The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment
Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2007, 208pp.
Here is an exercise for you: open your purse or wallet and remove a banknote. Now rub it between your fingers. Look closely at the various markings. Hold it up to the light. Is it genuine, or is it counterfeit? How can you tell? This is the analogy Tim Challies uses in his book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment to set up the task of Christian discernment. Christian discernment, he says, is “the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong” (p. 61). Doctrine and practice, like currency, can be the real deal, or they can be ‘funny money’. Only the discerning person can tell the difference.
Challies argues that there is a pressing need for spiritual discernment in Christian life. Biblically speaking, lack of discernment is evidence of spiritual immaturity, backsliding and, potentially, spiritual death. Lack of discernment is equated with sin against God. On the other hand, the discerning person demonstrates his or her own spiritual life, growth and maturity. Ultimately, discernment is a means to the evangelical end of ‘guarding the good deposit’ (2 Tim 1:14)—keeping the gospel central and defending against error. What it is guarded against is the triadic opposition of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and Challies helpfully expounds some of the world’s key cultural interlopers in the church—a secularized worldview, and low views of Scripture, theology and God himself.
The thesis of the book is that discernment is not about an ethereal or subjective sense of God’s will, but a process of sorting error from truth, wrong from right, using the scriptural equipment God has provided for the job. In Bible terms, “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:21-22). This yields two major areas of discernment: knowing the truth and discerning the will of God for our lives.
Here is why this is not just another book on guidance. The former—knowing the truth—is primary: thinking rightly about God is a prerequisite to living in a way consistent with his will. Just as a counterfeit detective must be intimately familiar with genuine currency, knowledge of the truth about God is necessary if the evil and the abnormal are to be detected. Practical discernment then follows, and here Challies makes the distinction between God’s secret will, which is not available to our decision-making, and God’s manifest will, which is explicit in Scripture and which provides the commands, priorities and emphases that govern the discernment process. Confusing the two is what generates many of today’s errors in Christian thinking about guidance.
Challies has also written chapters on discernment as a spiritual gift, on dangers in the exercise of discernment, and on the development of discernment. The latter includes helpful insights about the local church as the proper context for discernment, and the character traits that should attend discernment: humility, meekness and compassion. The final chapter spells out the process of discernment via a case study of one questionable teaching that the reader may have come across in Christian circles: the idea of needing to forgive oneself for past wrongs. The framework Challies advocates entails no less than 17 steps for biblically testing a new teaching or a proposed important decision in order to either abstain or approve as appropriate. This is a good practical application of the book’s thesis, although its numerous overlapping steps left this poor reader a little befuddled.
The main strength of the book is its willingness to do theology first, and to let the pressing demands of morality and guidance come second to issues of truth and falsity in our thinking about God. Some books on guidance appear to take the Christian’s existential need to make decisions as their only starting point, ignoring the more basic need for God-shaped thinking. This is bandaid theology at its worst. I say “Well done!” to Challies, then, for making this a book about spiritual discernment, not just about guidance, and “Well done!” for his frequent reminders to us of the need for prayer and dependence on God at every stage: “All the while it is God who gives the motivation, the desire, the ability, and the power to both know and discern” (p. 71).
However, one topic that could have been developed further is the ‘grey areas’ of discernment—those doctrines and decisions where scriptural priorities and emphases still allow for more than one decision. Challies’s emphasis on “binary distinctions” between right and wrong may put undue pressure on the Christian caught between two seemingly good options (p. 65, 104). Some more case studies on these issues would have been valuable, even without the full rigour of Challies’s 17-step programme.
I was also concerned about the chapter on discernment as a spiritual gift. Challies acknowledges that discernment is not a definitive spiritual gift in Scripture. Nevertheless, he goes on to suggest that some Christians are especially gifted in this area, and defines, with a curious level of detail, what this gift entails and how it should be exercised. I have two issues with this.
Firstly, he blurs the line between gifts and virtues. The former is a manifestation of God’s Spirit particular to individuals (1 Cor 12:4-11), whereas the latter is a pattern of godly behaviour prescribed for the whole church (Phil 1:9-10). To confuse them is to tempt the Christian struggling with ungodliness to resign himself to being ‘ungifted’, rather than to push on to maturity. Having looked at discernment as a sign of Christian growth and maturity, and we might ask whether the ‘especially gifted’ discerner is not simply the mature discerner.
Secondly, the suggested ways of exercising this gift (which include validating teaching, directing others’ spiritual gifts, deciding disputes and protecting new Christians) overlap considerably with the New Testament picture of church leadership. Is Challies setting up a competing authority within the congregation that rests on a subjectively identified gift? 1 Timothy and Titus suggest more holistic qualifications for eldership. We might ask Challies whether discernment is not a godly quality desirable in leaders, rather than a gift requiring leadership roles. To be fair, however, Challies only values the gift of discernment to the degree to which it serves the church, and he maintains the necessity of disciplined discernment for all Christians, gifted or not.
Do I recommend purchasing this book? Yes, it’s the real deal—it’s practical theology, not counterfeit ramblings. Who would I recommend it to? Challies avows that this is a book for regular Christians, not theologians. But I would still recommend Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne’s classic Guidance and the Voice of God to someone wrestling with guidance issues. However, this comes a close second—certainly for someone looking to dig a little deeper to consider the ‘why’ of Christian practice, not just the ‘how’. This is an excellent book for a discipleship pair or for a group to work through, one chapter at a time, keeping in mind my comment on spiritual gifts. More books like this please, Mr Challies: theology and practice belong together.