From Heaven or of Men: An Essay on Discernment

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord (Isa. 55:8).

Man is made spiritual and godly by a power which operates in man but which is nevertheless not of man. It is always the working of a sovereign will distinct from  one’s own.  – Lewis Benson

The Religious Society of Friends has its origin in the discovery that the power of God can be felt and known among us in our gatherings for worship. Friends claim that our deepest thoughts and noblest feelings are manifestations of the divine. If, however, we fail to discern the difference between the guiding spirit of God and the products of our own human spirit (that is, our thoughts and feelings), we will be misled into an abbreviated and groundless understanding of who we are and what we can be as human beings. More importantly, we will be unavailable to carry forward the power and wisdom God provides to us for the stabilization and survival of our world.

Distinguishing the difference has been made more difficult in the last century by the prevailing interpretation of Quakerism in our Liberal meetings. The doctrine presented by Rufus Jones, There is that of God in everyone, was a misunderstsanding of George Fox’s statement and thought. As Fox understood it, “that of God in every one” would be known first through the often unexpected realization that one has strayed far from God, a condition one can redress neither by oneself nor with the help of others. (Fox relates in his Journal, “there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition.”) Nothing in the theology of Fox supports the contemporary Quaker notion that “that of God in every one” indicates the innate virtue of our minds and hearts.

In all your tradings…walk in the truth, and this brings righteousness forth. For it answereth the witness of God in every one; which lets every one see all the deeds and actions they have done amiss, and the words they have spoken amiss: So the witness of God within them ariseth a swift witness against them…and brings them to the judgment bar and to condemnation (Works, 7:193).

The need for distinguishing the difference between the spirit of God and our own human spirit is not new. The difficulty was addressed early on in the history of monotheism. We come upon this moment as it is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures–when God begins to move His people forward into a new land and into a new life. He begins with one person, the prophet Moses, and a lesson in discernment is the first item on the agenda:

God called unto him out of the midst of the bush and said Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy   feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Ex. 3:4-6).

Before God identifies himself to Moses, before he makes Himself known, God commands Moses to remove his shoes. Why? for the place whereon he stands is holy. Before the interaction can begin between God and His servant, Moses must first come to the realization that the holy is something other. It is a new category, unlike anything known before in the covered and veiled, limited, human avenues of thought. Through removing his shoes (his man-made covering), baring himself, Moses stands ready to enter into relationship with one who is other than himself.

As God has taught the prophet, so does the prophet teach God’s people: the holy is different from our natural, ordinary ways. The law that Moses gives to the people is intended to raise and instill awareness of the distinction between the holy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the parameters of our natural ideals, inclinations, capacities, and expectations. God is preparing a new place for His people, not only an outward land but a new inward and spiritual place for which Canaan is only a metaphor.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God (Ex. 20: 8-10).

An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me…And if thou wilt make me an altar of    stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone; for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it (Ex. 20:24-25).

Hewn stone, stone shaped by man, is polluted and not suitable for the place to worship God. Clearly, surely the message is conveyed through repetition and variation: The holy is not of man but of God.

These many intricate rules for time and place of worship and conduct of life created a people practiced in discernment, able to differentiate one thing from another, and sensitive to distinctions. The pure was other than the impure, the sanctioned separate from the condemned. The categories were delineated, and observation was paramount. This scrutiny readied the people for the more exacting discernment of the Spirit’s inward promptings, which was to come later.

The prophets, God’s servants, challenged the people to become progressively more sensitive in their spiritual discernment. Samuel in the following verse admonishes the people to hearken, that is, to listen attentively rather than to sacrifice, as the way to honor God:

And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams (1 Sam.15: 22).

Sacrifice originates with and is completed by the worshiper; the human being begins and completes the sacrifice. To hearken, to listen, however, is to invite another into relationship. Through listening, the worshiper becomes an open receptacle, ready to receive. To listen for God is to acknowledge and honor one who is active; it is to recognize that worship is God-driven, not humanely managed. Man is the recipient, not the initiator.

This essential dynamic is restated in the New Testament, early in the book of John. Those given the power to become the sons and daughters of God are those who would receive the Light:

But as man as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,   even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn. 1: 12-13).

Using the same imagery of child birth, Isaiah prophesies: those who have chosen the pure and holy (with its uncorrupted singularity) will bear the new sense of being (God with us) that He begets within:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive,    and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good (Isa. 7: 14-15).

The foremost capability of the son of God is accurate discernment: he discerns and chooses good over evil. Inward, spiritual understanding for the sons and daughters of God is as evident as the sense of taste. The son has tasted and sensed what is good. His knowledge comes by personal experience, as immediate as the sensation that honey is sweet. It is not opinion, not speculation, not logical conclusion, not hearsay, nor conformity to tribal beliefs that informs his understanding. Instead, it is an inward apprehension of the Spirit of God that generates this certainty.

Quaker theologian Robert Barclay in the second proposition of his Apology for the True Christian Divinity affirms the presence of self-evident conviction that accompanies divine illumination:

For this divine revelation and inward illumination is that which is evident and clear of itself, forcing, by its own evidence and clearness, the well-disposed     understanding to assent, irresistibly moving the same thereunto, even as the   common principles of natural truths do move and incline the mind to a natural assent: as, that the whole is greater than its part, that two contradictories can   neither be both true, nor both false (22).

*    *   *

In the scripture account we see a progression from the people’s initial ignorance of the Holy Spirit to their subsequent experiential awareness of the Spirit. The people are guided by their prophets to think in terms of two separate categories: the holy and its opposite, the mundane. Through observing innumerable regulations that pertain to the conduct of their lives, the people learn carefully to distinguish between the two, noting how the holy, the right, and the pure differ from the mundane, the erroneous, and the corrupt. The prophets guide the people from an immature reverence, which is characterized by autonomous oblation or service to the holy, to a more mature worship, which is characterized by the watchful expectation of receiving the Spirit of God. When this epiphany occurs, it carries with it a clear evidence of the divine, as convincing as sensory perception.

This summary describes unhindered growth of spiritual discernment and understanding. Through conscientious attention to their prophets’ guidance and earnest application of their natural gifts of discernment (that is, conscience and reason), the people move forward. Conversely, this process is thwarted when the people choose not to exercise those natural, God-given capacities.

We have an example of this error in the eleventh chapter of the book of Mark. Those needling Pharisees are at it again–provoking Jesus, lying, and doing all the wrong things. In this passage, Jesus puts an either/or question to them: he is challenging them to use their reason and conscience, their God-given gifts for discernment…or not to use them:

And Jesus answered and said unto them, I will also ask of you one question, and   answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, was it from heaven or of men? Answer me. And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why then did ye not believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; they feared the people: for all men counted John, that he was a prophet indeed. And they answered and said unto Jesus, We cannot tell (Mark 11: 28-33).

Do the Pharisees use their reasoning power to discern the truth? No, they perversely use their natural power of reason to secure unworthy aims–to hide their deceit and to maintain their social standing. To Jesus’s question about the source (divine or human) of John the Baptist’s ministry, the Pharisees respond: “We cannot tell.” Ironically, their answer becomes a justly appropriate response to any further quandaries requiring spiritual discernment. They cannot tell, for, in truth, they cannot tell one thing from another. With each corruption of their natural gifts of reason and conscience, they have numbed their sensitivity to the Spirit of truth, so that it cannot be seen, known, or received (Jn. 14: 17):

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are   foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually   discerned (1 Cor. 2: 14).

George Fox often spoke of “tenderness” (or its absence) in the people he encountered as he traveled to minister. This tenderness is what we today call sensitive discernment. It can be nurtured by fully using our natural gifts of reason and conscience to reveal that which we, limited though we are, can know of the true and the good. And conversely, the sensitivity we possess can be diminished or lost by failing to use these gifts. We should choose to exercise conscience and reason fully and concurrently, thus preparing ourselves to receive the life and power which comes alone from God.

For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in   him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God (1 Cor. 2: 11-12).

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1 Response to From Heaven or of Men: An Essay on Discernment

  1. Pingback: The source of discernment?

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