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The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

woman overlooking lake with bible in hand
Enjoy it while you can, for a time is coming when discernment will no longer be necessary.

The Heart and the Head

Some Christians have been taught that discernment is a matter of the heart more than a matter of the head.

They teach that discernment is an intuitive or subjective matter of the Spirit working through the heart rather than an objective, intellectual matter of using the mind to test, weigh, and judge. They may level criticism at those who discern with the mind rather than with the heart.

For these people, a matter that is decided by reason and rationality may seem to be a matter that bypasses the Holy Spirit. Christian apologist Gregory Koukl has often been faced with this question.

“Koukl, you’re just in your head too much,” they suggest. “You’re too left-brained when it comes to spiritual things. You’re too logical, too reasonable. You don’t depend enough on your heart to discern the spiritual realm. Yes you’re using your mind, but what about your spirit? Why do you always trust in your own thinking instead of what the Spirit is saying about something?”

These statements imply that somehow I’m not doing a full-blooded assessment of things because I’m only using half of my machinery. My analysis should include the subjective, not just the objective.Greg Koukl, “Discernment: Head or Heart?

There are two concerns with this critique. First, it implies that there are two levels of discernment, one that is purely rational and depends on the mind, and another that is subjective and depends on the heart or on feelings. Second, it implies that this second level of discernment is superior to the first and somehow relies more fully upon the Holy Spirit. It supposedly moves beyond the limited mental capabilities of humans and allows the Spirit to interact directly with the heart of the believer to notify him of some problem or some error.

Of greater concern is the fact that the understanding of two levels of discernment, one objective and one subjective, cannot be supported by the Bible. A survey of passages of Scripture relevant to the subject of discernment, words dealing with testing, judging, approving, and the like, will reveal nothing that would allow us to believe that the Holy Spirit will provide some type of subjective sense of discernment apart from the Bible. Instead we see that discernment points us continually to the Scriptures, to the objective source of truth meant to guide us in all matters of life and faith. Any method that points anywhere but Scripture implicitly points away from Scripture. It must be rejected.

Writing on this subject, John MacArthur says:

Biblical faith … is rational. It is reasonable. It is intelligent. It makes good sense. And spiritual truth is meant to be rationally contemplated, examined logically, studied, analyzed, and employed as the only reliable basis for making wise judgments. That process is precisely what Scripture calls discernment.John MacArthur, Reckless Faith, xvi (emphasis in original).

Like MacArthur, Koukl concludes:

When the Bible talks about discernment — when it talks about assessing spiritual things — it’s talking about a rational assessment based on objective criterion. You can’t be “too much in your head” when it comes to spiritual discernment. Using your head is spiritual discernment, if you’re using the truth properly.Greg Koukl, “Discernment: Head or Heart?”

Spiritual discernment is a pursuit that must always engage the mind. We discern truth from error and right from wrong by using our minds to search Scripture, to recall Scripture, and to compare everything to Scripture. Without the Bible and its objective truths there can be no discernment.

Scripture repeatedly shows this correlation between discernment and knowledge, between discernment and a mind that is saturated with and shaped by the Bible. In Psalm 119:66 the psalmist writes, “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments.” The words translated “good judgment” could as easily be translated “discernment” and, indeed, are rendered that way in certain translations.The New American Standard Bible (NASB) and The NET Bible (NET) both use “discernment.”

Philippians 1:9 says similarly, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment.” And again in Proverbs 16:21 we read, “The wise of heart is called discerning,” and in Proverbs 15:14, “The heart of him who has understanding [the discerning person] seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.”

The evidence continues to mount in Proverbs 18:15 where we read, “The discerning person acquires knowledge” (NET), and Proverbs 19:25, which says, “Strike a scoffer, and the simple will learn prudence; reprove a man of understanding [a discerning man], and he will gain knowledge.”

The testimony of Scripture is plain: While spiritual discernment is a practice that is absolutely dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit, God has so ordained that it is also a discipline that relies on the mind.

The Purpose

The purpose of discernment is to further the chief end of man, the foremost reason we exist, which, to borrow the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question and Answer 1. By being people of discernment, we bring glory to God and learn to enjoy him ever and ever more. Conversely, if we refuse to exercise discernment and are swayed by every wind of doctrine, we deny him the glory that is rightly his and do not learn to enjoy him more.

The End

We will not always need to exercise discernment. Discernment is a discipline necessary only in a world in which we are faced with sin and temptation.

When God created Adam and Eve, he made them sinless and yet with the ability to choose between good and evil. Tragically, they displayed poor discernment, falling for the wiles of the Devil and bringing sin into the world. We live now between the beginning and the end, and, though it is now impossible for us to go through life without sinning, we make decisions moment-by-moment and day-by-day in which we use discernment to attempt to separate what is right from what is wrong and what is true from what is false so that we can bring glory and honor to God.

But when Jesus Christ returns and this world passes away, the need for discernment will also pass away. In heaven we will no longer be able to sin. There will be no error, no wrong for us to fall prey to. We will no longer need to be discerning and will no longer have to test and try what we do and what we believe. Discernment is a process that prepares us for heaven and enables us to eagerly await the end of discernment.

Thus we see that discernment begins and ends with God. God provides the ability to know Him and to make decisions that please Him so that we may serve him and bring glory to His name. Biblical discernment is always, ever, and innately a spiritual task.

To think biblically about life, we must be willing and able to make clear distinctions between God’s ways and all other ways. We must be willing to think deeply about issues and to dedicate time and effort to learning what is right and what is wrong. We must also be willing to grow in our knowledge of God and of the Bible, for this is where we will learn of God’s ways.

From The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies copyright © 2008, pages 68-71. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,

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About the Author

Tim Challies

Tim Challies is a pioneer in the Christian blogosphere, having one of the most widely read and recognized Christian blogs anywhere, He is also editor of Discerning Reader, a site dedicated to offering discerning reviews of books that are of interest to Christians. A self-employed web designer, Tim lives with his family on the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario.


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