Discernment. I have a love-hate relationship with that word. On the one hand, some Christians use discernment as an excuse to go on a witch hunt, disqualifying as many leading voices as possible and labeling people “false teachers” at the drop of a hat. Entire ministries are built on this kind of paranoia, and it’s a little sad.
On the other hand, discernment can also be an overlooked and under-valued virtue. In our desire to remain positive, sometimes we accept non-truths and half-truths without thinking through them deeply. When we’re not careful and discerning, we’ll say a hearty “Amen” to any pithy saying that gives us the warm fuzzies.
This is nothing new. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about our imbalance with discernment two millennia ago. In the closing remarks of his first letter to them, he gave them five big pieces of advice about discernment (I’m inserting #’s for emphasis):
(#1) Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. (#2) Do not scoff at prophecies, but (#3) test everything that is said. (#4) Hold onto what is good. (#5) Stay away from evil of every kind.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 NLT
Paul’s advice sounds a lot like the tip W. A. Criswell used to give about reading, “Read a book the way you eat fish – swallow the meat and spit out the bones.”
An over-active discernment muscle will cause us to be critical of anything that might disturb our spiritual comfort, including the Holy Spirit himself. But failing to test what we think we’re hearing from God is equally dangerous. Let me zero in on Paul’s phrase “test everything.”
I live by five tests. When I think I’m hearing from God, here are five tests I apply that I believe will help you be appropriately discerning too:
1. Does it agree with the Bible?
I love the way the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, written in 1833 says it:
We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.
If you try to live by cultural consensus, you’ll be changing directions every few years. Isaiah once said that “The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NLT)
God’s revealed, written Word is the final standard on what is true and what is not.
2. Does it point me toward Jesus?
Or as A. W. Tozer said it, does this make Jesus more necessary to me, or less necessary? If you think you’ve heard something from God and it in any way makes Jesus and his salvation less necessary in your life, throw it out.
3. Does my church family confirm it?
I think we live in times when spiritual abuse is all too common. I believe that the “authority” of the church rests in its proper handling and teaching of the Bible, not in its capacity for controlling people. So be careful with any “church” that seeks the kind of influence over your life that violates your personal freedom of conscience.
Having said that, there is tremendous wisdom in bouncing our thinking off the sounding board of our close community of Christian friends. I trust a few fellow Pastors, mentors, and my small group to evaluate my thinking and give me honest, much needed feedback.
4. Is it convicting rather than condemning?
God is the forgiver. Conviction comes from God and says, “you’ve sinned, so repent.” If you reject everything that feels negative, you’ll wind up missing some of God’s best and toughest love as he corrects our path and steers us back in the right direction.
Satan, on the other hand, is the accuser. Condemnation comes from Satan and says, “you’ve blown it, so you’re worthless.” When you hear that inner voice telling you you’ll never be loved, you’ll never win, and you may as well give up, reject it as the voice of the enemy.
5. Do I sense God’s peace about it?
One of the most important verses in my own Christian walk has been 1 Corinthians 14:33, which says that “God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”
When you’re totally confused and disoriented and don’t know what to do next, sit still. Do nothing. Wait for peace, for clarity, and for the spiritual confidence that comes from having passed the other tests.
And remember, the biggest, boldest move you can make toward hearing God’s voice and recognizing it regularly is to develop a deep, consistent, intimate walk with him!
Jesus said in John 10:14, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me.” (MSG)
The closer you walk with Jesus, the more you listen to his voice, the easier it becomes to recognize his call in your life.