Growing In Discernment

Several years ago I came into a season of a very heavy spirit within. It was a time of desolation, of conviction. I had experienced this before. God was instructing me, showing me a pattern in my life that was not to others or my own benefit. It lasted for some weeks. The Father was not punishing me. He was pruning (John 15:5), disciplining, and training me as his son (Hebrews 12). He was causing me to see that at times I was not being a good example toward others.

In short, he was teaching me spiritual discernment.

Let’s look at the encouraging way in which God grows his children in spiritual discernment over time.

Growing in Discernment is Relational

In the previous entry I refered to Hebrews 5 and Luke 9 as two examples in which disciples of Jesus were not responding wisely to circumstances in their lives due to lack of spiritual understanding.

Those two passages use the same Greek word. That word is used only one other time in the New

Testament, in Philippians 1:9:

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent….” Philippians 1:9-10

That word discernment is what the disciples were lacking when Jesus was telling them of his impending death (Luke 9). Here in Philippians 1, Paul is praying for growth in discernment. The word means to perceive or understand.

Note how this is built in us – by love.

As the Father’s love abounds in us we mature. Growing in discernment is a relational dynamic. God never sends us out on our own to figure things out. The Spirit is within us as a guide.

This is why Jesus beckons us to abide in him, in his word, and in the Father’s love (John 15). We cannot grow in discernment apart from Father, Son and Spirit.

There is no inner, self-generated fount of wisdom we tap into.

We look to the Father who grows us in love and thereby we are matured. That is what the Father was doing in me during the season of desolation years ago.

Growth in Discernment is a Process

Philippians 1:10 says: so that you may approve what is excellent….” The phrase “approve what is excellent” is a single word in Greek. It is used in other passages as well.

Romans 12:2 – by testing you may discern the will of God

Ephesians 5:10 try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord

1 Thessalonians 5:21 – test everything; hold fast what is good

The word means to examine, interpet, discover, approve. Note the dynamic of this being a process, similar to a trial and error dynamic. We learn as we walk with God. It takes time. A lifetime.

This takes the pressure off. In Luke 9 the disciples still had a long ways to go in their maturing in discernment. Jesus knew that and was gentle with them, though direct. He is with us too.

Practicing Discernment

Discerning the will of God is not a about mastering a general blob of non-personalized morality. It is unique, specific, personal, and unfolding to each individual as we mature, age, and walk with God deeper and deeper in his love. 

Let’s look at Romans 12 for example. 12:1-2 is well know to us. Paul beckons us to yield our lives to the God who has given himself to us. Then note how the chapter unfolds.

The next paragraph speaks to our spiritual gifting (12:3-8). We grow in discernment in how we use God’s generosity in our lives for the sake of others. This is specific to each of us. Two people with the gift of hospitality will manifest that gift in very unique ways. We progressively learn how to do that.

The next section (12:9-21) is on character development which is primarily manifested amidst relationships, some of those relationships being riddled with conflict. Again, specific people with specific personalities in the midst of particular relational dynamics. What does it mean to discern God’s desire for me to love others (even enemies) in any given relational situation?

Now we are getting down to the spiritual discernment we are after. Specific acts in specific situations.

The question then becomes: What is Jesus’ way of life and wisdom and love for each person at each stage of life in each particular relational situation? We learn by testing and growing in discernment. 

Practices toward Discernment

So how do we grow in discernment? Nothing new here.

We abide in Jesus. We yield to the Spirit. He is delighted to teach us his way of love. But patience is required. There is no master plan downloaded into our heads. This is a life of walking with God. And we need counselors, mentors, spiritual directors, pastors and friends. It’s always about relationship.

Word. The Spirit will never lead us contrary to the Word. The Spirit nourishes and grows us in Jesus in the Word. Everyday.

The spiritual practice of examen is particularly helpful. The key to keeping the practice of examen on course is for it to be grounded in the Trinity and the Word and not only our inner musings. That being said, our emotions are key. That season of conviction I experienced some years ago was not pleasant. I was frustrated with myself. I was aware of sadness, disappointment, even embarrassment. God was not calling me to get my act together. He was calling me to himself. And with his arm wrapped around me drawing me into his love, he was shaping me and helping me to see in very specific life situations how to live with true spiritual wisdom and discernment. As I reflected on where I was sensing his presence, love and joy (consolation) I was to follow his lead to be other-centric. Where I was sensing my own self-determining way (desolation), I was to turn away from. There are many resources on the practice of examen out there, just make sure the questions point you to God in response to his Word and not merely looking within yourself for some inner enlightenment.

Growing in spiritual discernment is a relational, life-long process as God shapes us in his likeness in real-time, real life events. Ask him to grow you in his love toward true discernment. He is already on it.

Posted in Living Wisely, Shepherding Well, Spiritual Vitality | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Lack of Spiritual Discernment

I want to pick up on a topic I brushed up against in the previous entry – which has received quite a strong response. (Thanks for the feedback friends!). The topic is growth in spiritual understanding.

In Hebrews 5, the author warns the readers against making an unwise decision in their faith journey. In short, they were not grasping the doctrine (teaching) of justification. They were considering either bailing all together or maybe at least adding a little of their own efforts to what Jesus has provided.

There is nothing we can add to what Jesus has done to secure our forgiveness. It is total. Complete. Absolute. Finished. Done. When we seek to add to Jesus’ work we actually detract from it for it is a free gift received by trust.

Note what the passages states and the cause:

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5:12-14

In short, to put this in a positive way, when we consume the solid food of God’s word on a constant basis and, by the Spirit’s empowerment, go forth to live it, progressively our “powers of discernment grows.” It is relational, it is grounded in the Word, and it is progressive – we mature over time.

Here is an example of the disciple’s displaying their lack spiritual understanding in Luke 9:44-45.

“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

They did not perceive it. Hmm. It was concealed from them? Really? How?

Jesus is not speaking vaguely here. He could not say it any clearer. He repeatedly told them what the Gentiles would do, what the Jews would do, and yet they did not get it. If Jesus was not concealing what was about to happen, then what was causing the lack of perception?

In a word, bias.

The guys were biased in their opinion of what should happen. Jesus is the Messiah. And the Messiah is coming to crush Israel’s enemies and usher in peace and prosperity for his people. So they thought. But this is not what Jesus was saying would happen.

Besides, since when are the disciples afraid to ask Jesus to explain something? They asked Jesus to explain the parables a number of times. They asked him to teach them to pray. Why did they not ask for clarity on this one?

They were afraid of the truth.

The very next verse the disciples’ bias is exposed. They began to argue who ought be greatest in this coming kingdom. They did not want to talk suffering, they wanted to talk greatness.

Their powers of spiritual understanding was underdeveloped at this stage and it caused them to flat misunderstand what Jesus was saying in very clear, direct language. They could not grasp the truth spoken plainly to them.

Here is the point: It is possible to have clear teaching, specific guidance from the Lord, and still misunderstand because we remain underdeveloped in our spiritual understanding. Like those warned in Hebrews 5, we need our powers of discernment trained by intake of the word and constant practice.

Thankfully God is committed to our growth in spiritual understanding. He is patient and gracious.

Next entry we will look at Romans 12:2, Philippians 1:9-10, and some other related passages that detail that we grow in spiritual understanding relationally and over time as we take in God’s word.

Until then, may the Spirit who is your constant companion and guide, lead you into all truth and encourage you in the Father’s love and Jesus’ constant intercession and advocacy on your behalf – personally, by name.

Posted in Shepherding Well | 2 Comments

Headline News – Only One Aspect of Reality

Afghanistan. Haiti. Lebanon. Ethiopia. Myanmar…. The headline news can be deeply distressing at times. The weak seem to get weaker, the abusive seem to get ahead.

Violent Hands

Acts chapter 12 is a violent chapter. The opening verses say as much:

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.

This was a dark time for the church in Jerusalem. James, one of the original 12, was now dead. There were other unnamed ones imprisoned. Peter was next in line for a violent death. It all seemed for sport, political maneuvering, power seeking.

We read the same in the news feeds today. People in power meant for protecting and furthering the flourishing of their citizens, instead use their power for their own corrupt ends.

The Greater Reality

There is an interesting chiastic structure to Acts 12 . Note how the chapter unfolds:

> King Herod Kills James 12:1-2

>>>>> Herod imprisons Peter 12:3-4

>>>>> Angel of the Lord frees Peter (Romans guards put to death) 12:6-19

> Angel of the Lord Kills Herod 12:20-23

Note Luke’s next statement. Though Herod is silenced, not all is silenced:

“But the word of God continued to increase and multiply.” Luke 12:24

How does the Word Multiply?

Thematically in Acts, Luke records that the word spreads (13:49), it increases and multiplies (6:7 and 12:24).

How does the word increase and multiply?

In John 15 Jesus tells us that there is a bundle of gifts that indwell us. Jesus says he abides in us (15:4-5). His Love abides in us (15:9-10). And his word abides in us (15:7). He exhorts us to abide (remain) in Him, his love, and his word.

When we hear the word of God, the Spirit stirs in us faith (faith comes by hearing the word Romans 10:17). When we respond in faith, receiving the word, the word is implanted in us. This happens every time we hear the word proclaimed and taught. Ever notice how a well proclaimed message of the word stirs faith in you?

All of our journey with Christ we grow in the word and the word, by the Spirit, grows us. Our spiritual understanding grows. We progress to discern good from evil. We are changed from the inside-out.

This is not only head knowledge; a truck load of doctrinal data (though doctrinal truth is essential). This is relational knowing – intimacy and communion with God.

At the time of the Acts 12 events, the word of God was spreading across the Middle East and into Asia Minor. It was transforming lives one soul at a time. As each individual received the word, the word multiplied, it increased, it spread.

That did not make the news then and it does not make the news today.

The Word Multiplies Today

Pray that the word would continue to increased in all our nations that are immersed in duress and violence. Pray for pastors, house church leaders, and evangelists who boldly, persistently proclaim the good news in hard times. Pray for those in prison to be strengthened by the Spirit and the word.

And you, abide in the word. Everyday, every single day, receive the gift of God’s word. Allow the word to draw your gaze back to the Living Word – Jesus.

As you read the written word (Bible) the Spirit nourishes you in the Living Word (Jesus). The word is the primary means by which we are instructed, encouraged, strengthened and nourished in Jesus. It is the means by which we come to know and receive the Father’s love to us in Jesus.

Ask the Spirit to draw your heart to the Father and Son as your read the word. Ask the Spirit to nourish you in Jesus, to reveal the beauty of Jesus afresh.

Though the world is often a violent place, it does not have the final word. God is always watching over his word to do it (Jeremiah 1:12).

Posted in Living Wisely, Personal Vitality, Shepherding Well, Thinking Well | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Life Transitions

Two week’s ago my wife, Beth, and I had the honor of being co-presenters with our friends at VantagePoint3 on the topic of Life Transitions. (Our friends at VP3 – Rob, Pam, Emily and Kay – are absolutely brilliant at what they do. Go over and checkout their material and loads of resources.)

The virtual presentation engendered some meaningful conversation and reflection on the topic of change and transition.

Below is a link to a blog that Rob Loane wrote following that presentation on my reflections on what our Father is up to in seasons of profound disorientation. At the bottom of Rob’s blog is a separate link to gain access to the recording of the Life Transitions training. You will find this well worth your time, for we are all amidst change and transition presently – Covid dynamics and otherwise.

I trust you find these resources helpful, and as always your comments and sharing the Tending Scattered Wool blog with others is most encouraging to me. Thank you. Scott

Posted in Living Wisely, Resources, Thinking Well, Trainings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strengthening Oneself in God Amidst a Crisis

Recently I was confronted with a problem that there was literally nothing I could do to solve. Immediately I felt the visceral response within. I was faced with a very strong temptation to give in to an internal response that would have turned myself in on myself the entire day. Joy replaced with fear and anger; Self-preservation and pre-occupation rather than caring for others.

There is Another Way

“But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” 1 Samuel 30:6

In its context, this statement in 1 Samuel 30 is a neon exclamation point.

Let’s re-familiarize ourselves with David’s cascading crisis context:

He is a refugee (living amongst the Philistines, with whom he does not have a great history of personal relations – recall Goliath)….

…Because, he is a wanted and hunted man (by the mad and jealous King Saul)….

…And now his family has just been taken captive by Amalekite raiders. He has no idea if they are being sold on the human trafficking market let alone even alive….

…What’s more, the 600 social outcast fighting-men who have joined themselves to David in his on-the-run, refugee life, are now blaming David for this whole mess and want to kill him….

But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.”

What did David do?!?!

Though we do not have many hints in this text, the Psalms do provide us with many insights. to David’s habits amidst crisis.

David’s Psalms Provide Guidance

A quick perusal through the Psalms provide a treasure trove of David’s growing reliance in God amidst life realities. I commend Psalms 51-59 as some representatives of such prayers.

Let’s look at Psalm 3, though, for its clear, succinct flow. This Psalm is attributed to the time when David is in distress over Absolom’s coup attempt.

The Crisis: “Many foes” mock David’s “soul” saying “there is no salvation for him in God (Psalm 3:1-2).”

This is a classic lie of the enemy: You are on your own. God may save others, but you have maxed your account. There is no hope for you.

David Responds with a Declaration of Faith and an Act of Faith

Declaration of faith: He countered the lie by reminding himself that God is his shield and answers him when he cries out (3:3-4).

His act of faith was to….. take a nap! “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustains me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who set themselves against me….(3:5-6).”

Sleep is an act of trust for in a dangerous world sleep is a vulnerable state.

Long ago – whether in the open fields with his flock, confronting the giant Goliath, or hiding in a cave from King Saul – David had progressively learned to entrust his very existence to the God who is his life and salvation.

Sleep is not only a human necessity, it is also a daily act of faith. All one has to do is recall the last time you lay awake in the dark of mid-night with some life problem spinning laps in your mind to know the truth of this reality.

How do we follow in David’s wisdom of strengthening oneself in God? Let’s look at one example.

A Strengthening Practice of Soliloquy:

Soliloquy is a practice of speaking to oneself aloud. It is a wonderful spiritual practice.

Psalm 43 offers a classic example. Note how David is addressing his own soul:

“Why are you so downcast, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Ps 43:5)

Remind yourself daily, often even, of the imminent presence and personal love of your saving God. Speak it aloud to yourself. God’s salvation is not a mere generalized truth. God’s presence is personal to each of us by name and his saving is specific to each of our adversities. The late Jerry Bridges would say, “Preach the gospel to yourself everyday.”

Every season of disorientation is a profound opportunity for your relationship with the Living God to be deepened. Life crisis is always the given opportunity to turn your face toward God and declare your reliance upon him.

Then receive sleep through the night as an act of trust in your God who never sleeps nor slumbers but watches over your every life detail (Psalm 121).

Reflection time: Take some time to reflect on what circumstances you find yourself in that give place for the enemy’s mocking and lies. What declaration of faith and act of faith is the Spirit prompting within you? How is God growing in you responses of trust in him rather than a frenetic doubling-down or foggy zoning-out in the midst of such strain?

Who in your community can use a call to be encouraged in their faith today?

Posted in Living Wisely, Personal Vitality, Shepherding Well, Spiritual Vitality, The Shepherd's Health | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Are You Languishing?

Some months ago the NY Times* ran an article that declared “languishing” as the reality many of us are living under.  In a nutshell, editorials are telling us that since there has been immense national and global upheaval, we are languishing under the reality of it all and the uncertainty of what is ahead. 

How is it with your soul in these days? Is languishing a descriptor you resonate with? 

Several weeks ago my wife, Beth, and I met with her back surgeon.  He is well respected in his field; conservative, not quick to make hasty decisions. 10 years ago he operated on her resulting in much relief.  However, the past seven years she has been living with chronic pain. This time, the doctor told us that based on all he is seeing with her MRI’s, he is unwilling to do surgery – that it will not provide long term relief. Her case is “complex” and requires a longer range view.  So he is referring her to a pain management doctor. 

We have no idea what this means. We have no idea what Beth’s mobility will be. We have no idea what her work, let alone, daily life will look like. More of the same? Improvement? Lessening?  

The Spirit is nudging me to hold onto hope.  I do not want to give into “languishing” under this uncertainty or limitation.

I want to allow the Lord to define this reality, and to walk with him and others as he provides grace. He said “no” to Paul’s times-three-pleas to have his “thorn in the flesh” removed and instead gave Paul more grace. 

So, how is it with your soul? 

How is the Father bringing to reality the blessing of Romans 15:13 within you:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope?”

This is neither triumphalism nor prosperity pick-me-ups.

This is the Person of the living God pouring his love and life into ours amidst the very context we find ourselves in.  In the midst of deep adversity, God can define our inner world and relational response by terms of joy, peace and abounding hope.

As followers of Christ, as caregivers, leaders, and shepherds, the context we find ourselves in is the very one Jesus beckons us to walk with him and with others in.

Let me say that another way: Whatever the circumstances that mark your life, it is right here, right now, that Jesus is with you, beckoning you to deeper abiding with him and to steady companioning of others.

How is God defining your present context? How is he revealing himself to you?

Jesus, please give more grace; fill us with all joy and peace so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may abound in hope. Amen.

* (I think this is the article I originally read last Spring)

Posted in Shepherding Well | 4 Comments

Pilgrimage Guide Included

When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:14

This “truth” that the Spirit of truth is guiding us into is not a mere download of doctrine. Rather, it is into the very life of Jesus, who is the Truth. Concretely, it is a way of living with God and others. Let me share a story of one who modeled this to me.

A Personal Heart-Language Guide

When Beth and I were church planters in Hong Kong, our first order of business was to learn Cantonese. It’s one of those tasks you don’t ever check off the list. After two years of formal language study at Chinese University, I still had much to learn.

I was introduced to a dear Chinese woman named Peggy.  Her round face always radiated a warm smile above her tiny little frame. She tutored Chinese secondary level students in English and art. And she kindly took me on to tutor me in Cantonese.  

Two years of formal schooling had taught me ample Chinese vocabulary, but I had much to learn of the heart-language.

There is a way to order lunch that is technically correct and will get what you food, and there is a way to relationally engage an exhausted restaurant worker who has not had a day off in months and gain a friend.  Peggy was my guide into that heart-relational world. She was patient with my linguistic messes, generous with compliments, gentle with her corrections.

Peggy was my God-given guide into the heart-language of the adopted culture we had taken up residence in.

The Kingdom Guide Within

The Spirit’s role as guide is not so much a lecturer of truth, rather more like a wilderness guide. The new landscape the Spirit it leading us into is the kingdom of God. This unfamiliar terrain has a heart-language of the Jesus-way of living.

The Spirit is guiding us into the relational culture of the Kingdom of Jesus. 

He is patient, pouring out the Father’s love in us, tending to us with the grace of Christ, ever beckoning us deeper into Jesus’ way of being in this world.

This kingdom has a heart-language that allows for relationships to begin, to be restored, and to be deepened. 

The Spirit takes what is Jesus’ and declares it to us. The Spirit bears Jesus’ mark in us. Over time we grow in the way of love, joy, peace, kindness, self-control, sacrifice, generosity, forbearance, considering the concerns of other above our own.

Learning the Heart-Language

How does the Spirit do this?

The primary way we learn this way of life is from the Word amidst real life over a life-time.

I have noticed over many years that there is far more going on when I am in a chair in the morning, reflectively reading through the Bible than is immediately apparent. Sure on occasions there can be a significant insight or breakthrough. But mostly it is about accepting the invitation to show up. 

It’s in the written Word of God that we are met and nurtured by the Living Word of God.^

In keeping with that, the Spirit has come to mediate Jesus’ presence and ministry in our lives, he is there with us each day as we are in the Word and praying. This is the ordinary, daily, steady walk of growing in Christ. The Spirit, gives us sight, opens our ears, tills up the soil of our heart that we may receive the seed of the word. 

Then, in real life, amidst daily relationships in real time, he guides us, slow yet steady.

“He’s Not Trying to Take Something from You”

Several years ago I had been wrestling over letting go of a pattern in my life. One early morning, in that space between being fully asleep and fully awake I clearly had this phrase come to me: “He is not trying to take something from you. Trust Him.”

That was the Spirit, the Guide, leading deeper into the Father’s care.

He was gently urging me to relinquish, to open my hands and let go of an area in my life I had been resisting letting go of.

This is the gentle and firm work of the Spirit in our lives. He is always present, always guiding. An open “yes” to follow allows us to be led deeper into the kingdom way of living, which impacts every area of our life in beautiful ways.

How have you been responding to the Spirit your guide?

If you wonder if you have sensed his presence and direction, ask him. He is a person. He wants to be related to. He is eager to lead you into his life and way. Ask him to literally show you the way. He has promised and he will do it. 

* As stated in the Nicene Creed

^John Calvin first coined this phrase.

Posted in Shepherding Well, Spiritual Vitality, The Shepherd's Health | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Fall 2021 Member Care Conferences In the US

Two US-based conferences are going forward with plans to gather this fall:

PTM (Pastoral Training in Member Care) will be held September 28-October 1, outside Asheville, NC

This year’s theme is Grounded in Glory. There are some fantastic pre-conference events too, for which you will want to register soon as some have limited space.


This year’s Mental Health and Missions Conference iNovember 18-21, 2021i s moving to northern Texas at the Tanglewood Resort and Conference Center, Pottsboro, Texas

2021 Theme: Collaboration: Doing Together What None Can Do Alone

Check out both events and hope to see you there this fall!

Posted in Resources, Shepherding Well, Trainings | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment