Divine Wisdom and Discernment

I’m back to my discussion of inspiration, dealing with the issue of how one determines whether someone can speak for God. In this entry I’m going to look at the last two items on my list, divine widom, and the gift of discernment, which are closely related.

As a preliminary, let me comment that I have noticed that most of the gifts of the Spirit have their “talent” counterparts. There are those who exhibit wisdom, and then there is the gift of messages (or words) of wisdom. There are talented teachers, and then there are those whose ability to help guide a group into understanding spiritual truths seems supernatural. There is a talent for languages, and then there is the gift of tongues as exhibited on Pentecost with everyone hearing in their own language. I don’t want to take up space in this entry by digging more into this idea, so if you think I’m off-base here, we’ll need to wait for another set of entries to discuss it more. But for the moment, I want to suggest such a relationship between a wise person, and one who has the gift of discernment or, I would suggest, shares in the divine wisdom.

I’m combining my discussion, because I think the relationship between wisdom exhibited as wisdom, i.e. a Proverbs sort of wisdom, and the gift of discernment is very close. I think we ignore that relationship at our own peril. The problem is that the gift of discernment doesn’t have some specific physical manifestation to identify it. It can be claimed in the same way as the gift of prophecy, or as any message from God. One person can make the claim of the gift of prophecy, while another claims discernment and backs them up. The result is just as circular as any other test I’ve mentioned.

So let me start with wisdom. I think it is critically important that we pay attention to the fact that the Bible includes wisdom literature. Many of the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes fall into this category. If you pay attention as you read these books, you will see something significantly different from the message of the prophetic books. The prophets stand on their claim to receive messages from God through the Spirit. Their sanction is their inspiration by God. They invite you to accept or reject their message, and experience the consequences (graphically presented) of your choice.

Wisdom writers, on the other hand, appeal to the nature of the created universe, to the experience of how God works, and to the understanding the community has built up. They are clear that the message comes from God and is a divine message, but it is a process of the mind that has perceived God’s revelation. I don’t believe that this is any less “inspiration” than the prophet’s message, but it invites the reader to participate in another way, by thinking and getting themselves involved in the divine wisdom.

Jesus also spoke in this wisdom mode. There has been a debate amongst historical Jesus scholars about whether Jesus was a wisdom teacher, an eschatological preacher, with the latter being similar to the prophetic approach. I would suggest that the question narrows Jesus too much. Jesus spoke in the form of wisdom at times and in the form of prophecy (Spirit driven speech) at times. One of the reasons I think that those on the outside couldn’t understand the parables was that the parables were not in the form of announcements; rather, they were in the form of seeds. It’s wrong to look for the interpretation of a parable. One needs to look for how a parable can seed into one’s thinking and change one’s whole approach to life. That is divine wisdom operating within.

But divine wisdom is not a purely human endeavor. It is not that people figure out God. Rather, it is that people grow in wisdom by looking into God’s actions, in the physical, spiritual, and moral realms. Psalm 119:104 says we get wisdom through God’s precepts. Sometimes I add this to my list of tests–the obedience test. If we set out to obey God with all our hearts and minds, we will not ultimately be led astray. When we are led astray, it’s because in some sense we have kept an agenda other than finding divine wisdom. Wisdom literature emphasizes that wisdom starts with fearing God (Proverbs 1:7). Following God’s wisodm involves acknowledging him as creator, and finding his wisdom in the creation (Proverbs 8:22ff, Psalm 104). Divine wisdom is one thing that appears to be promised on the only condition that we seek it wholeheartedly (James 1:5).

That divine wisdom forms the foundation for our understanding of discernment in the community. I think by now anyone who has stuck with me through all these essays will realize that I put the greatest weight on the community of faith in discerning God’s message. Abraham had very little community to work with. We’re told in Joshua 24:2 that Abraham’s family were worshipping other gods. He simply had to move on faith. God honored his determination to obey and gave him direction clearly enough. Over time, the community of faith has exercised its discernment in preserving and granting authority to certain written material as part of our body of faith literature. The study of canonization is itself fairly complex. (I talk about this just a little bit more in the Participatory Study Series pamphlet What is the Word of God?) Let me just say here that if we do not believe that God leads spiritually in the community as it selects a body of literature that is authoritative, we should probably give up the notion of any canon at all.

If we do accept God’s working in the community, then the more times we have someone who has heard God’s voice, the greater the body of knowledge we have to work from. I suspect that God expects more in terms of discernment from me than he did from Abraham on this issue. Not because I’m wiser than Abraham, or more spiritual, or anything of the sort, but because I have much, much more material to work with, and thus many more ways to check what I hear.

In sports that allow plays to be reviewed, the reviewer can see the play from various camera angles. Often I look at a play as it’s shown on TV and I see one thing, and then some other camera angle makes it clear that the reality was somewhat different. Abraham had one camera angle. I have many. My lousy spiritual eyesight can be aided by many different views.

I would suggest that the gifts of wisdom and discernment relate very closely to the divine wisdom and need to be judged as such. A “word of wisdom” or as I prefer, “message of wisdom” is something that can be tested by the community at the time it is spoken. We especially compare it to the divine wisdom. Does this word reflect the fear of God? Does this wisdom reflect God’s activity in the world? Is it in accordance with God’s precepts from which we get understanding? An absolute statement by someone who claims discernment can be tested in the same way.

One final comment I need to make has to do with how we find an objective standard. Obviously I believe that the Bible is a valid source for me in terms of faith and practice. Otherwise I wouldn’t belong to a denomination that claims that as a doctrine, and I wouldn’t be a Bible teacher. I think, however, that our witness needs to be more community based. As Christians (and I’ve been speaking in a Christian context here) we need to make our witness clear. We cannot simply provide a list of reasons one should regard the Bible as true; we need to show that the Bible is the book of a community in which God is present. I think this is where we frequently fail. And to bring this entry full circle, we frequently fail because while we’ve accepted some pronouncements as true (which is good), we have failed to let the divine wisdom be planted in our hearts and minds and start to bear fruit.

We need to make divine wisdom the hallmark of our community.

Note: Other articles of my own that I have used in this series include Inspiration, Biblical Authority, and Inerrancy and The Authority of the Bible.

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