Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 3, 2016

“What Does This Mean?” The Art of Spiritual Discernment

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Acts 2:12-13

This past Sunday I preached on the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost.  The text ends by highlight two different responses to the events of Pentecost.  Some people are skeptical while others are perplexed yet open to discerning what is happening.

How would you have responded if you were there on that day of Pentecost?  Would you be in the middle of the action declaring the works of God, would you be skeptical, or would you be somewhere in between – amazed but perplexed?

It is important to note that the skeptics are religious insiders.  The text says they are “devout Jews.” This reminds us that it is not uncommon for those of us who are religious insiders to struggle with skepticism.  This has certainly been something I have struggled with in my life.

Our skepticism may be rooted in a number of things.  Perhaps we are disillusioned with God because it has been a long time since we have sensed that he is at work.  Perhaps we are distrustful of spiritual experiences because we have encountered religious leaders or institutions that have manipulated people with an inauthentic spirituality.   Perhaps we are more influenced by our secular culture then we realize.  Dallas Willard suggests that our souls are “soaked with secularity,” even if we claim to be Christians.  We, too, privilege naturalistic or scientific explanations for the big questions about life.  Our reflex might be to say, “it must be kalua in the morning coffee” in response to the events of Pentecost. Or, perhaps, we are simply fearful of opening ourselves up to the work of the Spirit.  There is something out of control about what happens on Pentecost.  If we can rationalize what is happening we can regain control.

While some respond with skepticism, others respond in a different way.  Many of these devout Jews were “amazed but perplexed,” and proceed to ask “what does this mean?”  The second response could be labeled, “discerning openness.”  The opposite of skepticism is not a blind faith.  No, the other response modeled to us in our text is to be honest about our questions and proceed to discern what God is up to.  This group of people do not have it all figured out, but they do not prematurely close the door on God either.  They seek to discern what is going on.

In fact, the second chapter of Acts devotes twice as much space to the interpretation of the events of Pentecost as the description of the events.  The disciples take time to help people discern what God is up to.

telecommunication-tower-1201015To outline the discernment process, I thought I would borrow a metaphor from one of my professors.   Imagine for a moment that there are two radio frequencies that you can tune into.   One station is WGOD, and represents things that are from God.  The other station is WSIN, and represents things that are not from God.   What is the content you would encounter while tuning into WGOD and WSIN? Second, what effect or impact would this content have on you?

The content of WGOD will have a number of markers.  First, it will be very scriptural.  This is the criteria by which Peter discerns the work of the spirit at Pentecost.  In response to the question, “what does this mean?” he connects the events of Pentecost to the story of scripture.  He quotes the book of Joel and the Psalms in order to explain that what they are experiencing is what the prophets expected would happen.  Second, the content of WGOD will more generally line up with the character and the ways of God.  In Acts 2:11, the bystanders say that they hear the disciples, “declaring the wonders of God in our own tongue.”  The words that are spoken point people to God.  The same thing could be said for the actions and experiences that people encounter.  People of different nations are being unified, many experience a liberating conviction of sin, and forgiveness and mercy is proclaimed.  Lastly, the content of WGOD will be personalized.  After Pentecost people are invited to deal with their own issues rather than focus on what everybody else should do.  In vs 38 it many respond by asking, “what should we do?”

The content of WSIN, by contrast, will be quite different.  Scripture will often be used but it will be taken out of context.  Proof texts will trump the overarching story of scripture.  Furthermore, what is done, said, or experienced will clearly contradict the ways of God.  There will be no mercy, broad condemnation, division, and shame.  Lastly, the message will be externalized.  People will come away from the experience focusing the problems and shortcomings of others rather than themselves.

The effect of the content will also be different.  After tuning into WGOD a person will demonstrate the fruit of the spirit.  This will be manifested both emotionally and behaviorally.  Paul says that our encounter with the Spirit will be marked by feelings of love, joy, and peace.  It will also result in behavior marked by patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control.   We see the fruit of the spirit take place in Acts 2.  Many people repent, they are generous with their resources, there is an increased commitment to pursue God, and hospitality is shown to those outside the community.

The effect of tuning in to WSIN, by contrast, will produce the fruit of the flesh.  Rather than peace, joy and love, there will be anger, worry, discouragement, and hopelessness.  We may find ourselves despising others and our faith will be deflated.

I find it helpful for us to have some guidelines for the discernment process.  Often our conversations about what God is doing or saying are very vague and undefined.  The danger in this is that we may attribute to God things that are not really from him.  Perhaps this lack of clarity is the reason for our skepticism. Perhaps these insights might encourage us to maintain a posture of discerning openness to the work of God in our life!


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