Discernment

Several months ago a friend asked me when the last time I’d read 1 Corinthians 14 was. We were having a conversation about spiritual gifts, especially tongues. When I was 19 a friend of mine and I did an in depth study of 1 Corinthians and concluded that there was no way tongues had “ceased.” However, neither of us had ever experienced it for ourselves. So my attitude from that time had been, “God, if you want to commune with me in this way, I am willing.” However, at my friend’s urging I re-opened 1 Corinthians 14 and was immediately convicted by the first verse.

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 1 Corinthians 14:1

“Earnestly desire” certainly did not describe my attitude towards the spiritual gifts. This began a change in our congregation’s expectations for corporate and personal worship.

On Pentecost of this year (I found the timing significant), a close friend of mine and I spoke in tongues for the first (and so far only) time. I cannot tell you what transpired exactly, although I have a guess, but I can tell you that it was without a doubt a move of the Holy Spirit upon me. My overwhelming impression was that what I experienced is described by Paul in his letter to the disciples in Rome:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:26

It had never previously occurred to me that the Spirit might speak those groanings through my vocal cords, but there is no better way to describe what poured out of me. I would say “uncontrollably” because in a sense that is how it felt, but I was very aware that while a torrent of groanings or words in a different language were rushing out of my inner man, I could definitely have quenched that flow. It was if I was a fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and words were the water gushing out of me.

Paul said, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself,” and “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” My conclusion has been that in my weakness, the Spirit prayed through my spirit for the building up of my inner man in ways that with my mind I am incapable of. I pray regularly with my mind; I have spent my life building up my mind, but my spirit had never before received intentional ministry.

In my experience this overwhelming, unmistakable action of the Holy Spirit has been rare. More often He seems to interact with me or with us in a way that is aptly described as a still, small voice. So still and so small that it is difficult to know whether it is the voice of your mind or the voice of His Spirit speaking. It is at these times that I desperately wish for a more powerful discernment.

The discerning person can tell, for example, when prayer is not genuine contact with God but a conversation with oneself, when apparent humility is actually a twisted form of pride; when a vision is really an hallucination and an ecstasy a psychosomatic disturbance; when inspirations are projections of suspect desires and when a vocation to celibacy is more a flight from intimacy than a call from God.[1]

I have begun to notice, however, that when this still, small voice speaks there is not a doubt but a knowing that God’s Spirit just communicated and about what He said.


[1] Sandra Schneiders, “Spiritual Discernment in the Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena”