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Practicing Discernment

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Practicing Discernment

January 17, 2017

By Konnie Vissers

This past Sunday was week 2 of our sermon series “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus.” We read from Mark 2, but focused in on the verses where the Pharisees are testing Jesus and trying to trap him in blasphemy because he said that a man’s sins were forgiven. Verses 8-12 are what we really zoned in on: “At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’’”

Jesus then tells the man to walk and the man gets up, takes his mat, and walks. This is one of the first miracles in Mark, but what we are focusing on this week is the part before the miracle, the part where Jesus perceived in his spirit.

Discernment can be described in many different ways. I would err on the side of the Apostle Paul who exhorts one of his church plants to “test the spirits,” a form of discernment. To remove the religious jargon from that definition, discernment is to wisely test intentions and meanings.

On Sunday Pastor Andrew defined discernment as, “the ability to see a situation or a person the way God sees them.”

Charles Spurgeon, a historic figure in preaching is known to have said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”

Discernment is basically having a good sense about the people and things around you. All throughout the gospels (the first four books of the New Testament), Jesus exercises discernment, and is able to recognize intentions and perceive what is in people’s hearts before they speak.

Discernment has many different definitions, but I think the essence of it is some combination of the above. The problem is that discernment is very difficult to practice. Some people have a gift of discernment and are able to exercise it from a young age. For others, it does not come so naturally. But I do believe it is something we can all practice to an extent, whether we are gifted with it or not.

I said each week that I would provide some sort of spiritual practice or tool you can use throughout the week to deepen your faith and understanding, something I will do alongside readers. Many of the practices are coopted or adapted from Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. (I would highly recommend this book for Christians who want to take their faith deeper—it is not nearly as rigid as it sounds).

As if last week’s practice of solitude wasn’t enough of a challenge in this world, I will be talking about fasting this week. But before you shut your laptops or turn off your phones, hear me out…

Fasting is normally associated with food, but according to one explanation, “The purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off the things of this world and instead focus on God.” In Jesus’ day, the average person did not have innumerable distractions and pressures that took their focus from God—no email, no cell phone interruptions, no social media rings, dings, or pings. But we live in a me-focused culture where more, more, more is never enough. We are constantly told by media and advertising that if we just buy one more thing we are sure to find happiness.

We rarely practice habits of intentional denial for practical growth. 

But intentional denial does not need to be ascetic, rather it should flow from a settled place of desiring to go deeper in faith, and focus more attention on God. I think that when this happens, and when fasting from something is done in this Spirit, it helps us to listen to the heart of God…It helps to discern.

*Sidebar: I want to be very clear, that this practice, along with any other I discuss in this blog, does not earn you anything. This does not make you a better Christian. If anything, if your heart is in the wrong place, it would make you a bit like the Pharisees (see later in Mark 2). Christianity is the only religion where you don’t earn your way into heaven, to be with God, you only need accept the gift of Jesus’ grace and sacrifice. It’s not a matter of being a good enough person to “get in” to heaven.

With that in mind, when we practice fasting for a time (from food, or alcohol, or television, or social media, or whatever might be something that distracts us from a deepening relationship with God), it is reflective of faith. It doesn’t gain us any love or salvation.

Intentional fasting doesn’t change God’s view of us; it changes us from within.

So, if you are going to participate in this week’s challenge, what are you going to fast from? If it is food, make sure that you are in a physical and psychological place to do that well (please read further on this topic, and safe ways to fast). Other things you might wish to fast from are television, social media, checking email (outside of work), alcohol, sex, coffee or tea, basically anything that you use everyday that would affect your life fairly dramatically if given up.

And when you choose something, the next step is to figure out what to do with that extra time, resource, energy, money. This is where the discernment piece comes in. This week, for one week, I recommend replacing that time spent on prayer and being with God. I, personally, am giving up television. I know that is not the most religious expression, but it is something that distracts me most evenings from going deeper with God. With that time freed up I plan to write in my prayer journal, read the Bible, and pray. In practicing these things, I know God will grow discernment in my life. How will God grow discernment in your life?

Journal Questions:

  1. What thing in your life distracts you most from God day to day (If it is your kids…pick the second biggest distraction)?
  2. What would your week look like if you gave that up? How much free time, energy, money would you save?
  3. As the week goes on, write down what God is doing in and through this practice in a journal of some sort. What changes do you see forming in your life?
  4. How has this changed your capacity to discern during the fast? Do you think this will have long-term effects?

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