Sunday, October 03, 2021

Common Sense and Spiritual Discernment

Moments before taking my daily stroll through what turned out this morning to be a dark, rainy neighborhood, I happened to come across a question on social media about the relationship of spiritual discernment to common sense.

The writer got me thinking. Obviously both are means by which human beings gain competence in navigating the world, but they are quite different from one another, though common sense and spiritual discernment may occasionally lead us to similar conclusions.

The distinctions may become clearer if we add a third factor to the mix. For the sake of brevity, let’s just refer to this third thing as knowledge, but what I mean by knowledge in this context is information received second-hand, whether from books, media or other people.

The natural man has common sense, the learned man adds to it knowledge, but only the regenerate man has spiritual discernment.

Common Sense

We call common sense “common” because it is something everyone learns to access as they experience the world, regardless of the amount of intelligence or data they possess. Common sense will tell you that if the sun rises every morning of your life in the same position relative to your front door, then all things being equal it will do the same tomorrow as it did today. Common sense will tell you that if the stovetop is glowing red, putting your finger on it will really, really hurt. A relatively low-IQ individual knows these things as certainly as a rocket scientist. We may think of common sense as the application of basic pattern recognition to daily living. Some people do it better than others, but all human beings possess it and use it to some extent.

The drawback of common sense is that it develops by way of personal experience. Recognizing that the sun rises in the east doesn’t have to be a painful lesson, whereas recognizing that red frequently means hot can be quite agonizing the first time you come to associate the two. It is preferable to watch someone else make this discovery than to make it ourselves.


For our purposes here, knowledge is information about things outside the average man’s personal experience and which he would not have intuited for himself because it is specialized rather than common, and therefore must be accepted on something like faith: things like the GDP of Brazil, the way electricity works and the existence of the coronavirus. Gaining knowledge does not require personal experience but it does require the willingness to believe what one is told when it appears to explain the otherwise-inexplicable as well as the willingness to question what one is told when it fails to conform to observable reality. Without at least a measure of trust, it is impossible to learn anything second-hand. Without a measure of critical analysis, it is impossible to distinguish between falsity and truth.

Neither common sense nor knowledge requires the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God. The natural man may possess them in the same or even in greater measure than the believer.

Spiritual Discernment

Here we come to something only the believer possesses:

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

The contrast Paul draws with the spiritually discerning person is not the evil individual but the natural one. He lacks the necessary faculties to comprehend “the things of the Spirit of God”. Paul writes that no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. By definition, the thoughts of God are ultimate truth. Unlike human understanding, the thoughts of God are always perfectly in conformity with reality; in fact, they define reality. Men and women who are not indwelt by the Spirit of God may get glimpses of the truth from time to time but, apart from the work of the Spirit in their hearts, they cannot put those glimpses together into anything spiritually meaningful. On the other hand, those indwelt by the Spirit of God have potential access to every truth God in his grace has seen fit to reveal.

Spiritual discernment is like common sense in that all believers possess it in some degree. Even the thief on the cross possessed adequate spiritual discernment to rebuke his fellow thief and throw in his lot with the dying Savior of the world. Only the Spirit of God could show him the reality of Christ’s coming kingdom and motivate him to ask to be part of it. Also, like common sense, not all believers possess spiritual discernment in the same degree. Growing in spiritual discernment requires constant practice, which involves engaging with the Spirit of God through his word and prayer.

An Example

Consider where each of these three means of gaining knowledge may take us with respect to understanding the word of God. The Bible is a collection of books of various genres. Common sense will tell you to read Bible poetry the same way you read ordinary poetry, to read Bible history the same way you read secular history, to read a letter in the Bible the same way you would read a letter from your aunt — in short, to apply the same principles of interpretation to religious documents of a specific genre as you would apply to secular documents of the same genre. That will get you somewhere in your understanding of the Bible, and probably further than many people.

A theologian goes a step further than common sense might take the average reader. He adds his learning to the mix. He can not only tell you what the Bible says, but he will also attempt to tell you what it means. He need not be regenerate (and many theologians are not), but with his specialized knowledge of language and his exegetical principles, he takes that bit of poetry and tries to connect it to the bit of history that came before and the bit that will come later. He will try to tell you how the letters relate to the history, the poetry and the prophecy. He may or may not be successful at what he is doing, but it should be evident he is making the attempt on a different level of understanding than the person who approaches the scripture in the same way he approaches other literature of the same type.

The spiritually discerning person approaching the Bible is doing something more than either of the first two individuals. He is doing what the person with common sense is doing, and he is also doing what the theologian is doing, but he is doing these things with the aid of the Author himself. His understanding of scripture is not just experiential or intellectual. The Spirit of God indwelling him is showing him connections that are not mere common sense, and that the unregenerate theologian, with all his training and expertise, cannot see at all. He is able to take the scripture and apply it to his life and to the lives of others. The truths he learns about God do not just give him intellectual satisfaction; they fill his heart with joy. He takes what might otherwise be a dead letter and makes it live in the real world.

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