Christian spiritual discernment grows as we commit to becoming disciples of Christ. Discipleship requires that we learn to obey. We study God’s word, pray, worship, fast, and engage in a host of other disciplines so that we can resist being formed by the world and, instead, be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:1). As Dwight Moody notes, “There are many of us that are willing to do great things for the Lord, but few of us are willing to do little things.” The simple, ongoing, concrete practices of the faith are indispensable to developing the ability to discern Christianly. Without the guidance of God’s word, we would be rudderless and forced to navigate the rough waters of life with no particular guidance.
In addition to those practices, we may add some basic frameworks that can help us understand the world and those in it well. Christian discernment is not simply an intuition we develop as we sit at the feet of Jesus over time (though I believe that it requires us to do so!). It is also an effortful process through which we use our God-given intelligence to look with eyes that see and listen with ears that hear. There are some practical steps we can take to perceive the world more faithfully.
What Is Christian Discernment?
What does discernment mean? Christian discernment emerges from the theological conviction that “our conformity to the mindset of Christ is only partial; our transformation by the Spirit is an ongoing quest to envision Christ properly and to manifest his image in particular situations” (Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God). As grateful as we should be for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our limitations have implications for how we should interact with the contributions others make to formal disciplinary discussion or to public discourse more generally.
Discernment is an inherently evaluative practice employed to guide one’s thoughts and actions (cf. Gen 41:39; Prov 23:4; Mal 3:18; Eph 5:10; Heb 5:14). Christian discernment is governed by God’s word and nested in discipleship. Our discernments are not based on our own thoughts and preferences, but seek to judge and determine as we re guided by God’s word and the Holy Spirit. As we discern, we will evaluate, critique, correct, and contribute. Yet, we must not lose sight of our properly Christian objective of being and making disciples (Matt 28:18-20), which is rooted in a love of God and neighbor.
While discernment requires that we weigh positions and perspectives to identify falsehood, deficiencies, and relevance, discernment, like any practice, has the potential to be dismissive, or demeaning. Discernment can lead us to advance self-serving agendas when not practiced with charity. We would be wise to keep in mind that we are not a blank slate. We exercise discernment with a particular perspective that is informed by our educational background, life experiences, and current social setting. At times, our commitments to a particular position or group may be too strong. We may make the mistake of assuming that God won’t surprise us by working outside the limits of our organization, society, or systems.
At root, Christian discernment is a means by which we seek to orient ourselves rightly to God and others. First, we orient ourselves to God by recognizing that our role is not simply to discern, but to discern so as to demonstrate that we love God with all we are and have. Christian discernment is always potentially self-sacrificial because when we discern, we seek to give ourselves over to God’s leading. We discern with the expectation that, at any moment, God will prompt us to think, speak, and act in unexpected ways. We expect that discernment will lead us toward transformation.
Second, we orient ourselves to others through mutual giving and receiving. In Romans 1:11-12, Paul expresses his ongoing desire to visit the church in Rome noting, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you–that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Here, Paul gestures toward the sort of reciprocity that is to exist within the Christian community. We give to and receive from one another. We contribute to and benefit from the community of faith. As we discern, then, we do not shy away from making a contribution any more than we should resist the guidance and thoughts of others. Christian discernment is never isolated discernment. We always discern as members of Christ’s body. As such, our discernments have implications beyond our own lives. We discern toward the body of Christ and decide on a course of action that will strengthen God’s people.
Aspects of Christian Discernment
Christian discernment involves more than a judgment about what is “true” or “false.” While it is certainly important to consider the veracity of one claim or another, many of the choices we face or perspectives we consider are multi-layered and, thus, are not reducible to “true” or “false.” Christian discernment must continue to include judgments related to truth and falsehood, as well as considering perspectives and situations from fresh angles. We need paradigms that will help us to discern on multiple levels.
While there is no single paradigm or framework that will make our discernment “bullet-proof,” employing a variety of frameworks can help us to discern rather than “going with our gut” and making snap judgments. One such framework is what I call the “Four Quadrant Approach to Christian Discernment.” It is based on an aspect of John Vervaeke’s work in cognitive psychology. Vervaeke identifies four interconnected “ways of knowing,” which he labels (1) propositional, (2) procedural, (3) perspectival, and (4) participatory.
Propositional knowing, according to Vervaeke, is about knowing “that.” For instance,we know that Jesus died on the cross. Propositional knowing is about facts and assertions. Our evaluations in this quadrant seek to distinguish what is true from what is false. We observe what is being claimed either explicitly through statements (e.g., “God does not exist”) or implicitly through actions (e.g., disregard shown for human life through abuse, predjudice, or murder may reflect a faulty view of God).
As we discern in this quadrant, we need to consider the full counsel of God’s word. No one individual has exhaustive knowledge. No one individual can put all the pieces of a situation together. As such, we need to be in consultation with others so that our collective observations and understandings can guide the discernment process.
This sort of knowing refers to the skills and abilities we are capable of exercising. It could refer to something as mundane as tying one’s shoes or as technical as proving a mathematical theorem. In either case, this sort of knowing is about knowing how rather than knowing that.
As we discern within this quadrant, we need to remember that we may be tempted to discern toward our own strengths and skills. For instance, I’ve been involved with weight training most of my life. I was a personal trainer for five years while pursuing my Master of Divinity. When people ask me for exercise advice or if I’m considering my own physical fitness, I am far less likely to recommend yoga. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the physical poses of yoga (though I appreciate the caution many Christians have about the pseudo-spiritual side of much yoga practice); however, my skill set would almost always lead me to recommend weight training.
Perspectival knowing refers to knowing from a particular point-of-view at a particular moment in time. It involves the identification of the relevant factors within a given situation. What one individual deems as relevant may be less relevant to someone else. We may also deem some factors relevant for different reasons than others. For instance, some voters may be more interested in (or deem more relevant) a candidate’s plan for economic recovery than in her/his position on social issues.
As we discern in this quadrant, we would be wise to recognize that people see the world from different angles. Think of an art class in which students sitting around a table are asked to draw a basket of fruit in the middle of the table. Each student will draw what she/he sees from her/his perspective. The aspect of the basket they can’t see isn’t relevant to them because the task they have been asked to complete is to render the basket from a particular position.
This sort of knowing involves the interplay of multiple elements within our environment. We begin to draw connections between ourselves and the world that inform our ongoing interactions with our environment and the people within it. The general idea is that our environments afford us certain opportunities while limiting others. As we interact with the various elements of our environment, we demonstrate how it is that we understand what it means to be part of God’s creation.
As we discern within this quadrant, we seek to consider the difference between walking by faith and walking by sight. Understanding that God interacts with us, transcends the limitations of our environment, or reveals to us possibilities afforded by our environment that we might not otherwise see, changes our participatory knowing. For instance, consider the elements involved in the Lord’s supper. The bread and wine Christians take during communion is turned into a vehicle for remembrance within the context of the liturgical act. If the bread and wine were absent (and there were no substitute), we would experience the Lord’s Supper in a fundamentally different way even if we went through the rest of the liturgy.
Similarly, having bread and wine while out for a dinner date or a business meeting would generally not have the overtones associated with participating in the Lord’s Supper. In the practice of the Lord’s supper, we enter an environment in which the bread and the wine become more than bread and wine. We co-create something new and significant with the bread, the wine, the words spoken in the liturgy, and the people with whom we take communion that isn’t necessitated by simply eating bread and wine.
Illustrating the Four Ways of Knowing
To illustrate how the four ways of knowing work, consider the following.
Propositional: A bicycle is a mode of transportation.
This claim is either true or false. Clearly there are other claims that could be made about a bicycle (e.g., it has two wheels). So in addition to discerning whether the claim is true or false, the selection of claims made hints toward perspectival knowing.
Procedural: I don’t know how to ride a bike (I do know how to ride a bike, but for the sake of this example let’s suspend that reality)
While this claim could also be judged as true or false, it is a statement about procedural skill. It is about knowing how. Having the skill to ride a bike isn’t something that is true or false, but a sort of knowledge that involves our ability to do something.
Perspectival: I’m late for a meeting across town. I go out to my garage and my car won’t start. I need a mode of transportation other than my feet. I scan the garage for options, see the bikes hanging up, and quickly pass over them since I don’t know how to ride a bike. I see a pair of roller blades in the corner and decide they are my best option.
In this scenario, I’m trying to discern relevance from my own point of view at a given moment. I’m in need of a mode of transportation. The car is irrelevant because it won’t start. The bike, despite being a mode of transportation, is irrelevant to me because I don’t have the skill required to ride it. Since I know how to rollerblade, those become a relevant mode of transportation for me at the moment. Note that my lack of procedural skill does not negate the fact that the bike is a mode of transportation. It simply makes it irrelevant to me because I can’t ride a bike.
Participatory: The rollerblades have gone from being recreational to essential. They are no longer something I wear to have fun or to get exercise, but to help me get from where I am to where I am going more quickly. While they perform the same function as they always have, their symbolic value and overall importance in the moment has changed. In my little world, the rollerblades have become something new and they are allowing me to do something I would not otherwise be able to do.
Again, in this scenario, I am having an embodied experience. I am feeling some mild desperation because I’m late and my normal mode of transportation (i.e., the car) is unexpectedly disabled. I look to my environment to provide some sort of solution and, as I do so, scan it for relevant affordances that will allow me to get to where I need to go faster. The rollerblades and I “co-create” a means of moving from point A to point B and, in doing so, create a new way of being in the world.
Using the Framework in Christian Discernment
The Four Quadrant Approach to Christian Discernment has multiple applications, particularly within a national and cultural moment in which expressing and advocating polarizing opinions has replaced baseball as the national pastime. I’ll highlight what I believe to be two applications.
I’ve found the four quadrant approach helpful as I think about my own thinking. It has been helpful to begin recognizing how propositional claims intermingle with my limited skill sets and point of view. The way I see the world isn’t just a string of true or false statements strung together. I see the world through an interpretive lens. I use a narrow set of truth claims to inform my understanding of what is relevant in a given situation. Ultimately, the ways I interact with my environment are conditioned by what I know, what I know how to do, and what I deem to be relevant in the moment. As we become more aware that our understandings of the world are incomplete, we can remain open to hearing from and receiving the contributions of others.
In Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey suggests that effective people “seek to understand before being understood.” The four quadrant approach is exceptionally helpful in seeking to understand because it allows those who are receiving a particular perspective to “segment” what is being said into smaller segments. In my experience, discussions (or debates) often devolve into arguments that adhere to a claim/counter-claim structure.
In other words, one person makes an assertion and another person refutes that assertion with another assertion. Such a structure may well be necessary within a discussion when a false claim is advanced as though it were true. However, often the claims being made are both true, thus suggesting that the disagreement is not at the level of propositional knowing, but on one of the other levels. For instance, it is possible to agree that a claim is true while disagreeing that the claim is relevant.
Using the four quadrant approach to analyze the positions of others allows us to separate ourselves from the “heat of battle” and to really consider not only if we disagree, but why we disagree. Once we understand why we disagree, we can do a better job of asking questions and expressing our own position in ways that will allow us to be winsome.
Discernment is no easy task. It requires that we sit at the feet of Jesus to learn from the Master. It is often less about learning to read the tea leaves of life than it is about sorting through our own anxieties, frustrations, and selfishness so that we can see clearly just how God wants us to follow him. The Four Quadrant approach and other frameworks like it offer us the opportunity to slow down, to think, and, ultimately, to pray. It disciplines our thinking and reactions allowing us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19). Good discernment often requires time. As such, the use of frameworks can be useful in helping us to develop the “space to have the sort of slow, deliberate dialogues [with others and with the Lord] that reflect our deep conviction that discerning the Spirit is crucial to offering faithful testimony” (Spencer, Thinking Christian).
JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind