The Gift Of Discernment
by Matthew Cramer
The word “discernment” is often used these days to cover many different meanings. As faith filled Christians, we want to know the will of God for our lives, what mission He wants us to accomplish, and what are the correct strategies to accomplish that mission. None want to be deceived into pursuing false paths, or be prevented from following the correct ones. And, we desperately need the capability to distinguish Our Lord’s assistance from that of “the world, the flesh and the devil”.
Let’s look at four different kinds of “discernment”.
First, we’re born with the intellectual capability to identify and understand the significant essence of various situations and issues that confront us; assess appropriate risk, benefit and priority tradeoffs; then choose amongst them. The dictionary defines discernment as: “…the faculty of discerning; discrimination; acuteness of judgment and understanding.” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.)
Natural discernment is a primary tool — part of the created capabilities given to us by God — that makes us human, and distinguishes us from the rest of creation. As I approach a traffic light that’s green, I have the mental capability to estimate how old the light might be, whether or not I should speed up before it changes, what would happen if the light turned red too soon, what are the possible consequences of that risk — and then decide to speed up, hold a constant speed, or slow down. (I’m ignoring Ruth Ann’s usual injunction: “…pedal to the metal Matthew!”)
The biggest problem with our innate capacity to discriminate and judge, is that its starting condition is uninformed and untrained. It’s easily misled by the whims of our fickle emotional desires, and the deceptions and accusations of evil.
At best, our natural discernment capabilities are matured in only one, or a limited few areas. A business manager has considerably more training in the broad assessments of risk than a professional basketball player; but he couldn’t do well in detecting and defending against the sophisticated plays used on the court.
A second category of discernment involves the acquisition of training, education and experience we receive in life. We call this worldly wisdom.
Society has long followed a model of healthy family life and education of children up through about age 25 (give or take) to inform, train and impart a certain amount of experiential wisdom to the newcomer. Unfortunately, not all of us are raised in a healthy family life; few of us are PhD’s, some have Master’s degrees, more graduate college, and still too many, don’t graduate high school.
In today’s culture, family life and education are assailed from many directions: divorce, co-habitation, absentee fathers, and pornography; sex education and contraception in school that indirectly condones fornication and promiscuity; violence, sexual degradation, and blasphemy in the arts, media and entertainment that cheapens life and faith; and so on. Thus, the education and training of our natural discernment abilities is spotty at best, and routinely inadequate.
My own background is a case in point. I was born in 1934, long before the morality busting 1960’s. Nevertheless, my parents were divorced and I had no father figure on which to model and be mentored. I was very rebellious, sinned and went to Confession a lot.
Ruth Ann and I were married at age 19 and 17, respectively; children soon followed. I did receive some Catholic education, and I completed one year of college before the needs of raising a family became top priority. I held three jobs for many of the early years.
I learned the lessons of life as I went along, feeling overwhelmed much of the time; picking mentors where I could. I graduated college at age of 53. Present at the ceremony were four grandchildren. My Master’s degree was completed 5 years later, just two years short of age 60.
When I look back, I rate my success ratio as moderate. There were so many mistakes made, as a husband, father and employee, that could have been avoided if I’d known then what I know now. That I learned important life lessons too late to avoid significant mistakes, is my primary motivation for writing, speaking and teaching. I want to pass on the significant lessons I learned; lessons that I wish someone had taught me early on.
I cite my background, not to call any special attention to it, but rather to illustrate how often many of us don’t receive proper education, training, mentoring and formation of our natural discernment capabilities. Yes, some seem to get the hang of things, right from the get-go. But for most of us, our training and formation is acquired from that well-known institution, “The Universal College of Hard Knocks” (“…at’s near the Fort where they stores the gold”).
Nevertheless, we do learn from our mistakes and other helpful information we receive. How much, and how fast the maturity of our discernment capability will grow, depends on our ability to effectively manage our emotional appetites, and our willingness to change our behavior once convicted it’s necessary.
Sound’s straight forward — but it’s not easy. Because, while we’re learning our lessons and trying not to repeat our mistakes, we’re bombarded with unhealthy offerings from our culture, our fickle appetites, and evil.
So, even our partially trained, natural capabilities find it difficult to navigate amidst worldly wisdom that says, “Once burned, shame on you, twice burned, shame on me”; and Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek”. This is why life without Our Lord and the release of the Holy Spirit is so dangerous.
This category proceeds directly from our relationship with The Lord — I call it spiritual wisdom. As you might suspect, our spiritual abilities need to acquire formation and wisdom, just as our natural abilities do.
When we’re baptized, we receive the new life of Jesus, including the Holy Spirit, to replace the broken Adamic life of sin that we inherited at conception. The Scriptures tell us, however, that we must die to self in order to fully release, and be transformed into, this new life. (See also What Jesus Did and Embracing Conflict With Hope.)
“Dying to self” is a long, sometimes tortuous and painful process, as we must put to death our old, Adamic self in order to release the new life. The death, of course, is not physical. It’s painful, nonetheless, as it frequently involves saying “no” to what may be very legitimate desires and objectives, but are not, in the current situation, consistent with God’s will.
A probing Christian once asked the question: “How do I know when I’ve died to self?” A wise man answered: “Dead men have no preferences!”
This death/new life process involves crucial choices, which means we need good discernment to make the right ones. But we’ve already seen that, on a natural level, making the right choice is a dicey proposition. In other words, we need God’s wisdom to make choices that reflect God’s will, spiritual wisdom that is received through our relationship with The Lord.
The relationship is established through Baptism and a deliberate decision to become His disciple. But our end of the relationship is not self-perpetuating. It must constantly be nourished and matured through prayer, praise, petition, listening, spiritual writings, the Sacraments of the Church and repentance.
Our Lord described the Holy Spirit as our Advocate. Through His action, The Lord speaks to us, warns us, affirms us, points us in the right direction, helps us choose between right and wrong, and discern amongst the good.
Ruth Ann and I were driving back from San Francisco towards our home in Sacramento. It was about 8:00 at night and the freeway was nearly empty. From San Francisco, the freeway crosses the Oakland Bay Bridge and proceeds up a series of hills before dropping down into the Sacramento Valley.
As we climbed the western slope of the hills, a car — speeding recklessly — blew by me and disappeared over the top of the hill, while the driver gestured that I was going too slow for his approval. I was sorely tempted to speed up to catch his license number — and perhaps make some gestures of my own. But I distinctly sensed The Lord impress on me, “Slow down!” This made no sense as the traffic was light and I was not exceeding the speed limit. So I resisted, but my sense from The Lord remained firm.
Then as I yielded to Him and began to slow down, we crested the top of the hill and were immediately confronted with a crisis. The speeding car that passed me earlier, had crashed into another car in my lane. The crash scene had been obscured from view because it was just over the top of the hill. I slammed on my brakes but it was clear I could not stop in time. Tires squealing, Ruth Ann hanging on for dear life, I swerved sharply right to escape the crash scene, then swerved sharply back onto my lane to avoid hitting another car that had slowed to rubberneck.
If I hadn’t slowed down and instead sped up, I would have slammed into the crash site, or rolled the car in the violent maneuver to avoid it. Few of my communications with Our Lord are as dramatic as this example. But there’ve been others.
On a more regular basis, I receive assistance and wisdom from The Lord every day in many different ways. It might be through insight I receive in study, an unintentional word spoken by someone else, a remembrance of something important I’d forgotten, direction to implement or avoid a contemplated action, and so on. In each case, I have free will to make my own choice, but I’ve learned to treat, what appears to be His input, very seriously.
As with anyone with whom we want to establish an intimate relationship, it takes time, priority investment in the relationship, and experimentation to recognize His voice with any significant degree of certainty. We’ve all experienced the embarrassment of answering the phone and — having assumed the voice belonged to someone we knew and loved — responded enthusiastically, only to discover we had wrongly assumed and the voice was selling vacuum cleaners.
Six of our grandchildren are boys, and one or more of their voices are always in change. I have to regularly relearn the sound of their voices; else I risk fun-loving derision from my progeny.
I believe Our Lord has a unique way of speaking to each of us. When we risk the experiments and make the investment, we are assured that, over time, we will learn to recognize His voice. He will impart a significant amount of Wisdom to us that matures our spiritual discernment, and we will grow in confidence that He is with us, side by side, 24/7.
THE GIFT OF THE DISCERNMENT OF SPIRITS
Let’s turn to the spiritual gift of the Discernment of Spirits listed in 1 Corinthians 12:10. The Greek word and its root used in this verse includes the same meanings as the dictionary definition used earlier; distinguish differences, judge the relative importance of these differences, etc. But the Greek word also refers to root or source, avoidance and withdrawal.
Scriptures tell us that evil can appear to us as “Angels of Light”. It’s frequently noted that Evil doesn’t care if we do a good thing or a bad thing, they just don’t want us to do the God thing. Seldom are we confronted with the thought; “Hi! I am an evil spirit, and here’s what you should do.” Instead, we are attacked by suggestions wrapped in good sounding rationale, threats of guilt or fear, demands of exaggerated emotional appetites, and kindred temptations.
Worse still, these deceptions and accusations often happen at times when we are most vulnerable: tired, stressed out, under pressure, and so on. It’s precisely at these times we need discernment from the Gift of the Discernment of Spirits, to see through the outer wrappings that hide these temptations, with enough certainty to judge their error and consequences, withdraw from their inducements, and deny them influence in our actions.
As in other communications with Our Lord, Discernment of Spirits acts in each of us in unique ways. Nevertheless, there are five forms that seem fairly common.
- First is an overall sense of grayness or brooding. When we were in Steubenville, Ruth Ann and I were tasked to find housing for conferences attendees. Our job was to visit motels in the area to secure commitments ahead of time. Because the area has limited capacity, we had to visit many small motels on the local highways.
One very large, multi-level motel had arranged its units in the shape of a “U”, with a huge, gravel-covered parking area in the center. Just as we turned into the parking area, I sensed a significant foreboding in my spirit. I stopped the car and asked Ruth Ann if she was sensing the same thing. She said “yes”.
We sat there for a few moments but there was no change in our spiritual senses. Not wanting to pursue the matter further, we turned around, crossed that motel off the list, and continued on down the highway.
A week later, the police busted a large prostitution ring that catered exclusively to truckers at that motel. Hence, the huge gravel parking area. Certainly not the sort of place you want to book for Bishops, priests or business people attending a Charismatic conference at the University.
- A second form of communication from the Discernment gift is what many people call “a check in my spirit”. A particular action you are considering seems OK. All the signs are there: good motive, scripturally sound, within your resources, and a genuine desire to accomplish it. But somehow, no matter how many different ways you look at it, it just doesn’t seem quite right. You don’t know why, but you have no “release” to begin.
When this happens, it’s best to wait, not to force. Put actions on hold until things become clearer and you sense a release to begin. The timing may be off, it may be a clever deception, there may be some other task Our Lord wants you to do that is more in tune with His will, and so on.
Bob Mumford tells the story of a preacher who sensed The Lord calling him to move to Canada and start a ministry there. Obedient, he sold his belongings, moved the family to Canada and started the ministry.
But the results were disastrous. So the preacher sought The Lord about what had gone wrong. In prayer, he reminded The Lord that he had acted on what he thought was a word from Him before he left. The Lord’s response was: “I said go, I didn’t say now!”
- A third form is what I call the Life test. You find yourself in a situation that drains spiritual life from you. Your confidence, sense of joy in The Lord, and conviction of the appropriateness of your actions seems to drain away.
Assuming you did not initially force past a check in your spirit, you can dismiss whatever inputs are draining your spirit, and continue on. In these situations, I assume if The Lord has something to say in this area, He knows how to do it without draining spiritual life from me. The Holy Spirit convicts and brings life; He does not accuse.
In the early days of our prayer meeting in Sacramento, attendance had grown considerably, and I was considering how to involve more people with the various responsibilities. One night, I got a call from a woman who whispered she had a word from The Lord for me. Her input was that I was stifling the spiritual growth of those in the prayer meeting, that I should back away, let others do more.
I thanked the woman and hung up, only to be immediately confronted by a substantial dose of spiritual death. I felt a knife had been thrust into the pit of my stomach, and guilt was covering me. Deciding all this negativity couldn’t be from The Lord, I chose to ignore her suggestions, and moved on.
Later, The Lord showed me how my current approach was, in fact, stifling growth. But this time, there was no negativity. The input was quiet, peaceful, encouraging, spiritually uplifting, and helpful. This left me free to implement changes that brought more life and growth to the prayer meeting.
- The fourth area of communication in the gift of the Discernment of Spirits is Direct Revelation— we get a specific sense that a particular spirit or tactic is at work. This is the most unreliable form we encounter because, like prophecy, it’s so easily counterfeited. It’s subject to our personal interpretations which, in turn, are regularly influenced by our own biases, agendas and experience; and it requires specific confirmation before it can be labeled useful.
Ruth Ann and I have been in the healing ministry for more than 30 years. We’ve found through experience that Direct Revelation can be an effective use of the Discernment gift. But I am obliged to caution you that Direct Revelation must be managed closely, with great love, tact, and considerable skepticism.
- Finally, we consider the fifth area: What happens when the Discernment Gift confirms the action of The Lord? I saved this for last because it is the easiest to talk about, and the one with which we are most familiar. The Holy Spirit confirms Himself through evidence of the character and the presence of Jesus.
Most important to me is peaceful conviction. I like to call it a “quiet, confident yes”. The decision you are making may send you down a road that is easy or difficult. But if you have that quiet, confident yes, you are assured The Lord is with you and you are acting in His plan.
There are no begging emotional demands, no desires or agendas to be fulfilled, no clever strategies for fame and fortune, just a quiet, confident yes; this thing must be done by me.
It‘s important to note that all four types of discernment (Natural Discernment, Worldly Wisdom, Spiritual Wisdom, and the gift of the Discernment of Spirits) work together. It is not necessary to know, at any one time, whether you are using any one, or all of them. What is important is that your relationship with The Lord is always growing and maturing so you’ll recognize his voice as you travel with Him along your path to Heaven.
Each of us must develop our own recognition of The Lord’s action in our lives. It is the Holy Spirit, and the gift of the Discernment of Spirits, that assists us in this endeavor. So keep working at it. Don’t let up. You may be assured that growth, maturity and confidence will result.
An excellent scripture to study in this area is Sirach 51. A few verses are:
“Come aside to me, you untutored, and take up lodging in the house of instruction; How long will you be deprived of wisdom’s food, how long will you endure such bitter thirst?
I open my mouth and speak of her: gain, at no cost, wisdom for yourselves. Submit your neck to her yoke, that your mind may accept her teaching. For she is close to those who seek her, and the one who is in earnest finds her.
See for yourselves! I have labored only a little, but have found much. Acquire but a little instruction; you will win silver and gold through her.
Let your spirits rejoice in the mercy of God, and be not ashamed to give him praise. Work at your tasks in due season, and in his own time God will give you your reward.” (Sirach 51:23-30 NAB)