Delcy Kuhlman is the founder of Still Waters Retreat Center in Buchanan, Michigan. Read Spectrum's interview with Delcy here.
Discernment is not a word that was part of my childhood. I was given a wonderful base of knowledge about Jesus. I received truth through parental example and directives, Sabbath School lessons and Bible classes. But I never noticed that questions were always formulated in such a manner that the correct answer could be found in a specific text from Scripture. I do not wish to infer that this was necessarily bad. I believe that it was a good way to bring up a child. It left me feeling strong and sure of myself (at least when I could remember the correct text or answer). It gave me a sense of assurance that God – specifically Jesus – would protect me, provide answers to my prayers and eternal life in Heaven where I could safely play with lions. It also helped inspire my good behavior, which won approval from my parents and other adults as well.
All this was appropriate instruction for the appropriate stage of my development that would guide me through life. Many years went by and my religious education was cap-stoned with a Masters of Divinity from the Seventh-Day Adventist Theological Seminary. More significant to me than the degree was the sense that I knew what I believed and that what I believed was truth. But while I confidently expressed that thought, I struggled with a multitude of unanswerable questions related to most every aspect of my well-ordered life. While the truth was intellectually known, believed and proclaimed, it was all in my head. The questions of real life held my heart and my gut in turmoil. Not claiming to be one of the highly qualified spiritual teachers of my church, I was in many ways like Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the night. He knew the theology, the right answers. But he was driven by a need for more. Certainly Jesus' mysterious response to Nicodemus' seeking did not fit neatly within the truth as Nicodemus knew it. Nicodemus walked away that night uncertain of the meaning of Jesus words. He had been invited to enter a deeper discernment of spiritual truth.
The word discernment comes from Latin discernere: “to separate by sifting;” to distinguish between; to sift, separate, perceive. In an ordinary woman’s life it means to wonder, to search, to question, to recognize and allow for answers that might be outside the box. It means to acknowledge the strong possibility that there might be more than one way of looking at things, (i.e. Nicodemus and the issue of “birth.”) It means that I am called to trust in the promises of Jesus in a very vulnerable way (the Father’s willingness to give the Holy Spirit, Luke 11:13; a spring of water welling up within the partaker that leads to eternal life, John 4:14; Ask, and it will be given you, seek and you will find, Matthew 7:7).
In my own life I recognized that trust does not come automatically with head knowledge but rather requires relationship built through intimacy and the experience of walking with God. All of life was convincing me that there had to be more available within the spiritual life than simply conviction of theological truths. But when I voiced my questions, the replies I received sounded like “pat answers.” At times I was subtly warned, as if my questions belayed the idea that I had fallen prey to false prophets. But the warnings of Matthew 7:15 ff.; Acts 20:28 ff.; and 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, while referring to discernment, did not seem to condemn the questions that Nicodemus asked of Jesus. Nicodemus brought his searching heart to Jesus (God) longing for understanding that had escaped him within the context of his theological education. Does the Spirit not also draw and invite us to search the Scriptures in new ways, to know God and his life more and not just to acquire knowledge about him? Are we not also called to trust in that knowing more than in specific answers, even if the answers come from apparent experts?
Sometime along the way I began to look at knowing in the book of John. The Greek use of two different words, oida and ginosko, confirmed that John recognized the difference between head-knowing and heart-knowing. Slowly I recognized God inviting me to a new way of knowing just as he had invited Nicodemus. As I pondered and prayed over Scripture I began to sense God’s invitation to trust his desire to dwell within my heart. He rarely directs me with specific answers to specific needs. But I receive a sense of his presence when I slow down and spend time listening prayerfully in Scripture and in my heart. Gradually the pressure for specific answers seems to lessen and there is a sense of knowing in my heart.
Quite often this is followed by another question: “Can I trust or believe what is in my heart without a proof text to defend that knowing?” Old warnings of being deceived threaten the knowing to the point that I sometimes miss truth. Old ways of thinking and believing are difficult to surrender. I am called to look again at Jesus’ promises in the light of Paul’s call (Ephesians 4:19ff.) to grow and mature in Christ. Does Christ not call us to prayerfully move beyond the careful and appropriate guidelines that helped us in our immaturity? Does he not call us to higher levels of growth, to deeper faith and trust?
The meaning of discernment has grown in my mind until now I can recognize and let go of the fear I once had of “False prophets in sheep’s clothing” who are really “ravenous wolves.” I can hear Paul’s words in Acts 20:32: “Now I commend you to God [not any human authority figure] and to the message of his grace.” I think of Jesus’ words to the woman at the well in John 4:14: “Those who drink of the water that I shall give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” These words to the Samaritan woman have a similar ring as Jesus' words to Nicodemus about being born again. In order to understood and claim them as truth, I must mature and trust. This is a process that that has no ending point. I will have to keep spending quiet, intimate time with my God. I will have to come to Scripture not with a familiar boredom but with openness to new light and understanding. I will have to continue to put fear of what others might say aside when I prayerfully move forward in my decision-making. I will have to remain lovingly non-judgmental when others rebuke my discernment of truth.