challies not only uses a lot of Scripture to support his arguments, he uses it well and with humility. In doing so, he shows himself to be someone worth listening to, as he practices what he preaches.

I found the book to be incredibly convicting and challenging, in part because I don’t know that I’ve always really understood the full implications of a lack of discernment. It’s safe to say that we all know people in our churches and (likely) families who are not terribly discerning, nor do they necessarily care to be. This fueled an increased desire to help protect those who are less discerning, but to do so with grace. It’s not easy to do, and too often, because I tend to be particularly blunt, I am seen as less than gracious at times.

I particularly found the dangers of discernment to be eye-opening because they are things that I have been guilty of, particularly extending guilt by association (if Pastor so-and-so reads this book and quotes from this teacher, then he must be a heretic). This is a tricky thing because on the one hand, we should not judge too harshly or too quickly, but we also need to be sure that we’re turning to teachers that are of good character and biblically sound. This, again, is an area on which I was convicted as, at least in my experience, it’s fueled by nothing more than pride. I have been slowly learning that I need to be very cautious about coming to a conclusion about any particular author or teacher. That doesn’t mean that I excuse wrong teaching, it just means that I need to not be quick to go shooting someone without doing my homework (ie examining what they say against Scripture).

What I appreciatd most about this book is the admonishment that all true, pure and excellent doctrine will point to Jesus.

This is really the key to discerning false teaching from true: Who is ultimately glorified? Is it Jesus or man? If it’s man, then we must reject it. If it’s Jesus who is glorified, then we must joyfully embrace it.

The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is a much-needed call for Christians to be discerning in every area of their lives. It is my hope that as you read this book, you will find it edifying and profitable.

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