Worldly passions, holy affections: How to cultivate a discerning mind

In Briefing #366’s first feature article “Do not judge”, Stephen Liggins points out that while judging others is condemned in the Bible, discernment is encouraged. But how do we go about gaining it, and how can we encourage our fellow Christians to grow in it too? With a little help from Jonathan Edwards, Archie Poulos investigates.


“Why can’t any of my friends see what is wrong with The Shack? The God of that book is not the God of the Bible.” This was the lament I heard from a Christian recently. His comment was followed shortly afterwards by the publication of Paul Grimmond’s insightful review of The Shack in The Briefing #362. All this ignited thoughts in me about how someone can have discernment while another person, sitting next to him in church week by week, does not. It also made me wonder how we can build biblical and theological discernment in our congregations.

There seem to be two aspects to discernment: the first is what we decide about a particular issue or idea, and the second is how and why we make our decisions. The first aspect is easier to observe: what we decide can be stated, analyzed and defended. But why we make a particular decision is much more complicated. There are a variety of influences that shape how we come to conclusions. Because we are humans with feelings and preconceptions, these influences include things like the quality of the writing or speaking, the intensity of the emotional effect upon us of the ideas, whether the ideas coincide with what we want, and whether the ideas resonate with what we know to be true.

We don’t normally think through the how and why questions. But as these form the basis on which we make decisions, they must be challenged if we are to grow in discernment. Let us question ourselves: what influences do we allow to shape our immediate decisions? With what intensity do we hold to each? How do we rank their relative importance? Why do we hold to these influences? How do we modify them?

Religious affections and growth in discernment

Jonathan Edwards, the great Reformed theologian of the early 18th century, is very helpful when it comes to thinking about the how and why of decisions. He calls the decisions we make “acts of the will”.1 He says that the work of the Spirit of God is seen not so much in external emotions, but in a growth in religious affections, seen in the decisions of the will. An investigation of what Edwards has to say about religious affections will help us to think about discernment. So bear with me while we briefly discuss what he has to say.

Edwards recognizes that human beings are driven by passions, and that passions are often the source of our decision-making. For him, passions are the sudden, instinctive responses not informed by the mind:2 they are the unthought-out, knee jerk reactions to situations. Affections, on the other hand, are controlled by the mind, and operate powerfully to shape the decisions we make. Edwards describes them as vigorous inclinations by which we are either inclined toward or away from things.3 It is affections, which spring from the mind, that drive our choices. Affections, however, can be good or bad. Worldly affections are thought-out responses to situations and ideas that operate powerfully to incline our decisions away from the ways, purposes and knowledge of God. Religious (or holy) affections are generated by the Spirit, who operates through our minds to invigorate godly inclinations that enable and cause us to choose the path of godliness.

If this is so, then we humans make decisions either through being driven by:

  1. our passions that pay no attention to the mind
  2. affections, which are no less strong than passions, but which come from a considered application of the mind where we can choose either
  3. worldly affections, which disincline us to follow God, or religious affections, which come from a mind that has been impacted by the Holy Spirit so that our whole being is inclined to and seeks to align itself to God and his revelation.

In order to grow in discernment, it is necessary for us to move from passion-based decisions to holy affections-based decision-making. We must grow in knowledge so that our decisions are based on religious affections, not on merely emotions.

An example of this is my response to The Shack. I cried when I read the account of Mack finding his dead daughter’s bloodstained dress—cried because I felt I was there too: I have a daughter her age, and what happened to her is every father’s worst nightmare. I, like Mack, know that God is there. But how do I reconcile this? Along with Mack, all my natural desires sought a solution because I was not just on his side, I was in his shoes. Emotionally we were one. In the uncovering and exposing of my emotions, I wanted resolution, and Mack’s solution gave me comfort.

So my passionate desire for resolution made it understandable for me to want to embrace Mack’s solution and theology. But I also know the God who has made himself known in his Son through his word. So my response must not be solely an emotional one, but one based on knowledge gained through God’s revelation. This moves me to step back and ask the question, “Is the decision I have made the right one? Does it line up with the God who has made himself known to me?”

But how do we help each other step back from our emotional responses to ask the how and why questions behind our decisions? And why is this sort of thing so hard to do? How do I help myself and others increase our practice of this so that we can grow in discernment?

Our human hearts

As beings created by God, we have an appropriate need to love, laugh and mourn.4 We want to be affected by relationships—to feel that we are a significant part of the world and not just inconsequential onlookers. Emotional engagement is a valuable part of this.

And emotions are fantastic. They make you feel alive, and they cause you to desire to be engaged with the world. But, as many can testify, emotions can also be a terrible master. The problem lies in the fact that they are so powerful. They easily become the basis on which we make decisions, but by their very nature, they lead to unthought-out decisions. These unthought-out decisions are inappropriate. The problem is intensified in our 21st-century world where society has nothing it really believes in and is prepared to die for. So there is little else than to be led by our emotions. Hollywood has learned to manipulate them, and its movies have taught us to feel fulfilled when we laugh or cry while watching them. Having our emotions stirred is enough; we need nothing more.

In fact, questioning emotion-based decision-making usually leads to accusations of intellectualizing or being cold-hearted. Rational decision-making, it is claimed, takes the joy and life out of existence. I think we all know the warm feeling we experience after implementing an action driven by love, righteous anger or compassion; the emotion is immediate, and the response is immediate, relevant and fulfilling.

But rational decision-making need not be irrelevant, cold or lukewarm for knowing God is neither a cold-hearted nor intellectual exercise. The God of the Bible is not a distant, indifferent deity, but one who is near to us in all the circumstances of life. Our relationship with him is personal and immediate. When I read about Mack and his daughter’s senseless murder, there was nothing I could do but feel his pain as though it were my own. When I look at God’s Son and his senseless murder, I see there (and only there) the solution to this world’s problems—a much better, more costly and much grander answer to pain. But this is not my immediate emotional response to Mack’s situation. It takes a mind inclined to know God to see this—a mind whose affections are turned to God. That inclination comes through knowing and loving the Bible. No matter how moving and emotional other stories are, it is impossible for them to be more moving and more affecting than the story of God and his dealings with humanity. In addition, God’s story is real. I cannot see how it is possible to say that knowing God in the Scriptures is irrelevant, impersonal or unaffecting.

But our hearts seem to have a natural disposition towards decision-making solely based on emotions. If we are to grow in discernment, we must train our minds to holy affections—train them to see things God’s way, to think God’s thoughts after him, to know reality as he displays it, to grasp relationship the way he demonstrates it—to have holy affections so that we will desire to choose what is right and have our wills inclined towards God as he has disclosed himself.

How do we do this? Two of the gifts God gives us to help us incline our affections to him are the opportunity to grow in knowledge and the benefit of being part of the people of God.

Discernment through knowledge

It only takes a moment’s thought to recognize the gift that God has given us in the Bible. In it, we find the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). All God needs to say to humanity, he says there. The Bible enables us to be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:17). However, the Bible is not just intellectual equipment; God meets us in his word so that through it, we can know him, or rather be known by him in an intimate relationship. This creates in us the ability to discern right from wrong.

The problem is we do not know our Bibles well. We know some of the stories, some of the theology and some of the commands, but in the patchiness of our knowledge, we do not know God properly. We must seek to know God better; if we do, he promises to honour that search. But often what we do instead is assume we know enough about God to get by. Then when it comes to decision-making, we assume we make decisions purely based on facts from the Bible. But often they are decisions that have some basis in fact, however, because of the holes in our knowledge, they are also decisions infused with our hopes and desires. Therefore, we develop muddled thinking, which, unfortunately, is assumed to be true biblical thinking. What is assumed to be true biblical thinking is then never held up to question.

For example, we love to read about the fact that our God is a good and big God who does what is best for his people. This is true, but you need only saunter a short distance to the conclusion that being prosperous is God’s will. Knowing how God loves us and how he works in us are the bits that are so often left out, and it is these that keep us from inserting our own errors into our thinking.

A more significant danger for us if we do not work our way through Scripture is that we are left to become the arbiters of what we want to hear. The God whom we claim to know becomes the pieces of God we decide we want to accept.

Clearly the remedy is to hear all that God has to say. We need to do this by committing ourselves personally to Bible study. There are so many helpful aids for this. We need to commit ourselves to hearing (or preaching, if you’re a pastor) expositions of the whole of the Bible over time from the pulpit. We should help each other to get to know the God of the Bible by chatting with one another about what we have learned and how we have benefited from it. In one church, I observed people sharing with each other something they had learned from the Bible in the past week, and this was regarded as a normal subject of conversation in the culture of that congregation, which must be very helpful for its members. I have noticed that no-one I’ve spoken to who reads their Bible regularly ever thinks that it is irrelevant.

Another deficiency in our knowledge is the shape of theology. As we read our Bibles, we develop our understanding of how it all holds together. But often we fail to connect the bits in order to see the central thread. The Bible says many things, but some things are more crucial than others. Knowledge of what lies at the core of Christian belief and what lies at the periphery is something we need to grow in if we are to mature in discernment. To lose a central reality in our conception of God is disastrous, as is failing to view peripheral things in their proper place.

An example of an absolutely essential issue is the atoning blood of Jesus. Not having this at the centre of any theological system means that the system is wrong. There are other essentials: if we do not understand that mankind is, by nature, sinful, we will think that we can overcome our failure without the atonement. If we do not think that the wrath of God is against all wickedness, we will not understand holiness or forgiveness. If we do not comprehend that complete salvation is gained through the finished work of Christ on the cross, we will lose all assurance.

It is also essential to apply these truths to our situation. We live in the overlap of the ages where the substitutionary work of Christ is done. But we await the realization of some of the benefits of it. In this overlap, we wait patiently and obediently, knowing that what God has promised, he will deliver.

To help us grow in discernment, we need to be taught biblical and systematic theology, and the right shape of this theology. Pastors can do this in their sermons as they teach the Scriptures. In addition, congregation members can take advantage of the many external studies courses offered by theological colleges—courses that can be undertaken by individuals or, better yet, by groups.

As we engage in knowing God better in his word, it spares us from the delusion of thinking we know God when we really have a muddled view of him. One of the great dangers we face is the Trojan Horse reality: if something contains a grain of truth, it becomes easy for us to accept, and then we import a whole way of thinking that, if wrong, tarnishes our discernment without us even knowing. In The Shack, the fact that God draws near to Mack in his time of need is true and comforting, but along with him comes a Jesus who is not a Christian and a God who is not in control. William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, justifies his characterizations by saying he was writing a parable.5 But it takes real discernment to determine what to accept and what to reject in parables. Isn’t that why the Lord Jesus interpreted his own parables?

Discernment through the family of God

The other gift of God that helps us mature in discernment is the fellowship of believers. As we live the life of faith together, we can help each other as we ask the ‘why’ questions about our decisions. God has given us brothers and sisters who are more mature than us—siblings from whom we can learn discernment. We need to talk with mature Christians and seek their advice. Good advice will help us both with our decision-making on particular issues and our understanding about how to make more discerning choices in the future. Our pastors should be promoting discerning people in our congregations to us.

Often it is our pastors who are the most discerning, so ask them to read and publicly review books and issues in order to help your church grow. There is no substitute for pastors keeping a close watch on their sheep; in doing so, they hear about what the flock are thinking and reading, and thus can aid their congregation’s growth by addressing the issues their members are grappling with. Our pastors should also be promoting to us good books and reading material so that we can grasp the right shape of theology in private reading.

There are also a number of tools available in the wider Christian community that assist in discernment, and these are also God’s gift to us. The Social Issues Executive of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney has a website that aims to assist Christians as they think through moral issues from a biblical perspective.6 Reliable Christian publications like The Briefing also help, as do trustworthy blogs like The Sola Panel7.

However, the fellowship of believers can only assist us in discernment if we are also engaging in self-examination. If we believe we have nothing to learn, we will not progress. So when faced with various circumstances, ask yourself a few questions—for example, “How does the shape of the gospel presented to me in this situation align with the shape of the gospel presented in Scripture?” and “What do I find appealing in this decision, and why is it so appealing to me?” Questions like these will keep you honest and aid your growth in discernment.


I should point out before I conclude that cultivating a discerning heart and mind is not a means to an end, as if doing so will transform us into super-spiritual Christians. Discernment comes as the fruit of knowing God better, and so is its own reward. If we settled for the God of The Shack, for example, we would miss out on the glorious fruit that relationship with the true and living God brings. But through knowing him, hopefully one day our passions and our affections will align as God’s Spirit transforms us into the image of his Son.

  1. Jonathan Edwards, The Religions Affections, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1997, p. 343.
  2. Edwards, p. 27.
  3. Edwards, p. 24.
  4. See, for example, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
  5. Interview in The Sun Herald, 28 December 2008, extra section, p. 12.

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