Saturday, July 1, 2023

Biblical Knowledge and Godly Discernment : How God Guides the Believer (Phil. 1:9)

Have you ever noticed how many things come in pairs?

  • binoculars
  • bookends
  • boots
  • chopsticks
  • headphones
  • glasses
  • gloves
  • handlebars
  • pant legs
  • scissors
  • socks
  • tweezers
  • thunder and lightning
  • Ben and Jerry (my favorite) 

Here's a pairing Paul uses in Phil. 1:9. 

The keys words here are "knowledge" and "discernment." It is through both of them that God guides the believer. So let's talk about that for a few minutes, shall we?

There are two main types of decisions in life:

1) There are right/wrong decisions, decisions that are clear-cut when it comes to what we should or should not do. Should I hide my income from the IRS? Should I have an affair? I don't need to ask God for guidance on these matters. The Bible says I should not steal. The Bible says I should not commit adultery. All I need to do is ask God to help me obey what Scripture says.

2) There are wise/unwise decisions, decisions like which car I should buy or what career path I should choose or what short-term mission trip I should take. The Bible, while providing clear principles you can apply in each of these cases, will not tell you specifically what you should do. Hence in many areas of life we will need to ask God for wisdom -- as we are invited to do in James 1:5. Such wisdom, Paul says in verse 10 of our passage, will help us to distinguish between the good and the best, and between the necessary and the unnecessary. I know, for example, that unless I'm in bed earlier than 10:00 pm, I will be too tired to read my Bible in the morning. As believers, we constantly have to ask ourselves, "What do I say no to in order to accomplish what I believe is God's will for my life?" As the great Welsh preacher Martin-Lloyd Jones once put it, "The whole of life is knowing what to leave out, to ignore." 

It's clear, then, that God uses both the Bible and wisdom to guide us as Christian believers. On the one hand, he guides us through Scripture, rightly interpreted and applied. On the other hand, he guides us through wisdom, which includes (a) common sense, (b) the counsel of others, (c) sometimes a compelling urge or sense that a particular decision is the right thing (though of course not every feeling we have necessarily comes from God), and (d) circumstances (sometimes we find God opening doors for us, and at other times we find him closing doors). But -- and this is an important BUT -- the only place where we can be 100 percent sure that we are hearing the very words of God is in the Scripture. In fact, the word for "knowledge" Paul uses here generally refers to the knowledge of the things of God. It is spiritual, not earthly, knowledge. It has nothing to do with degrees or IQ. It is knowledge that is derived from the only ultimate source of knowledge, the Bible.

Let me close with an illustration if I may. Let's say you are contemplating marriage. For you to make a good decision, you will need both the Bible and God-given wisdom. Let's start with the Bible. The Bible teaches that the person you are to marry must be (a) a person of the opposite sex, (b) single, and (c) a born-again Christian. (Incidentally, I think divorced persons should remain single as long as their first spouse is alive. This seems clear from such passages as Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18, and Rom. 7:2-3. But that's a blog post for some other time.) What about the role of wisdom here? In addition to what the Bible says about marriage, you will want to take several other matters into consideration, including:

  • your goals and objectives in getting married
  • your available options
  • the potential outcomes and consequences of marrying that person
  • the adjustments you are willing make

You may also want to ask yourself questions like:

  • Could the decision jeopardize my witness for the Lord?
  • Is there a better option that would maximize my impact for God's kingdom?
  • Have I honestly considered the pros and cons of marrying that person?
  • What is the collective counsel of my friends and family?
  • What biblical principles should inform my decision?

Once again, God's guidance in our lives is not an either/or thing. It involves both God's word and wisdom. 

In its context, the verse we have been discussing, Phil 1:9, is a reminder that Christian love is not mindless sentimentality. It involves a thoughtful understanding of the word of God. Paul is saying that our love is likely to go wrong unless we grow in the knowledge of the Scriptures. The obvious implication is that as I read my Bible, I am loving others. That's why that daily Bible time every 24 hours is so important. As you stop and do that, you allow the Bible to be a mirror to your behavior and to shape your character and priorities. I am able to see myself for who I am as I examine my life in the light of God's word. Otherwise I end up with a self-seeking manipulation of others. This is not to say that God doesn't use common sense, the counsel of others, a compelling internal urge, or our own circumstances to guide us. He definitely does use those things. As John Stott once said, "God's promises of guidance were not given to save us from the trouble of thinking." We don't put our brains in park or neutral just because we're Christians. However, as I said above, there is only one place where there can be 100 percent certainty that we are hearing the very words of God, and that place is the Bible.