The Christian life consists of living by faith in Jesus Christ, and by New Testament principles, with the prayerful help of God’s presence. Like all other people, Christians must go to work, pay the bills, and provide for their families with what jobs God has given them. In this way, they live commonsensically and according to the natural order–just like everybody else. But in another way (an otherworldly way)–the Christian life should at least occasionally involve interaction with the spirit world (1 Cor. 2:13-14). This interaction may take place through dreams, visions, and mental voices–spiritual and psychological phenomena. It may also involve impressions–emotional sensations of spiritual entities as a presence: the Holy Spirit, angels, demons, saints, Jesus. Or, it may involve the occurrence of coincidences–which the pagans call “omens,” but Christians call “signs.” And if a Christian has a mystical side to him, he may “be still, and know that God is God” (Ps. 46:10) from time to time, in order to “open himself up” to God’s Spirit and the spirit world. He may also fast like Jesus did in the desert (Matt. 4).
But even if a Christian never fasts, prays, or quietly contemplates God–he is still bound to experience spiritual phenomena in one way or another. Whether it is through obvious prophetic revelations–like dreams and visions; or subtle observations of spiritual warfare in daily life. The Christian is going to eventually experience some spiritual phenomena. Whether it is during prayer or sleep–or during the hum-drum duties of the workplace. Whether it is through revelatory experiences, emotional sensations of spiritual presences, spontaneous thoughts and feelings, or strange behavior among family, friends, and coworkers indicating the influence of a devil–the Christian is surrounded by spirits! Thus, he needs spiritual discernment.
I think that spiritual discernment is both a gift (1 Cor. 12:10) and an art. (I feel the same way about dream interpretation–and it may be that they are related.) But according to the Bible, the word “discernment” is always associated with wisdom and knowledge, which is why the Bible’s book of wisdom–the Book of Proverbs–refers to discernment several times. Discernment has to do with judging between right and wrong, true and false, authentic and counterfeit. Thus, discernment is based on two things: God’s Spirit and God’s law. Since these two things are always right, true, and authentic–the Bible calls the godly law-abiding Christian a “discerning” man of wisdom (Prov. 28:7). But note–that when I say “law-abiding” Christian, I don’t mean “Judaistic.” I mean that he makes a conscientious effort to obey the law of God written on his heart by the Holy Spirit (Heb. 8:10). Only the moral laws of God need apply–not circumcisions, Sabbath days, kosher foods, etc (Col. 2:13-17). These morals may be clearly identified as the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). And if we have an eye for the morals and ethics of the New Testament, and also those morals in the Old Testament law–we may acquire spiritual discernment, by God’s grace alone.
“He who keeps the law is a discerning son” (Prov. 28:7). The law of God, which Paul said is spiritual (Rom. 7:14)–is the key to discernment (Isa. 8:20). But, that law-key can only be used properly by a Christian, who has the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart through experience (Rom. 5:5). Not as an idea, but as a real spiritual presence that is felt as love and peace. The Christian who understands the “Romans 7 Experience”–the difficulty of perfectly keeping God’s law, is thus prepared to show grace and flexibility, and is able to use God’s law properly for purposes of spiritual discernment. A legalist or perfectionist cannot discern correctly.
“A rebuke impresses a man of discernment” (Prov. 17:10). That is, when a discerning Christian is rebuked by a man of God, he is impressed–and receives the rebuke readily, because he knows that he will grow by it. So, “nonjudgmental” and “thin-skinned” Christians do not appeal to his Christian walk. He is impressed by people who know that the Word of God is supposed to be used for “rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).