The Still Small Voice

The Power of Discernment - Testing Words and Discernment

 Chapter Six, Part Two




Testing Words and Discernment

Why discernment needs to be a corporate rather than a purely private affair.[2]

The early Quakers greatly loved and respected the Word of God greatly – but in the early days when so many were revelling in the the joy of hearing from the Lord for themselves, by no means everyone was prepared to accept that the Word should always be considered superior to individual leading. Convinced that the Spirit Who had inspired the Scriptures was the same Holy Spirit that they possessed, many went so far as to suggest that their ‘inner light’ should test the Word instead of the other way round.

There is no question that the emphasis on being led by the Spirit produced much lasting spiritual fruit among these pioneer Quakers – but it also left the door open for ever-greater subjectivity. Before long, many of them had begun to entertaining highly unbiblical beliefs and practices, prompting this stern refutation from Richard Baxter, the Puritan divine.

‘All sober Christians should be the more cautious of being deceived by their own imaginations. Experience telleth us that most in an age that have pretended to prophesy, or to inspirations or revelations, have been melancholy, crack-brained persons, near to madness, who have proved deluded in the end.'[3]

Many ‘crack-brained’ ideas have indeed been promoted in the body of Christ, both then and now, and downright immoral things undertaken in the name of the Lord, but that should merely make us doubly concerned to check our utterances and our life-direction. What we cannot afford is to let either the spurious or the downright false hold us back from seeking to listen to the authentic Still Small Voice.

Within fifteen years or so, the Society of Friends realized that the pendulum had swung too far in terms of trusting that every Friend was being truly led by the Spirit of God. Henceforth, words and leading were to be tested by the corporate will of the group – which, it was hoped, would include sufficient awareness of Biblical teaching to affirm that which was from God, and to filter out that which was not of the Spirit.

For Reflection and Prayer

As we seek to listen to the Still Small Voice today, we face very much the same questions that the early Quakers grappled with. One important question to consider is: ‘with whom do we check and test our hearing?

The second is, ‘When we pass on to others what we sincerely hope are inspired suggestions, are we sure that we are not merely trying to claim divine approval for things that we have found to ‘work’ in our own experience? Analogies can be immensely helpful; the Lord loves to remind us of some particular experience or example to provide a key for shedding light on situations and unlocking them, but we should never dump them indiscriminately on others. That is the way to a ‘hardening of the oughteries’ – that is making people feel that they ‘ought’ to be doing something, as opposed to feeling genuine right about doing it!

Christian tradition – ‘what the Church has always believed’ – is by no means infallible, but neither is it something to throw away lightly. It is easy to be so eager to embrace the new and ‘now’ thing that God is saying or doing that we overlook basic questions: ‘Does this word (or manifestation) bring glory to God and Jesus?’ ‘Are they people of sound mind and behavior, and walking with the Lord?’ ‘Does it promote unity in the Body of Christ – or does it incline towards divisiveness and draw people into someone else’s orbit, and incline towards divisiveness?’ Such things need time to weigh and observe for their fruits to become clear – but the questions are important ones to ask.

Lord shape and sharpen our discernment,
and make us willing for what we think we have come to understand
to be tested in different ways to see if it really has come from You.


2 We have explored this amongst many other such issues in more detail in Inspired by the Spirit.