Church leaders talk a lot about discernment, but why is it so important and how do we know if we have it or not?
In the early 70s, a New York housewife had several visions of “Jesus.” He was apparently accompanied by two Hindu spirits who gave her instructions.
She renamed herself Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati and started the religion Kashi Ashram. Its vision statement is “A world transformed by unconditional love.” On the official website, its mission is “to awaken a radical awareness about one’s spiritual self and the issues that face the world today.”
Now who would say no to that? Turns out, the answer is not many.
Her benevolence and charisma eventually gained her audiences with Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama and famous fans such as Julia Roberts and Arlo Guthrie.
It was only later when reports of abuse and a Miami New Times investigation came out that people began to realize how dark this pseudo-Christian hippie religion was, growing out of the black seed of a lie.
Using Discernment in the Church
In one of his devotionals, Gary Wilkerson urges believers to be careful with what they are drawn into. “Twisted things can be almost straight but have just enough slant on them to draw believers astray. Even a slight modification of theology, a small alteration of doctrine, a foolish extremism can cause people to deviate from the truth.
In cases like the Kashi Ashram, it can be easy for us to judge those who find themselves mired in a cult and hurt by radical pagan spiritualism.
However, churches can very easily become guilty of wandering away from biblical teaching and careful adherence to scripture. Worse yet, when they’re headed by persuasive speakers, it can be hard to voice concerns or heed nagging feelings of doubt.
“Be careful about those you attach yourself to or align yourself with,” Gary warns in a sermon about exercising good judgement with church community. “Be discerning about the books you read. And be smart about the friendships you have.”
“It’s easy to identify the world’s corrupt ways. It’s a lot harder to identify corruption in spiritual places where we don’t expect to find it. That’s when things get dangerous.”
The people who act as our spiritual leaders will have a profound impact on us, and we may not even be aware of how much they are influencing our decisions and ways of approaching God.
It’s incredibly important to be discerning and wise, even in church.
That said, how do we know if we have the gift of discernment? If we do feel like we have the gift, how do we know if we’re using it correctly and not just being paranoid?
Who Has ‘the Gift’ of Discernment?
Jesus knew that his followers would be constantly bombarded by outside powers as well as by their own entrenched sin-nature. He knew we needed a compass to keep ourselves and others alongside us on the right path.
With this in mind, Christ said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth (John 14:16-17 NLT).
This would seem to imply strongly that every believer should have some degree of divine discernment, thanks to the Holy Spirit’s presence.
After all, he leads us to truth.
Gary Wilkerson encourages believers who may feel like they don’t have ‘the gift’ of discernment to develop it. “I urge you to study the Word of God and walk closely with the Lord so that you may grow in discernment. Knowing the real thing, you will not be drawn away into something of a counterfeit nature.”
As we draw close to our maker and heavenly Father, we will become more and more aware of when new “spiritual” concepts or life-practices don’t agree with the Bible.
Author Ruth Barton echoes this sentiment in her study on the topic. “Discernment is a quality of attentiveness to God that, over time, develops into the ability to sense God's heart and purpose in any given moment. We become familiar with the tone, quality, and content of God's voice.”
God’s call is unique, and once we know it well, other voices will have a much harder time getting their hooks into our minds and hearts.
Basic Instructions: Use for Others
Once you’ve really worked to gain discernment, then you’re good. If other people in the church screw up their own lives, that’s their problem, poor schmucks.
That’s how it works, right?
In his article, Tim Challies explains, “Far too often the gift of discernment is said to be little more than a gift for making good decisions–for knowing God’s will when we need to turn to the left or the right. Yet the Bible tells us that it is more.”
Discernment, like pretty much everything God does, is intended to help us but is also meant to help others through us. Those who have become fine-tuned to the Holy Spirit are meant to protect young and immature believers so that they have the opportunity to grow in their understanding of the Bible and God.
Paul calls for believers to work together to settle disputes among themselves in 1 Corinthians 6, an area where a mature Christian with good discernment is invaluable. Similarly, such people can help a community identify worldliness or manufactured holiness that can quickly lead to frustration and discouragement in the church.
Someone with good discernment can be instrumental in helping others develop and exercise their spiritual gifts in ways that are consistent with scripture.
Our ability to readily identify the Spirit’s work will train others how to do the same.
A healthy group of believers isn’t without problems or conflict or lots of questions about what God has said or what exactly the Bible means here or there.
Instead we are meant to make space for questions to be asked safely and receive patient and scripturally sound answers. We provide a place where wrong choices are lovingly and appropriately corrected, and we show others how to live in community the same way.
We help each other walk through the tough patches of life, knowing that our enemy, the old deceiver, is restless and relentless.