Part Three of a Three-Part series titled "Whatever Happened to Biblical Discernment?"
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)
If I see my own sin in you, it looks horrible. If I see it in me, it looks — oh, not bad, kind of cute.
Hopefully I don’t need to point out what a problem that is.
If we want to know truth and live right, then we’ve got to develop the ability to sort truth from error, and wrong from right. That means we have to discern.
As pointed out in Part I of this series, to discern means to distinguish, or sort, or differentiate. We develop that by taking time to read and study the scriptures, basing our discernment skills on a working knowledge of the Word.
Then there’s the times we’re in, times of gross deceit and opposition to truth, calling for the modern church to be able to discern truth from error and apply that discernment when responding to modern challenges. (See Part II posted yesterday.)
But a more personal and challenging task is discerning our own hearts. That’s challenging in that it’s not as academic as discerning the times, and personal because, obviously, it means looking within.
Interpretation? Great. Introspection? Meh.
Right off the bat I’ll admit to mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’ve seen plenty of navel-gazing done in the name of “searching the heart,” and I know that once you turn your focus inward, you can get lost there.
You can, in fact, drown there. Because the heart’s fathomless, and the more you swim through it, the more you realize your own sinful tendencies and/or neurotic quirks are deeper than you ever wanted to know. Just start examining your motives, or your desires, and you’ll see what I mean. Like Gilda Radner’s hilarious Saturday Night Live character used to say, “There’s always something.”
Besides which, I think too much introspection is a sign of self-centeredness, no matter how humble a person says he’s being when examining his own sin. I once read Charles Spurgeon’s descriptions of self-obsessed monks who met each other daily with the greeting, “Brother, we must die.” He then said he was glad to report that he had it on good authority these lazy characters would soon die.
Harsh, but I get his point. Too much focus on self, whether on sinful tendencies or God-given gifts, is never good.
Then again, how do you manage life if you don’t keep an eye on your own heart? Jesus said our words indicate the condition of the heart (Luke 6:45) and that what defiles a person is what comes from her or his heart. (Matthew 15:18).
David specifically prayed God would search his heart out (Psalm 139:23) and keep him from yielding to wrong desires he might be unaware of (Psalm 19:12) and Paul said we’d best examine ourselves before receiving communion (I Corinthians 11:27-29) at the peril of dishonoring the Eucharist and endangering our physical health.
So yes, over-focus is unhealthy, but under-focus is dangerous. Three tools have been given us to keep a proper check and balance on our hearts: Conscience, Conviction and Community. Let’s look at each.
Paul said even non-believers have one (Romans 2:15) and that his conscience bore witness to him (Acts 24:16) and, if someone’s bears witness against them, it can be damaging. (Romans 14:5-23)
Vine’s Bible Dictionary describes the Greek term used for “conscience” in the New Testament as “that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, commending the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.”
My sweet Baptist grandmother used to repeat, “Let your conscience be your guide.” I don’t fully agree, since conscience is a good but fallible instrument, but basically she had it right. The conscience is the burglar alarm God placed in all of us, ringing when our passions, words, or actions violate our consciousness of right versus wrong.
If my heart’s wrong, everything else — my words, my acts, my decisions — are likely to be wrong as a result. So if I want a godly life, I’d best be discerning my heart, and one way I can do that is by reviewing the report card my conscience gives it.
When I’m pouting, my conscience says “grow up.” When I’m holding a grudge it says “Danger!” When I’m scheming to get my way at the expense of others, it blows the whistle. Assuming I am walking in the light and staying essentially within God’s will, my conscience will be operating well. It can be a reliable guide to knowing my heart.
Conscience takes a back seat, though, to both the word of God and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The Word has the final say, since my conscience can be hardened and my ability to hear the Spirit’s prompting is limited. That said, conviction is still a pretty good means for reading the state of the soul.
Jesus placed high importance on the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, going so far as to say His physical exit was necessary for this indwelling experience. (John 16:7) He further said we’d be led into all truth by the Spirit (John 16:13), who would, among other things, provide conviction. (John 16:8)
The New Testament word for “convict” (elengchō) means “to refute, bring to light, find fault, convince.” John used it to describe the internal responses of the people gathered to stone an adulterous woman, after Jesus truthfully confronted their hypocrisy: “Those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one” (John 8:9).
It’s also used in scripture to describe the light’s exposure of men’s deeds (John 3:20), leading either to hatred of the light or humble obedience to it.
And Jesus used that same Greek term to describe an act of love He engages in with you and me: “As many as I love, I rebuke (elengchō) and chasten” (Revelation 3:19).
I pray for the power of the Holy Spirit in my life. I also pray, less enthusiastically I’ll admit, for the conviction of that same Holy Spirit. Because I know myself well enough to know that I don’t fully know myself, and frankly, I’d often prefer to keep it that way.
But He won’t. Instead, He convicts me by clarifying the state of my heart and driving me to pray for cleansing from evil tendencies, and for power to resist them if and when they stubbornly remain.
We need that, regularly, and should commit ourselves to praying as David did:
Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalms 139:23)
I know we’ll get that prayer answered.
Finally, our community is invaluable when it comes to discerning our own hearts.
Paul said, “And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” (I Corinthians 12:21) Those are very literal, practical illustrations, speaking to our need for each other. And nowhere do I feel that need more keenly than when it comes to my need to know my own blind spots.
This is an area where I really feel we shortchange ourselves. Too often we settle for just pleasant companionship when life changing, mutual up-building could happen, if only its potential wasn’t ignored.
It’s not just that we have gifts for each other; we are gifts to each other, too. So the wisdom, encouragement, or insight we have to give shouldn’t be left unopened. The members of Christ body who you have in your life are His gifts to you, given to help you know yourself and thereby be a better steward of the life and gifts you’ve been entrusted with.
Which works both ways, I should add. When I think too highly of myself, the saints in my life are there to deflate me as needed. But when I think so little of myself that giving up seems the only intelligent thing to do, they’re also there to inflate me, reminding me of my value and potential.
We Need Outside Input
You can’t adequately know your assets or your deficiencies without input from the other body members. You are unquestionably shortchanging yourself of vital awareness, both through correction and encouragement, if you’re not wise enough to establish, then avail yourself of, Christian community.
Sometimes that means wonderful reassurance. Or it can mean not-so-wonderful iron sharpening other iron, also necessary and always valuable. Either way, discerning your heart is a responsibility you should no more ignore than discerning your blood pressure or cholesterol though regular checkups.
The information you get may not always be welcomed, but the process itself yields eternal fruit.
C.S. Lewis knew that, describing it poetically and succinctly, reminding us that head knowledge and heart knowledge should be sought and treasured:
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains. — “As the Ruin Falls” by CS Lewis
Ignorance is not, despite the common saying, bliss.
Ignorance of the Bible is inexcusable for a believer; ignorance of the times is irresponsible. And ignorance of one’s self is a set-up for believing lies about the very self you should be guiding with truth.
Because truth, founded in the Word and applied to self and service, is still wonderfully and consistently liberating.
Joe Dallas is the Program Director of Genesis Biblical Counseling and a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. His daily blog is Joe Dallas Online. He is the author of Desires in Conflict, The Game Plan, and When Homosexuality Hits Home. His latest book is Five Steps to Breaking Free from Porn. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeDallasTGP and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.