Discernment or Judgment

In June of 1992 I wrote an article on discernment where I defined discernment as “Seeing the reality which lies behind appearances.” I still use this definition. My article was prompted by reading on an article on the ‘gift of discernment,’ which I will address below. Here I have reproduced and revised a portion of what I wrote as it is as relevant or more than when I first wrote it. This is particularly true as I cannot recall a time in my six decades that we have ever been more divided and polarized in our culture with different views and attitudes toward truth and the false idea that perceptions matter more than reality.

We begin our study with 1 Corinthians 2:14-15

14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. 1 Corinthians 2:14–15 (NKJV)

In 1 Corinthians 2:14 the Greek word anakrino is translated discerned and in verse 15 it is translated judges and judged. Discernment and judgment are closely linked and require the exercise of wisdom. Scriptural discernment is basically making right judgments by seeing the reality that lies behind appearances in order to agree with what the Holy Spirit is doing. After all, with what we are facing in the church and our culture we need to exercise discernment, as it is through discernment that we can see the roots of issues and then choose how to respond as He leads.

In seeking to understand and exercise discernment it is helpful to first understand what it is not. I often hear talk in the church about the “gift” of discernment. The scriptures speak of no such gift. 1 Corinthians 12:10 speaks of the gift of discerning of spirits (a revelation gift that any Christian may function in at times). This however is not discernment as the scriptures teach it, even though it is useful in the process of discerning. True discernment is the outflow of wisdom and revelation working together and demonstrates spiritual maturity. Here are the Corinthians verses with more context and three verses from Hebrews.

13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. 16 For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? 1 Corinthians 2:13–3:4 (NKJV)

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Hebrews 5:12–14 (NKJV)

In both passages we see a link between discernment and spiritual maturity. Discernment needs to be exercises and is the fruit of a humble heart that chooses to be led of the Spirit and recognizes its dependence upon Him. Discernment flows primarily in the lives of those who choose to walk in truth and refuse to compromise because of their love for the truth (2 Thess. 2:16, Eph. 4:21).

Paul’s discernment was rooted in his refusal to compromise truth Jesus had revealed to him. This led to him having to rebuke both Barnabas and Peter (Gal. 2:11-20).  Paul understood something that we in the church have largely neglected. We are frequently told by both the world and much of the church that we are not to judge, and this is true in terms of a critical fault-finding spirit (Jas. 4:11, Rom. 14:4, Matt. 7:1-5). We do however have a responsibility to judge all things in terms of fruit and discern the truth that lies behind appearances (Matt. 7:15-20, 1 Cor. 2:14-15, Heb. 5:12-14, Phil. 1:9-11, Jn. 7:24). At times this means confronting sin and heart motives which can lead to being labeled as “judgmental” or “critical” (Acts 5:1-11, 8:18-24, Gal. 2:11-21).

My idea of discernment as ‘seeing the reality which lies behind appearances’ comes from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:15-20 where He refers to wolves showing up looking like sheep and the importance of inspecting fruit. Jesus teaches that at times we cannot discern wolves from surface appearances because they look like sheep. The same is true of tares looking like wheat until they mature (Matt. 13:24-30). To discern the truth that lies behind appearances we need to love truth more than the package it comes in. We must seek truth and seek to discern it in the lives of our supporters and opponents. A love of the truth is manifest in love for the church, the body of Him who is truth (Eph. 4:21). This is illustrated for us in the Old Testament illustration of the role of discerning.

I began this study by noting the overlap between judging and discerning. In Exodus 28:30 Aaron is commanded to wear the breastplate of judgement when he comes before the Lord. In the breastplate are the Urim and Thummim. Also on the breastplate are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. This passage specifically says Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart continually.

What I see in this is that discerning and making right judgments requires carrying the issue we are seeking to discern over our heart. If we want to truly discern what is happening in the lives of others, from the Lord’s perspective, we need to bear people over our heart in intercession (as Aaron did with the breastplate representing the nation). Intercession born of love for Jesus and His church leads to the spirit of wisdom and revelation being released in our lives and manifest as discernment.

Paul knew clearly the relationship between love and discernment. He began Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians with a prayer for discernment only after he was confident of peoples love for the church and one another (Eph. 1-15-21, Phil. 1:9-11, Col. 1:4, 8-11).  This love is, among other things, a deeply rooted commitment to speak truth to others out of a desire to see them come to maturity (Eph. 4:15, Prov. 27:6). 

            The purpose of discernment is protection and growth. We seek to see the reality that lies behind appearances so we can protect His flock, and agree with Him about what He desires in the lives of individuals, local assemblies and the church at large. When we sincerely walk with Him in spirit and truth (Jn. 4:24) His Spirit in us is faithful to guide us into all truth (Jn. 16:13). Walking in this manner positions us to see the church built up and established.

Prophetic Words

In my recent book I defined a worldview as “The lens through which we view and interpret reality.” Here I am going to apply that to a verse of scripture. I have provided the verse in two different translations.

3 But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. 1 Corinthians 14:3 (NKJV)

3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 1 Corinthians 14:3 (NIV)

Personal prophecies or personal prophetic words are very prevalent in some segments of the church. Personally, I highly value them and have a running record of many I have received over the years so I can reflect on them and pray regarding them. I find them encouraging and some very challenging.

When we are speaking prophetic words to others we are seeking to hear from and be led by the Holy Spirit. Our words and actions should be a reflection and extension of His words and actions as He speaks to us to build, encourage and comfort. To that end I will address their application.

The lens through which we view personal prophetic words determines how we respond to 1 Corinthians 14:3. One lens I have actually heard applied on more than one occasion is the teaching that prophecy is always given to encourage and comfort (make us feel good) so we can assess the veracity of prophetic words by how they make us feel. I see that as a well intended but at times misguided application of the verse so I will demonstrate the application of 1 Corinthians 14:3 through an example.

The church is often compared to a building so I will use a construction analogy to demonstrate how to understand and apply this verse. Imagine we are building a house and you are my foreman. At one point my job is to install and wire the plugins in a bedroom. You come along and notice two things. First, I have placed the plugins at the correct height, second, I have attached them to the studs beautifully. There is only one issue, I have installed them where the closet is going to go, making them inaccessible and of no use.

Consider your response. Our larger purpose is building the house. I clearly have useful skills that will make the final product a thing of beauty. You can encourage me by pointing out the skills I have demonstrated, tell me I have done it all wrong and that I need to move the plugins, or embrace a third option. You can point out the skills you see that I have demonstrated but also point out my error in placement so that I can better apply my skills in the future.

I see the third option as how prophecy is to be applied. We can encourage others by highlighting what they do well, be it demonstrating passion, perseverance or some other attribute but then directing or redirecting the application of that attribute so that it builds His body.

Sticking with this example, suppose you come along and find that I have not only installed the plug ins with excellence but they are exactly where they are supposed to be. You could observe and leave or you may be led by the Spirit to not only point out the quality of my work but also prophetically speak into a higher calling you see in my life to be a better builder. This is another example of 1 Corinthians 14:3 in action.

Lastly, for further reflection, imagine the same scene but when you come to observe my work you notice that not only have I installed the plug ins in the wrong location, I have also installed them incorrectly and clearly need to improve my work overall. How would He lead you to respond?

Living Worship

I suspect that if I asked 100 people how to define worship, I would encounter a wide variety of views. As we worship and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection this Sunday, I think it is important to look at how the scriptures present worship. To that end, below are two different translations of the same verses. I will drill down into the meanings to get to worship.

1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:1–2 (NKJV)

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1–2 (ESV)

            Romans 12:2 is very similar in both translations. What on the surface appears to be very different is the last two words in verse 1. The NKJV says ‘reasonable service’ while the ESV says ‘spiritual worship.’ Reasonable service and spiritual worship seem to be very different things so we will look at how the translators arrived at their conclusions then apply it to our lives.

            The word reasonable or spiritual is logikos in Greek, worship or service is latreia in Greek. The root of logikos is logos, which we have in John 1.

1 In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God. John 1:1 NKJV (clarification added)

Logos is connected to logic, which is why we have the old Greek concept of persuasion rooted in ethos, pathos and logos, or character, emotion and reason. Logikos carries the idea of that which is reasonable or sensible in light of something else based on reflection or forethought. The context allows it to be translated as spiritual because presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice is a spiritual act. Latreia is easier to understand as the root word latreuo means religious worship with latreia meaning to worship or to serve. In this context the service is an act of worship. Putting all of this together, when we present our bodies to be at His service we are engaging in an act of worship.

While I generally think of worship as worshipping through song, I am aware that every aspect of my life is an act of worship if done unto Jesus. Paul certainly understood this, as not only did he exhort us to live this way in Romans 12:1-2 he expressed the same idea in other places.

31 Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31 NKJV

17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. Colossians 3:17

Thus, if we apply Paul’s exhortation to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, we are then only doing what makes sense in light of what Jesus has done for us. As we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection let us recommit ourselves to doing that which is reasonable and spiritual, living our lives as an act of service and worship unto Him that Jesus may be glorified.

Sensitive to His Presence Part 2

In looking at the practical side of sensitivity to the Spirit I am drawn to two places, Leviticus chapter 8 and Ephesians 1.

8 Then he put the breastplate on him, and he put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastplate. Leviticus 8:8 (NKJV)

17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, Ephesians 1:17 (NKJV)

I have long seen these two passages as connected. Though scripture is not explicit regarding how the Urim and Thummim worked, we do know they were used for decision making. I see Urim and Thummim as corresponding to wisdom and revelation as I view them as the key factors in decision making. I will explain.

            Revelation is something we get in our spirit via His Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:9-12) and we acquire wisdom through His word and our life experience. To better understand this in practice here are some practical examples from my own life, one more recent and one from many years ago. I begin with discernment regarding an email. I completed a Doctorate in Apologetics in September 2020. When I initially received an email from the Seminary inviting me to apply to their doctoral program (I had completed my MA there) my first thought was, “That is the last thing on the planet I want to do.” I was nearing the end of my career and wanted to engage in some ministry in retirement but had no appetite for further education. I deleted the email. A year later I received a similar email. This time I had a sense in my spirit that I needed to weigh it before Him. I did that and felt that I needed to proceed, so I did so with a measure of trepidation and began working on my Doctorate around 18 months prior to my retirement.

            The sensitivity part for me was responding to the check in my spirit and not deleting the second email even though it was something I did not want to undertake. I had a sense in my spirit that this was important so I spent some time weighing it before Him prior to proceeding. The fruit of it was that I engaged in the discipline required to work my way through a doctoral program and I learned a great deal that I apply regularly in my writing and interactions with others.

            I had a similar experience in applying for a job over two decades ago. I applied for a transfer to be closer to home and once I confirmed the transfer a management position that I had previously wanted to apply for came open. It was as far away from my home as possible and still in the same city. I decided I could not apply because I had made a commitment to the transfer role to another office. I started in the new office on a Monday and one of my first calls was from a senior HR person asking if I had considered applying for the management role. I explained my interest and how I had made my decision to not apply. I was still urged to consider it. After the phone call there was a sense in my spirit to weigh this option even though it made no sense in my head.

            I spent time weighing matters and felt I was to apply for the job while also feeling that I was to stay in the office that I was in. Logically it made no sense to me. Where wisdom came in was that I recognized His voice and leading so proceeded with the application even though it logically made no sense to me. To shorten a long story, it all made sense in the end. I was offered the position, but in the office, I had transferred to and the existing manager was transferred to the job I had applied for across the city.

            These are two examples of fairly significant decisions in my life. Yet I use this same process on a regular basis. Having a prompting to pray for or email someone. Having a sense to stop and speak with someone or being drawn into prayer at various times during the day for specific people or circumstances. While working on this post I was out on a bike ride and led to pray specifically for some people while I rode. Once kept coming up with a specific focus so I sent the person a text and they affirmed the accuracy of what I was praying for them.

            Practically I think we have options regarding how we are able to develop or deepen our sensitivity to His presence and leading. I think we need to set aside specific times to cultivate our relationship with Jesus. We create a habit that makes room for our relationship with Him to spill over into the other aspects of our day. This creates an awareness of, and sensitivity to, these little promptings. Personally, I don’t look for promptings, I simply try to focus my heart on Jesus at various times throughout the day, the rest follows. If not already on this journey please join me.

Sensitive to His Presence Part 1

            Think about Jesus presence and being sensitive to His moving in and among us. One of the places I am reading in scripture is through Ezekiel. Chapter 10 is one of the tragic chapters in scripture. Here, after being shown in a vision the abominable practices the people have been engaged in (chapter 9), the Lord shows Ezekiel the departure of the His presence from the temple. The greatest tragedy is not that He left, it is that apart from Ezekiel in a vision, no one noticed! There was a terrible lack of sensitivity to His presence.

            We find a similar pattern in the Song of Solomon. The difference here is that there is some awareness but there is still a loss. Think of this as Jesus coming to us but us failing to respond in a timely manner because it is inconvenient.

2 I sleep, but my heart is awake; It is the voice of my beloved! He knocks, saying, “Open for me, my sister, my love, My dove, my perfect one; For my head is covered with dew, My locks with the drops of the night.” 3 I have taken off my robe; How can I put it on again? I have washed my feet; How can I defile them? 4 My beloved put his hand By the latch of the door, And my heart yearned for him. 5 I arose to open for my beloved, And my hands dripped with myrrh, My fingers with liquid myrrh, On the handles of the lock. 6 I opened for my beloved, But my beloved had turned away and was gone. My heart leaped up when he spoke. I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer. Song of Solomon 5:2–6 (NKJV)

In this example the Shulamite is left with a bit of anointing (the oil) but the bridegroom (Jesus) is gone and does not respond to her cries. These examples tell us something about our sensitivity, or lack thereof, to His presence. In Ezekiel the people were busily engaged in idolatry so never noticed when the Lord departed. In the example of the Shulamite, she desired and longed for His presence but responding was an inconvenience and when her desire for Him finally won out over discomfort it was too late!

            It is clear from numerous scriptures that Jesus desires an intimate relationship with us. He wants to meet with us, spend time with us and walk with us. Practically He wants to lead us. He is quite capable but we need to learn to respond to His leading when He calls. We need our hearts tuned so that we are sensitive and responsive to His presence and leading. The two passages below express David’s heart and the Lord’s heart. Hosea gives expression to His desire to draw us away and speak to our hearts. David gives expression to the need so seek His ways and a commitment to have a listening heart.

14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, Will bring her into the wilderness, And speak comfort to her.” Hosea 2:14 (NKJV)

 4 Show me Your ways, O Lord; Teach me Your paths. 5 Lead me in Your truth and teach me, For You are the God of my salvation; On You I wait all the day. Psalm 25:4–5 (NKJV)

            The Lord desires to be with us, to lead us away from distractions to be alone with Him to get to know His heart. So let’s join David in praying to see and follow and ask Him to create in us hearts that are attuned to His presence throughout the day.

In my next post I will look more practically at the how we can be sensitive and respond to His presence and calling.

My book on worldview is complete and now available on Amazon.