Book Review on The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies

Early one morning, in the spring of 1945, Ida Weisenbacher, a twenty-one-year-old Austrian farm girl, was woken from her sleep by a loud banging at the door. Through tired eyes she glimpsed a Nazi officer standing outside her house. ‘Get up immediately,’ he demanded. ‘Hitch up the horse and wagon; we need you.'”

Thus begins an excellently written book that is backed up with Scriptural references (many of which I did not included in this report), and I highly recommend it. The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is a small book (paperback, 200 pages, including study guide and references), but don’t let that fool you into believing it is an “easy read” that you can read once and put to the side. It actually took me a while to read it because it was chalk-full of stuff to chew on.

The introduction continues to tell of how an Austrian farm girl was drafted near the end of the war to load up fairly nondescript crates and haul them to Lake Toplitz and dump them into it. There were enough crates that she had to make three trips over the rough roads to the lake, which is why they could not haul them via truck. It would be 1999 by the time these crates and their secret would be found, although rumors persisted since the end of the war of the crates and their contents. Even then, it would take three weeks of ten hour days before they would locate the hidden treasure.

Mind you, the treasure’s true value was in the historical value, not in the contents. You see “Adolf Burger was … a printer by trade, and a Jewish native of Czechoslovakia … was arrested by the Germans on August 10, 1942, and soon separated from his wife, whom he had married only weeks earlier. Like so many millions of Jews before and after them, Burger and his wife were packed into a livestock train and taken to Auschwitz, expecting to be quickly put to death. At the camp Burger was torn from his wife, whom he would never see again. After some time in custody he was ordered to appear before the camp commandant. When he did so, he was notified, to his amazement, that he would be leaving the next day and would be taken to Berlin where his services were urgently needed. He soon found himself in a secure camp at Sauchsenhausen in the company of dozens of other craftsmen — printers, bookbinders, engravers — who had likewise been selected from death camps and told of a secret project. Code-named Operation Bernard, this brilliant project was part of a Nazi plot to produce a vast quantity of counterfeit British currency. This cash, when released into circulation in Great Britain, would cause widespread economic panic, undermine the value of the British pound, destroy her economy, and perhaps even drive the nation to its knees” (p13).

The idea of counterfeiting runs throughout the book, and for good reason: There are a lot of counterfeit ideas out there, but there is only one truth. Today’s postmodern society would like to deny that there is such a thing as objective truth, and there are many good sounding arguments that can take people in if they are not grounded in logical thinking. Just as there is only one valid currency printed for a given country, though, there is only one objective truth and all the other ideas are counterfeit.

For such a small book, Discernment packs a punch. Challies shows that a lack of discernment is a lack of spiritual maturity, he points out that discernment is a skill, he gathers some valuable insights from the study of counterfeit money that can be applied to discernment, he goes to the heart of what is truth, he discusses discernment as a spiritual gift, but then he also stresses that discernment can be developed even if it is not a strong gift. Finally, Challies discusses discernment as a real spiritual discipline.

Lack of Discernment is a Lack of Spiritual Maturity

“We live in an age where too many who profess to be Christians rarely consider their spiritual maturity — an age when many consider spiritual immaturity a mark of authenticity, and when people associate doubt with humility and assurance with pride. Far too many people consider sound theology the mark of a person who is argumentative and proud. Far too many people are just like the audience to whom Hebrews is addressed. This letter draws a clear line connecting a lack of discernment with spiritual immaturity so that those who lack discernment are those who are spiritually immature. Scripture makes it plain: if you are not a person who exhibits and exercises discernment you are not a mature Christian” (p 23).

Frankly, I think this paragraph speaks for itself.

Discernment is a Skill

“Discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong” (p 61). Interestingly, you would think that this definition would have been given at the beginning. Challies does not give the definition until chapter 3, and he then devotes the entire chapter to it. Oddly enough, this doesn’t take away from the book. I suppose it was done this way in order to keep your interest through the first two chapters. If so, then I would judge it not successful. Perhaps it is because the literary device is not needed. The manner and material he presents keeps you interested regardless of that point.

The Study of Counterfeiting

“Many who profess to believe in Christ affirm Christianity as a collection of truths, and even very important, life-altering truths, but not as Truth; not as a worldview that encompasses all of life. To be people of discernment, we must acknowledge the existence of both truth and error. And, just as there will always be counterfeit currency, where there is truth, there will be counterfeits of the truth. Our task as people of discernment is to separate what is truth from what is error. It is to ensure that we think of God and believe in God in ways that are consistent with how he has revealed himself to us in the Bible. Our confidence is not in ourselves, but that God has made his truth clear to us. We have confidence that God is capable of communicating to us in a way that we will be able to understand” (pp 94-95).

“The people of Canada are losing confidence in their currency. Recent polls suggest that only a little more than 50 percent of Canadians have a good deal of confidence in their currency, while 39 percent believe it is likely that they would at some time receive a counterfeit bill. The Bank of Canada, the body responsible for producing and overseeing Canada’s currency, reports that four one-hundredths of one percent of currency in circulation today is fraudulent. While that number may be small, it does prove that it is somewhat likely that a person will, over the course of his lifetime, encounter counterfeit currency” (p139).

In order to combat this problem, the Bank of Canada is running an education program so that consumers and retailers alike can distinguish genuine currency from counterfeit. This education program should boost confidence in Canadian currency. In essence, “The Bank of Canada is teaching a form of discernment” (p 139).

What are the lessons we can learn from the study of currency and attempting to discern the real from the counterfeit?

  1. It is something that the average person can master. It doesn’t take an expert to examine bills for identifying characteristics.
  • Under scrutiny, most fraudulent money is spotted easily because people who create counterfeit money typically invest the minimum of effort into it. Let’s face it, if they were to try to reproduce the currency exactly, it would cost them more than they would benefit. This makes it easier to identify the false from the true.
  • It is important to study a number of characteristics of truth. When discerning whether or not something is true, only a few characteristics usually have to be looked at (see #2). If something is fraudulent, it does not always need to be thoroughly examined.
  • In discerning true from false, it is better to concentrate on what is genuine. Falsehood is always changing, while truth does not. Genuine currency will always be the same, but counterfeiting methods will differ.

Challies really stresses this last point. While it can be useful studying the counterfeit, it is critical that more time is spent on dwelling on truth than error. “A person who studies and understands what is true is necessarily equipping himself to discern what is false” (p 142). I have found that no matter what literature you study, some bias inevitably creeps up, and it is important that you have your Bible in your hand while reading any literature written by men. That leads to the next point.


Ultimate truth is in the Bible. “God is the source of truth, for he is truth. We know of truth and we know of God through the Bible. The Bible was given to us to guide us to Jesus Christ, and the Bible is a book that speaks primarily of his work. We know the Bible is true because it is the revelation of God, who is true and who is unable to lie. There can be no imperfection in the Bible because there is no imperfection in God” (p95).

Sometime prior to 1995, the Church of God forgot this important point. Church leaders started making subtle changes while stating that nothing was changing. Church members became comfortable with reading magazines and booklets and not opening their Bibles, where God’s word was instead of reading men’s interpretation of it. That doesn’t mean that reading booklets and magazines are wrong, but consider that if the Bible is the source of truth and if it is indeed critical to spend more time studying truth than error, then what should we spend the majority of our time studying?

“As sinful human beings we are prone to give undue authority to our feelings and to interpret truth on the basis of what we feel. The biblical paradigm is exactly the opposite and commands us to interpret our feelings on the basis of truth” (p 95).

Abraham Flexner triggered widespread reform in the field of medical education by writing a report called “Medical Education in the United States and Canada.” Instead of two years of training concentrating on abnormalities, Flexner recommended four years of intensive training beginning the first year being devoted to normal human anatomy and physiology. Not until the second year were abnormalities delved into. This is the pattern still in use by medical schools today.

“This aspect of Flexner’s report points to something that is also true about truth. We can best know what is wrong by first knowing what is right. Experts on counterfeit currency know this as well. They train others first to know the traits of genuine currency because such knowledge will make apparent what is fraudulent. Christians need to dedicate themselves to learning and knowing truth so that what is evil and abnormal will appear obvious” (p101).

“The relationship of truth to error is such that we can best know error by knowing truth. The opposite is not true. People who invest undue effort in concentrating upon what is false will not necessarily be able to identify what is true” (p102).

Discernment As a Gift

“There are several passages in the New Testament where the author lists one or more of the spiritual gifts. It is interesting that, while there is some overlap, each list is unique and includes items that are not in each of the others. This seems to point us to the unavoidable truth that the gifts mentioned in Scripture are representative of the types of gifts God gives; they are not meant to serve as exhaustive lists. The variety of spiritual gifts is as wide as the variety of people whom God welcomes into his family” (p125).

I believe Challies has an excellent point about spiritual gifts. Unlike the fruits of the Spirit, spiritual gifts are not as concretely defined in Scripture.

“One thing remains to be said about spiritual gifts. Even if we may not have been given a particular gift, this does not indicate that we are freed from our responsibility to practice it at least in some measure. We are not to pursue only one gift as if this is the only way in which God desires that we serve him” (p 127).

Again, I like his point. Challies gives the examples of the “evangelism guy” and the “hospitality woman”. We all are expected to practice hospitality on some level. We are expected to support evangelism in some manner (even if it is just to be able to answer when asked). We all must practice discernment to the best of our abilities, and Challies gives some helpful hints in that area.

“As soon as Paul has provided this basic theology of spiritual gifting, he lists some of the gifts of the Spirit. In this list he mentions a gift that provides ‘the ability to distinguish between spirits’ (1 Cor. 12:10). Christians typically refer to this as the gift of discerning spirits. By now you ought to recognize the word distinguish as a word that is intimately related to discernment. In Greek, it is diakrisis, a word closely related to diakrino, which was mentioned in the chapter ‘Defining Discernment.’ it is a word that indicates that we are to separate things in order to understand their differences. It is a word that is at the very heart of discernment. The gift involves ‘distinguishing between spirits.’

“The Bible does not elaborate on what this gift entails. Students of the Bible have to examine the evidence and determine what they feel this gift involved and whether it continues in that form to this day. One thing all students of the Bible seem to agree on is that there is some kind of gift of discernment operative in the church today” (p 128).

Challies also quotes 1Jn 4:1 in order to show that we are to “test” the spirits because some are full of lies.

I think Challies has a good point, but frankly I am a little disappointed in his explanation. After all, he should have pointed out that we cannot come to Jesus unless the Father draws us (Jn 6:44). We need discernment in order to come to Christ even. Also, the fact that the Apostles were promised to be led into all truth by the Holy Spirit in at least two verses in John indicates that they were to continue to grow in the knowledge of the truth. I believe that promise is extended to us as well. All in all, while I think what he is saying applies, I also think it sort of lies there waiting for him to pick it back up again – except he doesn’t. This to me was the weakest part of the book, and it is easily correctable in future editions should he desire to change it.

Challies Contends That We Can Develop Discernment

It takes practice, and it takes work, but discernment can be learned (obviously with the help of the Holy Spirit). However, I think we can all agree that it “is not an isolated pursuit. Discernment is not something that is available or that can be attained apart from other disciplines of the Christian life. …Just as a person who wishes to win a race will have to begin the race in a certain posture — crouched low with legs ready to spring forward — a person who wishes to be discerning must maintain a particular spiritual posture” (p 154).

This reminds me of the story I’ve heard numerous times about Mr and Mrs Armstrong keeping the holy days by themselves. At first, Mr Armstrong did not understand why he was supposed to keep the holy days, only that he was supposed to keep them. Later, Mr Armstrong not only came to the understanding of the meaning of the holy days, but he also came to understand that God rewards us with more knowledge when we act on the knowledge that has been given. Appropriately, Challies quotes Pr 2:1-5:

My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee;

So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding;

Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding;

If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures;

Then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.

From this passage, we see that discernment must be pursued by fearing God, desired as a treasure is desired for, prayed for and sought for by studying God’s word.

From other Scriptures, we see that we practice discernment by testing everything that is relevant to the Christian life.

This will lead to one of two reactions.

  1. Hold fast
  2. Abstain

Challies devotes a chapter for how to arrive at one of these two conclusions. He takes you through verification, clarification, assessing the issues (including identification of what is at stake), prayer, self-assessment of your instinct and your conscience, searching the Scriptures, observing the Scriptures, comparing and contrasting unclear Scriptures with clear ones, research using Bible tools, summarizing, if necessary expanding your research, writing down your conclusion, list where it agrees with true teaching, judge where it departs from the truth, determine if you need to abstain or hold fast, write down what you will abstain from or hold fast to, and finally determine how to apply this lesson. If it is biblical, write down what you will do and what truths you will hold fast to. If it is unbiblical, then write down the truth that takes its place.

This section alone can be worth the price of the book!

Conclusion: Discernment as a Discipline

Challies compares discernment to our body’s immune system. When discernment is lacking, false teaching stands ready to rush in through the lowered defenses. This can apply to either an individual or an entire church.

HIV lowers a body’s immunity level, and there is no cure for it. Fortunately, there is a cure for a lack of discernment. The Holy Spirit was given to help us in this endeavor.

In these last days, I think every Christian should seriously look into discernment. We are here to represent the truth, after all, and we cannot do that if we cannot tell truth from error ourselves.


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