Spiritual Discernment

[Sorry, but this post had to be a Beagle’s Bark.]

Continuing the theme of the last couple of posts, about intuition verus empiricism, I have wanted for some time to write about this passage in the Bible. The apostle Paul says,

… the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16, NKJV)

So here Paul asserts a third faculty, one beyond reason and intuition: spiritual discernment. What do you think this is?

(Disclaimer: In what follows, I mean to consider spiritual discernment only from a traditional, biblical point of view. I know little of how religions other than evangelical Christianity use the term.)

I was an evangelical for several decades, and I must confess that I never felt I had this spiritual discernment thing figured out. As far as I could ever tell, the feeling is indistinguishable from normal intuition, but (a) it is probably about a spiritual subject and (b) the believer is convinced that God is behind it.

Like secular intuition, spiritual discernment can apparently be honed by years of conventionally acquired knowledge and experience, or diminished by foolish habits. One’s discernment increases with prayer and holiness; it decreases with riotous living. So far, so good.

Insiders-Only Reasoning

What makes me skeptical about spiritual discernment is the exclusivity in the Bible passage above. Supposedly that which is spiritually discerned is “foolishness” to the “natural man” (i.e., the non-Christian or secular person). In fact, this type of knowledge is utterly inaccessible to him, according to the Paul.

The example that Paul uses in the same chapter is the crucifixion of Christ. That God would use such a gruesome, unjust event to bring about forgiveness of sins does seem like foolishness to the unbeliever, but it makes glorious sense to the Christian.

The fact that spiritual knowledge seems irrational to outsiders does not in itself mean it’s false. Most non-scientists would not believe the stunning implications of quantum physics, yet they are true.

So is spiritual discernment on equal footing with advanced science? Do both rely on the same sort of insiders-only reasoning?

Not at all. The scientist — or any other variation of the “natural man” — is convinced that his reasons ought to make sense to anyone who has sufficient background knowledge. He suggests experiments that would invalidate his idea, and invites others to do the same. Whether or not experiments are possible, he attempts to follow universally agreed norms of sound thought. He is willing to change his mind if his interlocutor follows the same norms. He does not claim a special faculty that puts him above everyone else.


An inevitable consequence of insiders-only reasoning, both logically and historically, is that the spiritually discerning person makes himself the judge of everyone else, but allows no-one to judge him. In the passage cited, Paul claims believers “have the mind of Christ” and are therefore fit to judge “all things” literally as if they are Christ himself.

Can we be surprised that the public face of evangelical Christianity in America today consists largely of a mouth — one that pronounces judgement on liberals, homosexuals, the public schools, evolution-believers, scientists who warn us about climate change, those who would interfere with free-market capitalism, and who-knows-how-many other groups? I say this with all humility and regret, as one who was once spoke with that voice.

Scientists can be reluctant to let go of their preferred theories, but not one of them would ever say, “You can’t tell me I’m wrong. I have the mind of Christ and you don’t.”

Where’s the Evidence?

So the spiritually discerning evangelical knows what other people have no hope of knowing and judges them with the mind of Christ. Those are lofty claims indeed. By what evidence does he make them?

Spiritual discernment is by definition beyond physical evidence and even beyond reason. Those who claim to have it seem suspiciously like Martin Harris — one of the Three Witnesses who claimed to have seen the original Golden Plates of the Book of Mormon … but, it turns out, only with “spiritual eyes.” I don’t know about you, but Martin Harris and his ilk do not convince me.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Sometimes the fate of people who believe they are worthy to see what lesser men cannot is downright comical. You know the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Two swindlers convinced an emperor that they could make fabric so exalted that only the worthy and intelligent could see it. The emperor saw this as an opportunity to expose other people’s unworthiness and clothed himself in this supposed fabric — until an honest boy pointed out that the emperor was, in fact, naked.

At other times, comedy is nowhere in sight. Claims of spiritual discernment were at the root of the witch-hunting hysteria that swept Europe, in which tens of thousands of women and men were tortured or executed (the more famous Salem witch trials were small potatoes); the Inquisition that likewise resulted in unspeakable tortures and horrible deaths, and continues in rebranded, milder form until this day; and the religious strife that tears the world apart today like a thousand demons.

He who puts too much stock in spiritual discernment, whether his own or someone else’s, is like one who believes he is truly a magician. He does himself no harm until he attempts to fly off a cliff on a magic carpet, and does others no harm until he attempts to saw them in half.

6 responses to “Spiritual Discernment

  1. Most of the time I have seen this passage, it has been precisely when someone who counts themselves as a Christian uses it to sweep aside any arguments made against their own take on scripture. Whatever the theoretical possibilities, in practice ‘spiritual discernment’ tends to be a real cop-out.

  2. As a professor of Spirituality and Ministry at Drew University, I found your article to be engaging, thought-provoking. But having developed and edited the recently published Henri Nouwen’s posthumous book entitled Discernment: REading the Signs of Daily Life (HarperOne, 2013), I know how he addresses most of your (rightful) concerns about more individual approaches to spiritual discernment.

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  6. TheConvictedMama

    What Paul is referring to as discernment I always thought was for discerning whether something is good (of God) or evil (of the flesh, or Satan). More to examine oneself, or situations, or things. But *never* to judge people. (Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Matt 7:1-2) For example, as I have been drawing closer to God, things stand out to me that never used to. As a mom of 2 preschoolers, this is often in the form of toys, books, movies, etc that are out there today. The first is how much magic, sorcery, and fantastical creatures is in kids’ movies these days. I love fantasy and science fiction. But my “spiritual eyes” have been opened to how this can lead into the occult, or powers that do not emanate from God. But the “natural man” wouldn’t see an issue with these things, and in fact they are very popular.

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