Spiritual discernment is closely linked to spiritual maturity, and the prevalence of spiritual immaturity (and therefore, a lack of discernment) has been noted as far back as the New Testament itself. This is not a new problem, and so we should not be surprised to find that the reasons for a lack of discernment in the church are also not new or novel. In the 2nd chapter of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, Tim Challies cites internal, spiritual, and external forces that combine to undermine our spiritual growth and in so doing remove any hope of learning to discern truth from error. In writing to the church at Ephesus about their former way of life, the apostle Paul points to these same three forces which once governed them: “…you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh…” Indeed, these challenges have always faced believers and must be conquered today if we are going to grow to maturity and have real discernment.
Internal Influences – The first threat that we face is found within our own hearts, which are corrupt and deceitful and understood only by God (Jer. 17:9). Whenever we set out to practice discernment we will find our own sinful hearts fighting against us. But thankfully, God has given us the Holy Spirit of Christ who not only understands the sin within our hearts but has also been tasked with transforming us into the image of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). You are not alone in the battle with your sinful flesh, and with the Spirit’s help and guidance you may be empowered to fight for discernment as you grow in obedience to God’s will.
Spiritual Influences – The devil is a very real enemy, and although he is cunning and crafty, his tactics have remained relatively unchanged throughout human history. The reason for this is that they are highly effective. Jesus said of Satan in John 8:44, “When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.” Falsehood, deception, and trickery are his tools, and he uses them to great effect. He often promotes subtle errors that appear to be true or blends lies with the truth so that the undiscerning will not recognize it for what it is. Such was the case with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. This couple sold some land that belonged to them and gave the proceeds to the church, keeping back a portion of the money for themselves. There was absolutely nothing wrong with this. They had every right to the money, because the property was theirs to keep or to sell. But they claimed that they were giving it all to the church.
Satan mixed truth (that they had a right to keep all the money) with a lie (that they had a right to claim they had given it all to the church), and provoked them to lie to the Holy Spirit. For this foolish and prideful act, the Spirit struck Ananias and Sapphira dead when their sin was exposed. This has been Satan’s way from the beginning of history when he deceived Eve in the garden (1 Tim. 2:14). However, God has provided the means by which we may stand against the devil and his spiritual assault. The apostle Paul describes it in detail in Ephesians 6:13-18, and Challies summarizes: “We have truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, and the Spirit to guard us. We have the Word of God to do battle for us. Through it all we pray to the Spirit to protect and guide us against the schemes of the devil.” It is possible, by God’s grace, to defeat the spiritual forces which would lead us away from discernment and spiritual growth.
Cultural Influences – The world around us is hostile to God and to the truth of his word. Challies points out 4 ways that our culture opposes discernment in Christians, beginning with a secular worldview. This is a way of thinking about the world that is shaped by one’s own ideas and understanding of the world. The only way to combat a worldview that is based on such flawed human reasoning is to build one’s worldview on biblical truth. As Challies explains, “This worldview will allow us to think Christianly and to see the ugliness of error and the beauty of truth.”
A low view of Scripture is demonstrated by the skeptic’s claim that the Bible contains errors, and also by the dependence of many Christians on things other than Scripture for guidance in life and ministry. Searching for wisdom through feelings, voices, visions, or other mystical revelations is dangerous, as is depending on business strategies for church growth or the latest trends in psychology for counseling. Challies concludes, “We can only judge between what is wrong and what is right when we know what God says to be true. We can know this only from Scripture.”
A low view of theology usually comes from misunderstanding what theology is and what it does. Many people mistakenly think that theology is dry and dusty – suitable only for stuffy seminary classrooms, or divisive – suitable only for angry debates. In fact, theology simply means “the study of God,” and therefore it is necessary if we are going to practice our faith according to the truth.
Finally, Challies explains that a low view of God is seen by the popular desire to see God as “fun…[existing] for our benefit, and who can be he butt of endless jokes.” In contrast the Bible declares God to be holy – unable to tolerate any manner of sin, and calls each of us to the same standard of holiness. It is only by discerning right from wrong and truth from error that we can learn to imitate God in his glorious holiness. Discernment is a serious challenge, therefore we must be willing to take it seriously.