The essential human condition is rooted in being placed before a choice. The classic biblical story of this choice is found in the account of Adam and Eve and their encounter with the command of God to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Greeks also had a story that imagine this choice. In it, young Hercules, while thinking about his future, is visited by two women, one representing Vice and the other representing Virtue. They offer him choices of 1) a pleasant and easy life or 2) a severe but glorious life.
Discernment is the principle tool needed in the deciphering of the choices we have laid before us. Adam and Eve did not enter into this process of discernment, else they might have concluded that to eat the forbidden fruit was an evil choice. Instead they relied on their inner appetites as their direction in the choice.
The word that, in the New Testament, is translated discern is diakrisis which means to evaluate carefully or to make a distinction, in some of its uses. There are a couple of texts that are helpful in seeing how diakrisis behaves.
- Luke 12:56. In this text Jesus criticizes the crowds because of their ability to tell what weather was coming based on the clouds, but who could not tell (discern) what the signs of the times were signaling.
- In 1 Corinthians 11:29. Paul tells the Corinthians church to discern the body which in this case may be the literal body of Christ present in the meal as well as the body of Christ as seen in the church. Discernment would be recognizing and paying attention to.
It should be noted that discernment is not emotional. Emotions, at best, are merely litmus paper or barometric pressure. It’s one’s body saying, “You are responding to the current situation.” But it doesn’t tell you what that means. Emotions are slippery little devils that you can’t depend on for making a decision. They are only our bodies’ way of saying, “pay attention.”
Nor should emotions be confused with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit deals in truth and quantifiable ideas. For example, Paul’s going to Macedonia on his second missionary journey was real; “Don’t go to Asia.” You can see the problem if Paul had merely said, “I don’t have good feelings about Macedonia.”
Feelings alone, make discernment a captive to our fears, doubts, prejudices, and personal preferences.
Discernment takes place in the human heart, which is a euphemism for the mind or the consciousness of mankind. Moses helps us to see how this works in his last speech to Israel, before he died. He said to them, “I have set before you…life and prosperity, death and adversity….If you obey my commands….you shall live and become numerous.” Deuteronomy 30:13-20.
“Getting a feeling” is not discernment. Paying attention, actively searching for the good, and applying theological, moral and spiritual judgment are at the heart of discernment. Tabita Landova says that worship helps us to see our world through the perspective of the Kingdom of God which is absent in emotions alone.
Sooooo. If you’re praying for wisdom and discernment, don’t look for a good or bad feeling. That’s too subjective and dangerous. Look instead for truth, for patterns, and for comparisons to virtue and vice. Look for what you know God has said about the issue at hand, directly or indirectly. It’s only then that you can have any confidence in what you decide.