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.
Discerning the will of God is not 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.