Her eyes were saying something different from her words.
His behaviour isn’t consistent with his stated beliefs.
It sounds true but something isn’t quite right.
There was something a bit off about him.
I just can’t put my finger on it.
It doesn’t ring true.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
OK, so that last one is my favourite Star Wars quote, but seriously, I think we can all acknowledge there are times in our life when we get that sense that something isn't quite right.
But what happens when it’s not necessarily about something that is being preached from the pulpit or you are reading from your recliner — what if that is how you feel about someone? Worse - what if that's how someone feels about you?!
I have found myself in this awkward situation many times. In some more serious instances, it has involved discerning subtle but inappropriate interactions between two people that I later discovered had resulted in devastating affairs. My life experience and spiritual maturity at the time were not developed enough to know how to respond well, but over the years I have learned how important it is to pay attention to a person’s character.
The Holy Spirit is intimately involved in curating the quality of our character. As all of our life revolves around people, this means a discernment of character plays an important role in helping us build healthy life-giving relationships and avoid the pitfalls of toxic, manipulative or deceptive ones.
How do we develop a discerning spirit with regard to our relationships, without cultivating a critical spirit?
Jesus gives us a simple but challenging answer to this question.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3
Before we can begin to discern the character of another person, we need to be prepared to pay attention to our own.
Prying back the planks: Discerning your own heart
We all need to acknowledge that we have blind-spots so that we can ask for help to put the spotlight on those hidden things in our lives, both bad and good. Humility recognises we need the Holy Spirit’s help to avoid sin that is tantalizingly easy.
David learned this the hard way. Although he loved God, he allowed his flesh to override any prickle of conscience to convince himself that taking another man’s wife was entirely acceptable. He justified neglecting his war duties and arranged for the murder of an innocent friend. Then he had the gall to feel indignant anger at the report of another man doing the same (2 Samuel 12:1-13).
What did it take to remove the plank from David’s eye? A word from God via the Prophet Nathan who used it to hammer the truth home.
We cultivate character through the Word of God
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
Learning to discern requires you to be meditating on the Scriptures so that it can be our reference point for what is pleasing to God. The Holy Spirit then helps us discern not only what God is saying to us personally, but what the true condition of our heart is to receive it.
I remember distinctly a time when I had a difficult leadership situation with someone who was making unrealistic demands of me laced with accusation. I was hurt and defensive. When I went to the Lord and prayed for vindication He actually presented me with this truth from Scripture.
“We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” (James 3:2).
Talk about a sharp sword! He was making it clear I was not perfect myself. I first had to acknowledge my own part in the conflict. Not only that, but I was not to resort to pointing out where they were at fault to justify my leadership decision. As I wrestled with what the Lord was telling me, the Holy Spirit exposed some unpleasant truths in my reaction. My pride, my need for control, my distrust, I could go on.
Godly character is found in someone whose words and heart are shaped by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:2). This happens when we can truthfully discern our own motives and recognise what is of the flesh and what is of the spirit. ‘Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.’ (Romans 8:5-8).
We see an example of this when Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from being obedient to the Father by surrendering to the Cross.
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:23)
When we fail to discern our own thoughts and motives we cannot grow spiritually mature. We become indifferent to the wonder and glory of the gospel. Instead of freedom, we get trapped in powerless religious activities. Paul went as far to say it was causing some of the early believers to become physically sick when they reduced communion to a common food fight rather than taking it in reverence and awe.
“If we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.” (1 Corinthians 11:31)
When we do allow the Holy Spirit to help us discern our own heart it is actually a wonderful act of grace. It is the loving attention to detail the Lord has in the cultivation of our character. With Christ as our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit kindly keeps us close to the heart of God. We don’t have to be concerned with imagined ‘hidden sin’ or the dread of judgment when we pray.
In fact, we can now approach the throne of God with confidence, trusting that He will ‘keep his servants’ from grievous error when we walk humbly with him.
The result is that our lives will express the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
This gives us an opportunity to move towards freedom through the transforming of our hearts and minds with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Then, with pure hearts, we can discern the motives of the people around us.
Specks of sawdust: Discerning the measure of a man
Jesus had an uncanny ability to tell when people were up to no good. He only had to sniff the air and he got wind of some conspiracy or ulterior motive. Often He would cut through the veneer/smokescreen and call it out.
“Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things?” (Mark 2:8)
The apostles spent much of their time teaching the disciples to be discerning about the characters who were influential in the church and the doctrines they taught. They had great concern for the people who were easily swayed by convincing arguments that proved to be heresy or the passion of a speaker who had zeal but no substance. Wolves in sheep's clothing, false prophets, dodgy teachers, and greedy leaders all had to be spotted and called out.
For example, Paul was concerned that the Galatian church had been ‘bewitched’, or fooled into sticking to the old traditions (Galatians 3:1-3). He points out while they sound good, they were being shortchanged. “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.” (Galatians 4:17-18). Their lack of discernment and maturity was causing them to be led back into false religion rather than the freedom the gospel promises by grace.
However, Jesus did not leave them disarmed. He warned them to ‘be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16). And He gave them the Holy Spirit to help them discern when there was more than meets the eye. Minute specks and speckles could be detected, just like the blemishes on worm-riddled fruit.
In one of his most memorable metaphors, Jesus says we can recognise the character of a person by the fruit they produce:
“Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:16-18).
When it comes to discerning a person's character, regardless of the gifts of the Spirit they may be manifesting, we need to be asking, "Are they producing the fruit of the Spirit?"
Jesus used discernment to choose who it was He would give his attention to or not.
“Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for He knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for He knew what was in each person.” (John 2:25)
However, He did entrust himself to a rag-tag bunch of volatile, petty, argumentative men. Why? Because although having discerned their character flaws, He also discerned the call of God on their life.
He saw an unclean woman but discerned her faith - Luke 8:42-48
He saw a short man in a tree but discerned his longing to be accepted - Luke 19:1-10
He saw a man who was an enemy but discerned his humility - Luke 7:1-10
He saw a prominent leader but discerned a father's heart - Luke 8:40-56.
He saw a man sitting under a tree but discerned a pure heart - John 1:47-49
He saw a woman drawing water but discerned a soul thirsty for love - John 4:4-26
He would show them a life, not about rules to define good and bad, but about discerning the will of the Father by walking with the Holy Spirit. They were to be radically transformed by the Holy Spirit to become full of love and fierce defenders of the faith.
When we use discernment to assess the character of a person we must avoid passing judgement. We leave that to God but we can use wisdom to decide how we will interact with them. (Having said that, raising three daughters I have given them permission that if they ever discern something that makes them feel creeped-out or scared of someone, they can unapologetically run away).
In my earlier example, once God had revealed my own pride, He began to soften my heart towards the other person. He began to show me a different perspective and allow me to see the speck in their eye was actually a deep hurt from an unfulfilled dream in their life. In His grace, He gave me insight into their personality and giftings which meant I could approach the issue from a positive and affirming angle, rather than defensive and stubborn. It was still awkward and I got things wrong, but it was a valuable lesson in listening to the Holy Spirit.
Discernment is a gift that allows us to navigate the complexities of human relationships with grace and wisdom. It provides us with an opportunity for repentance, reconciliation, and choosing to move towards a life flourishing with the fruit of the Spirit. Whether we are dealing with planks or specks, it clears our vision to see more clearly imago dei.
May God be gloried in each of us!
All scripture is quoted from NIV translation.
** Shawn Bolz quote from God Secrets: A Life Filled with Words of Knowledge, 2017, ICreate Productions
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