I used to think of discernment as being about big things. But it is really more about little things. It’s about those small decisions that make the big ones. We need to be able to listen to the voice of God specifically speaking to us. The daily decisions of life need to be guided by the Spirit of God.
All day long there are thoughts, feelings, and impressions coming into our mind. We need to listen to the right voices and ignore the wrong ones.
We’ve all seen the cartoon version of discernment--a man with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. In one sense, this is really what’s going on. We really do have voices whispering in our heads, but it’s not a very accurate depiction.
It’s not an angel whispering in your ear—it’s the Holy Spirit. He isn’t on your shoulder—He’s in your heart. Whenever a person accepts Christ the Holy Spirit lives inside, transforming us into Christ’s image over time and helping us think, act, and feel like Jesus. John 16: 12-13 says, “ When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Not only is He telling us what we should do, but he’s also working inside us to reform us, so that we will want to do it. The Holy Spirit remakes us into people who happily and willingly follow His voice. He changes our emotions and thoughts, so that we will think and act like Jesus. He forms the personality of Jesus inside us.
The bad voice isn’t some imp on our shoulder. There are three bad voices in our head, not one. They are the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Please notice that there are three bad voices on one side, and one good voice on the other. The volume level is weighted towards the bad side.
The world is the voice that tells us to blindly conform to what other people say and do. In our world, that voice tells us that violence, profanity, sexual immorality, bigotry, consumerism, and materialism are acceptable lifestyles, but godliness, frugality, chastity, and self-control are not. The voice of the world is powerful to all people.
Christians should be careful not to assume it’s only the world’s bad messages that are the problem. If we blindly conform even to good things it will eventually lead us away from Jesus. The world agrees with God sometimes, but don’t follow it. Make Christ your guide—not your parents, your family or even good church people. In the end, following the world will always lead us away from trusting God.
The flesh is our old ingrained habits, traditions, and perspectives that we’ve had for so long that they have become part of our nature. My grandparents were good people, but they grew up in a world with some very different notions than we have now. They assumed that racial prejudice was normal, women didn’t work outside the home, and cigarettes were good for weight control. This was all normal to them. These ideas were part of their “flesh.”
My family also had some quirks. They tended towards anxiety, depression, and suspicion of strangers. I picked up at least some of their bad habits and attitudes and they come out in me sometimes. I easily confuse the programming of my childhood with the voice of the Spirit. I also forget that I can change, and so can you.
God has not revealed to me all my personality flaws at once, or else I couldn’t stand it! But He is continuing to reveal the things in my flesh that need changing, giving me both the power to overcome and forgiveness when I don’t. But the temptations of the flesh are still there, and constantly speak within.
The devil is there too! He isn’t just one, but many devils; and he is not just literal demons, but human voices of broke people who try to deceive for their own selfish purposes. When advertisers and con men try to deceive us for their own selfish purposes, they are doing the work of the devil.
So, there’s more than one voice in us. It should be our lifelong occupation to learn how not to be deceived and to listen to the voice of the Spirit.
Sometimes, we hear people say, “Just listen to your feelings.” This is some of the worst advice anyone can give! Jeremiah 17: 9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” We can’t just trust our feelings.
In 1 John 4: 1-6, John gives us important tools to help us discern between the voices in our head. In verses 1-2 He says, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of (the) antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
Here’s John’s first rule. True voices confess Christ has come in the flesh.
This statement has been taken two ways. The first way is doctrinally. In John’s day, there were two great heresies that had just begun to appear in the church. One believed that Jesus was not a real person, and that he did not have real flesh. The other believed that Jesus wasn’t really God. This is a test against both of them. Jesus was really God who came in a real human body.
But in 1 John, the apostle isn’t mainly interested in telling us dry doctrine. He is interested the things we do and feel in daily life. It’s not just a matter of believing God came in some flesh—do you believe He is entering into your flesh? Do you believe that Jesus wants to live in you? Jesus not just two thousand years ago, but he is coming into our lives right now. Jesus is alive and working in us. He is transforming our flesh into His flesh.
What does that look like? See what Paul says in Galatians 5:16-22:
Paul tells us in verses 20-21 what listening to the voice of the flesh will produce--: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy,[d] drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.
But He tells us in verses 22-23 what listening to the voice of the Spirit will produce— “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control.”
Fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self-control, are a pattern of Christ like feelings and behavior that the Spirit wants to produce inside us. If these things are present within us, then the Spirit is in control. If they are not, then the flesh is in control.
John calls this false spirit of the flesh “anti-Christ” Anti” in Greek doesn’t mean against Christ, but false Christ or something in place of Christ. It’s like a false diamond. It looks good, but it isn’t. It’s the flesh imitating Christ. It all sounds good, but soon you are realizing it’s producing the works of the flesh, not the fruit of the Spirit.
4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
Here’s the second rule--God is stronger than other voices.
If verse 3 was God’s answer to the flesh, then verse 4 is God’s answer to the world. Conformity is a crushing power which seeks to overcome us by making our feelings, thoughts and opinions seem insignificant. That if we get enough people against us, we are overcome by sheer numbers. That scares us, and we won’t stand up for what we believe. In time this will break us down unless we can remember that God is greater than all the powers of the world. Nothing in the world can overcome the power of the Spirit inside.
History shows us times when the great powers of the world have been brought down by the power of God. There are many victories in history that can be directly traced to the prayers of the people of God. We can believe in divine intervention for nations. But do we believe it for ourselves? Can God slay our temper, allay our fears, and cure our resentments? If we believe God has the power to heal the whole world, do we believe that God has the power to heal our inner life as miraculously as our outer life? Great is He within us. He can change and heal what is within us. Any voice that says we cannot change or that we should not change, is not of God.
Verses 5-6 says, “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
Here’s the third rule. Listen to God’s word already given by the apostles and the church.
If the first two rules speak mainly to the flesh and the world, this third one speak to the demonic voices who would deliberately deceive us. John reminded his readers to stick to what has already been taught, and what is tried and true, passed on by the Apostles. The Bible is our “plumb line” by which we measure everything we hear.
I am amazed at how few Christians actually study the Bible, especially for themselves. They tend to take preachers at their word. Christians listen to preachers, but they ask few questions. They don’t think for themselves, but listen to the most persuasive person in the room. The only thing they listen to are people’s opinion of what the Bible says. They don’t listen to the Bible for themselves.
I realize that you don’t always have the luxury of reading the Bible In its original Greek or Hebrew text. Even if you do, you have to depend on what other people say. If you must listen to someone, then listen to those traditions who have done the best job of preserving it. Go back to the universally held creeds, and listen to those who believe them. Stick with the Bible teachers who have been trained in study in reputable schools, and with those who reflect the historical teachings of the past. God has not allowed his word to disappear, but it has been passed down and refined though the ages by people who know Jesus and know God’s Word.
Finding what God is saying is not hard. The hard part is to stop listening to the world, the flesh and the devil. Fortunately, we have a forgiving God who allows us grace when we fail to hear His voice. But in order that we do not fail, we need to stay in prayer, stay in the Word, and stay in touch with God’s people.