Discernment: The Scalpel We Need
This post was written by Mel Lawrenz
[This article is part of the "spiritual leadership today" study/discussion going on this year. For all articles in the series, click the Spiritual Leadership tab at the top of the page. To have them delivered, subscribe to The Brook Letter]
Discernment is the ability to distinguish true and false versions of reality. Discernment is clear perception, good judgment, and penetrating insight.
How much we all need incisive spiritual leaders today! “Incisive” is a great word, the root of which means “cutting” or “penetrating” (from Latin incidere: to cut into). It is exactly the idea of the New Testament word for discernment (diakrino) which means separation or distinction. The discerning leader approaches challenges and opportunities with a mental and spiritual scalpel. To be discriminating without being discriminatory. To judge without being judgmental. To separate without severing.
Discernment is delicate work.
The discerning leader looks at a situation, not rushing to judgment but being bold enough to eventually make a judgment by separating reality from perception. Good leaders know that perceptions matter, and have to be dealt with, but what really matters is the truth–reality. We can be tempted to think of spiritual leadership as quite subjective, especially given the axiom today that there are many “truths” (even apparent contradictory “truths”) in a given situation. But a surgeon in the operating room has to sever exactly the right tissue, a pilot navigating a valley needs to discern exactly the terrain of that valley, and an engineer needs to decide on exactly the right material with exactly the right rigidity and flexibility to build a stable skyscraper. If incisive discernment is necessary in physical matters, how much more so in spiritual matters.
How much room for error is there in spiritual discernment? We will make errors, but it should never be because we were too quick or too lazy to do the scanning, probing, testing, balancing, consulting, praying work of discernment.
Discernment: A True Spiritual Gift
Discernment is sometimes a quick and instinctive judgment, other times a complex, refined, and difficult process. Discernment is a true spiritual gift. A leader must try to approach situations with no bias or prejudice, even though the leader’s identity and ego are frequently tangled in many leadership challenges. Discernment means looking deeply into important matters, as deep as the human spirit itself. Hebrews 4:12 describes the sharp edge of discernment: “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing [diakrino] soul and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The only sword a Christian leader should wield is the word of God.
Stop and look at it this way. If a leader approaches you offering a judgment of your attitudes, thoughts, or behaviors, how are you going to react? You will probably first recoil–a natural enough reaction. The next thing you will wonder is whether this person has the right to confront you. So you are having to discern the discerner. In some situations the confrontation is proper because of leadership responsibility, sanctified by a motive of love. Other times, you may judge the judger to be more judgmental than judicious.
But let’s say it is all proper. You will be able to constructively handle the voice of that leader if you know that the truth of the word of God is the basis of the advice or direction. This is why discernment is a distinctly spiritual movement. If we are going to be evaluated, corrected, or encouraged–we want God to be the influencer, not just another human being. It is the word of God that is sharper than a sword–not us.
The list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 includes “distinguishing [diakrino] between spirits,” which means that Christian leaders need to discern the distinctions between good and evil intent. (So also 1 John 4:1 says: “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone into the world.”)
Hebrews 5:11-14 speaks of mature believers “who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
And then there is this: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14-16).
This passage defines the essence of spiritual leadership. If a leader is “with” the Spirit, that person “makes judgments about all things” via the mind of Christ. In this, he “is not subject to any man’s judgment,” that is, he is operating in the human/divine nexus which transcends the opinion, sentiment, and criticism of others.
The idea is tested by Scripture to make sure it does not violate basic biblical morals and ethics.
The leader with the conviction keeps in close contact with confidants and is open to a refining of the idea.
This pattern happens all the time in spiritual leadership. Horrendous mistakes can be made, as when the leader is asserting an idea coming from his own imagination and couching it in super-spiritual language, or when it is all about his ego or a personal need to make a name for himself. Good funding, great marketing, and excellent PR do not make towers of Babel anything other than surges of egotism.
We live in a dangerous time. Leaders are able to get away with actions that have little integrity and no discernment because of the increasing distance between them and the people they lead. Leaders exist as two-dimensional figures in an age of virtual platforms where there is little personal accountability. The TV screen flattens, the internet offers a screen behind which the Wizard of Oz pushes the buttons and pulls the levers. The conference spotlight illuminates a body, but not a life. The sheer size of some organizations shields leaders from real evaluation by their constituencies.
And then there are the driving motivations of our competitive culture. Applause comes when leaders get results, whether they are founded on discernment or not. We are satisfied with image, when we should insist on transformation. Microphones add a false resonance to the voices of leaders whose highest skill is grabbing the microphone.
But on a more positive note, we should notice this too: all of the tools and techniques of the world today, though they can be used to obfuscate, obscure, detract, shield, deceive, and manipulate, can also be powerful means of a ministry of discernment to the masses. Today our tools of communication give us access to thousands of perspectives–we just need to use discernment to find them.
What do you think?
This entry was posted on Thursday, February 17th, 2011 at 7:23 am and is filed under Spiritual Influence.
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