There are many aspects to one’s walk with the Lord, but knowing the Word is centrally important. Understanding the truths of Scripture is an example of having spiritual discernment in general, because the important things in Scripture are spiritual truths. There are many resources about interpreting the truths of Scripture as intellectual exercise, but these may not apply to all cases where one needs spiritual discernment. There seems to be something missing, and I think we can see that when we look at the New Testament’s teachings about discerning truth. For example, Paul had some wise words that can be applied to interpreting Scripture with the proper mindset:
…so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
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 spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:5, 10, 14–16)
Now, Paul isn’t necessarily talking about how to interpret Scripture, but I think the distinction he makes represents a general spiritual principle that can be applied there. Instead of approaching Scripture study as just an intellectual exercise, Paul’s passage suggests we should approach such efforts with more than just a scientist-like perspective, which is the wisdom of men. We must also allow the power of God to reveal all things that point us to the truth. Perhaps by balancing natural wisdom with spiritual sensitivity, we can approach Scripture with the mind of Christ, and this practice can carry over to spiritual wisdom in general.
Actually, I think we can see just this balance when we pay attention to Christ’s words in the Gospels about recognizing figurative language. When Jesus taught with parables, it was generally clear that He was speaking figuratively. But there are a handful of cases where His use of figurative speech was not expected. Even in those cases though, Jesus expected those around Him (especially His followers) to recognize the nature of His speech. By studying Jesus’ reaction when they interpreted Him literally by mistake, we can learn about His perspective regarding figurative speech.
In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus commented about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, referring to their false teaching. Instead, the disciples hear Him as talking about the fact that they had run out of physical bread to eat. Jesus’ response shows this was clearly more than a simple misunderstanding, but actually revealed a lack of spiritual discernment on their parts. According to Jesus, they were showing a lack of faith and spiritual perception. Another passage, Mark 8:14-17, makes Jesus’ comments even more clear. There, He describes the disciples as having hard hearts, and lacking eyes that see and ears that hear. These are commonly used in Scripture to refer to spiritual perception. Clearly, the disciple’s error was not intellectual misunderstanding, but lack of spiritual discernment.
Similar to the disciple’s lack of faith in these passages, those who misunderstand Jesus’ metaphors about the need to eat His flesh in John 6 are described as unbelieving in verse 64. Again, Jesus points out that their error is spiritual, not intellectual.
In both these cases, Jesus made a figurative statement, but the disciples incorrectly took Him literally. These passages, coupled with Paul’s statements above, point to the need for a spiritual perspective when choosing whether to take a passage of Scripture literally or figuratively, when both are reasonable options.
Now, it’s tempting to excuse those around Jesus because He didn’t state that He was being figurative. However, He still obviously expected His listeners to recognize the nature of His words. Could it be that we should be as spiritually discerning when reading the written Word, as the disciples should have been when listening to the incarnate Word?
Having discernment doesn’t mean rampant overspiritualizing, turning everything into a symbol. But at the very least, it does mean recognizing the presence of spiritual things when they are there. A lack of such discernment comes from reading with the mind of a scientist, only taking in account that which is apparent to natural thinking, instead of reading with the mind of Christ.
We’ve considered this balance between the mind and spirit in the particular case of detecting figurative text, but could this be a more general principle? I think it is, and we can see it elsewhere in the New Testament.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is giving instruction about (among other things) the use of tongues in the church. He makes an interesting statement in verse 15:
What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:15)
In these brief statement, Paul explicitly calls out the involvement of both our spirits and minds. In a completely different context, he seems to invoke a similar duality when he is guiding Timothy about how to interprets some metaphors that Paul had just written to him:
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7)
Both aspects are present in this statement, although more implied. Paul is telling Timothy to strive for intellectual understanding, but the path onto which he directs Timothy is not one of stronger intellectual engagement, but rather, one of seeking the Lord. I think that represents a spiritual perspective.
A similar approach seems evident in the letter that the Jerusalem Council sent to Gentile believers in Acts 15:
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: (Acts 15:28)
In this passage, they seem to assert the validity of their statement by claiming that it made sense both naturally and supernaturally. Perhaps this represents the kind of deep understanding towards which Paul was exhorting Timothy.
It is as if we can say that reading Scripture with the mind of Christ means involving both the mind and the Spirit, considering both natural and supernatural, using both exegesis and prayer, etc, and we see this pattern throughout Scripture, not just in these examples. This perspective keeps the mind engaged, even while staying sensitive to the spiritual. Our minds accept the authority of His Word, and our spirits experience the reality of His voice.
We’ve applied these principles here to interpreting Scripture, but I think this is a more general aspect of our walk with the Lord. It seems important to balance the need for careful thought, with the equally important need for seeking the Lord. By seeking a balance, we can avoid the extremes of spiritually dead reasoning subject to human cunning, and undiscerning spiritualism that gets carried away with everything that tickles one’s ears.
The next step is to apply this to other aspects of our walk, such as making decisions, knowing God’s voice, and relating to others. These are all related, and all would benefit from the balance described above.