Discernment: Head or Heart?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/12/2013

Is “spiritual” discernment an objective judgment of the mind, or a subjective intuition of the spirit?

I had a challenge from a friend a couple days ago that I’ve heard many times. Maybe it’s been leveled at you, too. It has to do with spiritual discernment. Am I in my “head” too much when I do spiritual discernment, and not enough “in the Spirit”? Am I discerning with my mind—with reason and rationality—and not discerning with my heart ? That was her question.

It got me thinking. Since I’m involved in offering a reasonable defense for the faith and advocating clear thinking on critical issues, since I’m skeptical of those whose religion is almost entirely emotional/intuitive, people have challenged me that I’m only “half there” not using all my spiritual faculties and therefore am at risk of running into error.

“Koukl, you’re just in your head too much,” they suggest. “You’re too left-brained when it comes to spiritual things. You’re too logical, too reasonable. You don’t depend enough on your heart to discern the spiritual realm. Yes you’re using your mind, but what about your spirit? Why do you always trust in your own thinking instead of what the Spirit is saying about something?”

These statements imply that somehow I’m not doing a full-blooded assessment of things because I’m only using half of my machinery. My analysis should include the subjective, not just the objective.

This kind of critique assumes a couple of things. First, it assumes that there are two types of spiritual assessment. One is a rational assessment, a kind of theological head-trip. The other is a subjective, intuitive skill that some call discernment, in which we sense deep within us that something is on target or that something is amiss.

Second, it implies that the subjective, intuitive analysis is more advanced and more accurate. It is a “higher method,” a more tuned-in capability. It’s a spiritual assessment and not just a mental, rational assessment. It’s an ability to “hear what the Spirit has to say.”

People who make these kinds of comments generally are skeptical of the rational to begin with. It strikes them as being fleshly. It’s what Koukl “brings to the table,” so to speak, his mind, his thinking, his own rationality, his own ideas. And all of these smack of “the ways of the world,” as opposed to going to God and letting God do the analysis for us.

This distinction is incredibly pervasive in Evangelical circles, so much so that some groups have even given a name to it. Some of the so-called Word-Faith teachers distinguish between what they call sensate knowledge—that which you learn with your mind as a result of study and analysis—and revelational knowledge—that which is mediated directly to you in the spiritual realm. You have this learned stuff you get with your head, and you have this spiritual stuff you get from somewhere “out there,” from the spiritual realm.

The second type is definitely better, the argument goes. You need to develop the capability to learn things spiritually so you can really get the deep truth, because the sensate stuff is distorted by the flesh. At least this is implied when you hear these kinds of assessments. And isn’t it really true that Evangelicals trust more in their “spirits” than in their minds when it comes to spiritual things?

When I was less than a year old in Christ, I went to a coffeehouse in the basement of a church in Pacific Palisades in California. It was so long ago that Keith Green was not even a Christian yet (for those of you who remember that fine Christian musician who died in 1982 in a plane crash). Keith was there that night playing with Randy Stonehill, who eventually was to lead Keith to Christ. But Keith wasn’t a believer that night.

As I entered the door that evening, my friend Joyce paused and put her hand to her chest as if she felt something. “Gosh, I sense that something is wrong. I feel this check in my spirit,” she said. And I thought, I can’t wait till I get to the point in my spiritual growth where I can know things directly in the spiritual realm, and have this sixth sense and discern things like Joyce just did.

It’s 23 years later and I still haven’t gotten that sixth sense. Instead, I use my mind. I don’t say that as a concession, like I got the booby prize. I think it’s biblical. The only way to know if I’m correct, though, is to ask the questions, “Which way is really right? Which is best? Do we discern with our minds, or do we need a sixth sense for optimum spiritual discernment?”

When I was challenged this week, my first response was, “I bet if you do a scriptural analysis, you’ll find there are more verses that have to do with an objective assessment than those for a subjective one.” I figured that if there really are two different ways of discernment, no one could fault me for being rational if I had scriptural support, especially if more verses supported a objective method than a subjective one.

As I did a mental inventory of the New Testament, though, it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t think of any verses at all that supported the notion of discernment as subjective and intuitive. None came to mind, so I had to do a little searching.

I went to my NASB Bible Master program and started looking up words, starting with the word “discern.” There are only two verses in the New Testament that even use the word. In Matthew 16:3 Jesus says that in the morning, “...[you say] ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?”

Jesus was talking about looking at particular signs—the appearance of the sky—and drawing conclusions about what the weather will be like. That’s an objective, not a subjective, assessment.

Hebrews 5:14 chastised those who ought to have been teachers of the Word, eating meat instead of drinking milk. Then it says, “...but solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” So the discernment here is not subjective; it’s objective. It’s using the knowledge and practice of the truth of the Scriptures to develop an ability to objectively discern right from wrong.

Then I looked up the word “discernment.” There’s only one use of it, Philippians 1:9–10. It says, “...this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.”

Here, discernment is coupled with knowledge resulting in a morally excellent life. Discernment is knowing what’s right and what’s wrong. We get that from the Scriptures, as Hebrews 5:14 points out. Sounds like an objective assessment to me.

Then I looked up the word “test.” There are fifteen verses that use this word, but only one that applies to our issue. In I John 5:1–3 it says: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because there are many false prophets gone out into the world.” Now we’re getting warmer, I thought, testing the spirits. Surely now we’re moving into subjective.

Not so. Read again. The next verse says, “By this you know the spirit of God. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” Hmm...not a subjective test here, but an objective one, once again.

First Corinthians 12:10 talks about spiritual gifts. Here we might be on to something, because distinguishing of spirits is a spiritual gift. There is no hint of objective standards here; there’s also no hint of subjective standards. In fact, what’s curious about this verse is that it doesn’t say anything else in this passage, nor anywhere else, about what it means to distinguish spirits.

I’m inclined to believe that since it’s a spiritual gift, it leans more toward a subjective ability, because if this were referring to an objective way to distinguish spirits, we all could do it, and we wouldn’t need the gift. So here seems to be one verse that lends itself to a subjective sense of discernment, but it’s not something that everybody has, only those who are gifted. If I’m not gifted in this way, then there’s no point in me trying to distinguish spirits subjectively, because I have different gifts.

Next I looked up the word “correct,” but there were no entries. I looked up the word “correcting” and found II Timothy 2:25, “...with gentleness, correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.” Here the correcting has to do with having a conflict with people who disagree with you. The verse above it says, “...not being argumentative, but gracious when wronged, with gentleness correcting...” Once again we have an objective test. We see that somebody is doing something wrong and we offer correction. No intuitive pondering here or getting into a spiritual twilight zone. Rather a correction “leading to the knowledge of the truth.” The truth is objective.

Here’s my point. Is it true that Koukl is too much into his head, using his reason to assess spiritual things, and is not into the Spirit enough? Only if the Bible teaches that we must balance the two. But when I asked the question, “Where does the Bible teach such a thing?” I found no such teaching. I was unable to produce any scriptural support except for I Corinthians 12:10 about the distinguishing of spirits, which is a spiritual gift I have not been given, apparently, and which only a few have.

The point is, when the Bible talks about discernment—when it talks about assessing spiritual things—it’s talking about a rational assessment based on objective criterion. You can’t be “too much in your head” when it comes to spiritual discernment. Using your head is spiritual discernment, if you’re using the truth properly.