In Part 2 we took a look at how we can begin developing our discernment. If we are expectant that God is going to speak to us, then we need to be alert and attentive for when He does. Instead of being afraid of getting it wrong, we can trust God will help us get it right. We can ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’.
“The first step in beginning to discern God’s communications with us entails purposefully offering our senses to Him. Unless we do — on an ongoing basis — we will not be able to grow into the maturity of Jesus Christ.” — James Goll, The Discerner *
Many years ago I led a Small Group of young adult women. Surprisingly, many of them had been raised in Christian homes but for some reason, they seemed to be getting stuck on some of the basics such as knowing how to pray. Praying together was super awkward. The no-one-would-pray kind of awkward. They struggled to hear from God for themselves.
It became clear that for many of them, while they loved God and were committed to following Him, their spiritual discernment had not developed sufficiently to differentiate between their own feelings and God’s voice. And I 100% include myself in that reflection.
We were just babies compared to others we knew who were adulting in their faith.
How could we move beyond being spoon-fed biblical snippets on Sundays and learn to discern God’s wisdom that could be applied in our everyday lives?
While discernment is the result of the Holy Spirit's work in our life, we need to train ourselves to develop a sharpness and wisdom in using it. We require a growth mindset and these verses give us two clues about how to do this.
1. Time to get acquainted
“Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” - Hebrews 5:13
Getting acquainted is an antiquated word that simply means getting to know someone or something intimately. Discerning what is and isn’t of God comes from an intimate relationship with Him. Studying the scriptures together is how we become familiar with God’s teachings about righteousness i.e. who God is and how He wants us to live.
I love reading the Old Testament because there are so many personal statements God makes about Himself. For example; “And [the Lord] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6). Not to mention what Jesus' shows-and-tells us about the Father in the New Testament.
When you learn to appreciate the character of God and what He values, you can determine whether something is likely to be from Him or not. God’s wisdom contrasts more clearly with human wisdom and the devil’s work is easier to spot.
Seeing through the right lens
As followers of Jesus we are not to be unaware of the enemies schemes, but sometimes we put a lot of energy into identifying sin rather than righteousness. For example, God gave 10 commandments which Jesus summed up in 2. However, the religious leaders of Jesus time were so focused on over 613 rules regarding sin, they did not discern their Messiah was among them (facepalm!).
Remember, discernment is looking beyond what we see in the natural and learning to see with spiritual eyes, so this means applying ourselves to understand God’s perspective and what He has told us is good and holy in his eyes.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." - Philippians 4:7-8
When a bank teller is learning to spot counterfeit notes, they don’t spend time studying the false ones. They acquaint themselves thoroughly with the unique features of the authentic currency. When those distinguishing marks are missing, they can detect a fake. In the same way, art historians study the style and method of the masters. They can detect a forgery by noticing deviations from the artist's natural stroke, typical colour palette or technical ability.
It makes it much easier to discern what is of God when we already know his self-proclaimed traits. When we know his character and qualities we become quicker at discerning when it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us. It addition, it is accompanied by his peace and joy - neither of which we can manufacture for ourselves.
Going to the source
The Holy Spirit came to help us live righteous lives in obedience to God. To do that He gives us the ability to distinguish right and wrong in a world full of confusing and conflicting ideas.
We need discernment to understand the cultural agendas of our times. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God warns us of those who will cheer on evil practices as virtuous and liberating, while condemning and criticizing those who hold to what God declares is right and pure.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)
Some of those arguments are very convincing. The words love and freedom are invoked, but without an anchor to the God who is love, and whose love endured the cross to free us from sin, we find moral judgments become nothing more than self-serving decisions.
“When one asserts that there is such a thing as evil, one must assume there is such a thing as good. When one assumes there is such a thing as good, he or she must also assume there is an objective moral law by which to distinguish between good and evil. When you assume an objective moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver—the source of the moral law.” - Ravi Zacharias, Christian Apologist **
That moral law-giver is God himself. Humility accepts our human wisdom is lacking when God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” (Isaiah 55:8). God’s own words and actions become our reference point for what we discern is good or evil. The Word of God is our filter for distinguishing ideas that originate with God or the evil one.
After all, God will never contradict Himself! The Holy Spirit will not encourage us to disobey what God has already commanded. He will not fill our thoughts with suggestions that undermine the Christ-like character God wants to form in us. He is at work in us to transform us into Jesus' likeness and it's a glorious thing (2 Corinthians 3:18).
2. Use it or lose it
“Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14)
Here’s something I have discovered in my journey with God. Discernment is a tool the Holy Spirit gives us to help us navigate our world wisely, but we should not be trying to exercise this gift without our relationship with him being constant.
By constant I mean, regular, consistent, ongoing, not slacking. Tuning in to the Holy Spirit only when we want to hear from God for direction or wisdom is not going to help you grow spiritually mature. We are called to ‘walk with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:16), in constant communion with the Father through Him. We cultivate a lifestyle of worship ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24). Then we can ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ as we discern where He going and we willingly follow (Galatians 5:25).
I've tried to incorporate this into my everyday activities. For example, any time I sit down to write, I take a moment with Him and say, ‘Let's do this!’. I always get a sense of excitement as I start something with Him. Being a verbal processor, I have an ongoing dialogue with Him; ‘What story should I use?’, ‘Is this the right word?’ ‘What do you want to say here?’ ‘How do you want to encourage people today?’ ‘Can I have another coffee yet?’
We won't always get it right but there is a joy in His presence and knowing He is working in and through you, giving you insights and wisdom to apply to anything you do.
Learning through repeated attempts
'Constant use' means we can regularly have invaluable new experiences to learn from. We hone our skills by making mistakes and discovering what-not-to-do (read Luke 10 for an example). It's important to have others who you can do this with safely. Those who are able to clarify misunderstandings or misuse of God's word. And just like any athlete, we build strength through repetition.
Every time we give it a go, we learn something new, and so we grow.
You don’t even have to wait for the conditions to be perfect. You may not be resting with your bible balanced beautifully on your lap and your cup of tea perched prettily nearby, receiving epiphanies with every sip. Sometimes the best place to develop your discernment is when you’re in the dumps.
This was the type of training ground Joseph the Dreamer had (Genesis 37-41). God gave Joseph dreams, and he learned to understand their interpretation. In his 'infant' years, he had yet to learn when to keep his mouth shut, and his attempts to share what he discerned resulted in slavery. However, we see Joseph did develop spiritually mature over time. When you look into it, Joseph didn’t wait for the perfect setting but continued to practise discernment in prison (Genesis 40).
Interestingly Joseph became infamous, not for his own dreams, but due to his discernment that enabled him to correctly interpret others (Genesis 41:38-39):
“Pharaoh asked [his counsellors], “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?”
Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you.”
During our Covid-19 lock-down I knew if I didn’t find creative ways to use the gift of discernment, I would begin to grow dull. I also wanted to move on from 'infant' formula. Training involves challenges, so I decided to initiate Wednesday Wisecracks. This was to be a weekly challenge for me to be in the Word of God and ask Him for a word of encouragement for others. I don't give myself a lot of time to 'think' it up, so I have to rely on the Holy Spirit more.
Because I have this booked in as a regular activity, the consistency has helped me craft the message with less waffle (I hope!). It has worn down two obstacles I have, perfectionism and impostor-syndrome. More importantly, it has helped me grow familiar with how God shapes His word in and through me.
And it’s been fun!
No longer infants
So how did that group of girls get on over the years? Eager to mature, they committed to studying the Word of God together and privately. We studied the Scriptures and sought to understand God’s perspective on righteousness and how to live obediently to him. We became familiar with Him through His own word.
In order to sharpen our ability to pray and hear from him, we started new initiatives. Every week I devised a new way to get someone (anyone!) praying. I gave them one-liners to start with, chose specific themes, picked someone different each week to start, anything to get them to step out and pray out loud! I didn’t care how long for, so long as we were praying.
After a few months, praying out loud together wasn’t such a big deal. Soon, they were eager to share needs and pray for one another. We began to see answers to prayer every week and their faith grew. As time went on, they began to share pictures or verses that came to mind. The relief and joy they had when they proved significant encouraged them that the Holy Spirit was speaking to them. Their confidence grew.
As they consistently put their faith into practice, their discernment sharpened and eventually they were prophesying regularly over one another. They began hearing God for themselves and discerning God’s will for their lives in big decisions. Years later we were still seeing answers to those prayers and the fulfilment of prophetic words they shared with one another.
Put your discernment to good use
Developing spiritual discernment not only requires consistently tuning-in but constantly putting what we have received to use. Maybe it's a truth from scripture you read that replaces a lie, a lesson Jesus taught that you could apply to your life, or an insight into a need someone has for you to encourage them.
Apostle Paul:“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4:9)
All scripture is quoted from NIV translation.
* The Discerner: Hearing, Confirming, and Acting on Prophetic Revelation, James Goll, Whitaker House, 2017
** Ravi Zacharias quote from here
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