Tozer on Discernment


Recently, I reviewed Lyle Dorsett’s biography of Tozer, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. I’ve read Tozer for years, but knew little of the man, so Dorsett’s biography helped fill in many blanks.

Of all the quotes that Dorsett pulled for the book, one struck home for me. It’s a scary wise kind of word that carries so much gravitas as to hit like a nuclear bomb. It’s the weighty word that helps you better understand those strong, silent men burdened with grave faces.

To his associate pastor and friend, Raymond McAfee, Tozer once said:

If you want to be happy, never ask for the gift of discernment.

I think that’s a word worthy of discussion. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section. I will be monitoring this discussion, so I’ll definitely respond.

33 thoughts on “Tozer on Discernment

  1. There is NO biblical gift of discernment, so I’d have to wonder what he was talking about. There is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit called the discernment of spirits, which has to do with determining the source of supernatural effects, not perspicaciousness. There is no overall or general “gift of discernment.” That notion is just bad teaching.

    There is godly wisdom, which is very discerning, which God bestows and can be gotten by those willing to pursue it (hence Proverbs). The descriptions there do not cast it as something to rue, rather to celebrate.

  2. I would disagree with SLW’s emphatic “NO.” His comment is misleading: if wisdom is a “good” thing and it is from God, it is, ergo, a gift of God.

    There is no linguistic justification for deferring to wisdom in opposition to discernment for the sake of clarity in the use of the word “gift.” If we take this path in discussions of importance to the people, we strain at gnats.

    “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning.” [James 1:17]

    And with respect to “spirits,” I would suggest that we are to “try the “spirits [1 John 4:1]. This clearly means we are to “discern” their source, as SLW’s comment suggests.

    I would, though, ask SLW to explain his statement “the source of supernatural effects, not perspicaciousness.” Why the introduction of the supernatural into a text with only the hint of it? Where does he find support for this contention and how does it apply to the requested subject? It has the aroma of a strawman (no offense intended SLW).

    I have believed I possess a gift of discernment for over 20 years; whatever it is, it has brought me nothing but heartache. For me, at least, discernment has damaged relationships, provided tons of absolutely useless but confirmed insight (e.g., usually about acquaintances, destroying the ability to trust), as well as impeded the due process of projects and programs.

    I might have been a better servant without it.

    • John,
      Notwithstanding that there are some among us wiser than others, show me scripturally where anyone is stated to have or to be able to receive a special resident ability of being discerning. It’s not there, anywhere (except perhaps in the case of Solomon, and I would argue there the real issue is wisdom). The manifestation of discerning of spirits is often erroneously attributed to folk who seem to be unusually astute, but, linguistically this is a misappropriation. This manifestation (“discernment of spirits”) is for the common good (read public or corporate good), but those who misappriate it, do so not with the notion of aiding the body (at least in my experience) but for having swami-like influence over other individuals lives. To me, the all too common “use” of this “gift” among the charismatics is fraught with all the dangers and abuses of personal words of prophecy. It’s not justified in the text.

      As for the supernatural aspect of this, what about the context of 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 isn’t supernatural? Discerning of spirits most certainly is, mentioned in relation to the coming to light of the Spirit’s action.

      If your presumptive gift has caused you such heartache, my suggestion is to stop it. It’s not of God. Your contention is not scriptural, nor it seems the practice of something that has not brought good, but destruction.

        • Dan,
          Just below you mention Jeremiah, who would come as close as any in providing a biblical precedent for the thought. In my own life as a pastor, I have felt the anguish of one of my brothers or sisters insisting on pursuing courses of action, that in my heart (could I say in my spirit?), I knew were not the way to go, but could not convince them otherwise– only to have heartache and failure follow. So the answer is yes. Rough, indeed, but not unwanted nor regretted.

          • slw,

            I think people to whom God gives discernment, especially those words that are tough to bear, are sometimes like people who have been told a secret that can destroy others. It’s a tough cross to bear because they just KNOW. I think that is what Tozer was aiming for in his comment.

            A person who is discerning can ruin friendships if she shares what she knows, or he bears the burden of knowing how things will end and will watch clueless people wander off into destruction (as you encountered yourself). That’s hard on a person, isn’t it? The prophets had that cross to bear.

    • John,

      Your comments seem to fit what Tozer is talking about.

      I suspect many solid people of God who routinely hear from Him receive knowledge that may prove a burden. I know that this has happened to me at times, too. I have always wondered what good it is to know distressing things before they happen, especially in those cases when you can do nothing to prepare.

      • It might be helpful to some of you if I gave a recent anecdotal experience with my “gift” of discernment … and it has nothing to do with knowing a thing in advance.

        A godly and wonderful elder at my last church was commenting on the appropriateness of reimbursing an out-of-pocket expenditure by another elder … his comments were circuitous and solicitous. My discernment told me his problem was not with spending money but with spending money he had not personally approve of in advance of the expenditure.

        After probing his real feelings I told him directly that I knew his true motivation … it was not received well and the other elders told me I was out of line and could not “know his heart.” Yet I did.

        Now the problem with this gift comes in at this juncture; you readers will most certainly feel I was arrogant and presuming. Yet I knew his heart at that moment as surely as I know I am saved. But there is simply no way to convince anyone that you do … it simply does not fit into a convenient theology.

        • connie

          I have that gift too….my poor tongue has been bitten practically off at times, because I knew I couldn’t share what I knew without causing a fracas.

          (I understand it as being able to discern the spirit of a man, along with discerning if something is from the enemy or from God as well. And it’s a tough gift to have. Better ask for a gift of wisdom to go with it, cuz you are gonna need it!)

          As a woman, this gift has also protected me from wolves in the church. Need I say more?

  3. I’m not sure I agree with Tozer on this one. OK first off, we want joy not happiness and all that. But the gift of discernment should surely lead to greater joy. We learn to avoid that which is joyless, or in error, or sinful and say YES to what is true, what is right, what is holy. Discernment helps us seek and find God’s will, which might be costly but not devoid of blessing. Discernment for charismatics should help bring freedom not captivity. So there must be something that Tozer saw that I am not, because I can’t quite understand how this gift would be such a block to enjoying life.

    • Phil,

      It seems to me that many of the OT prophets had the ability to discern things from God that didn’t always lead to joy. Eliljah and Jeremiah immediately spring to mind.

      • Dan, is there a difference between hearing God speak and the gift of discernment? Prophets clearly did hear God speak and His words to the ungodly and means of making his point were clearly challenging. I, for one, would not wish to trade places with Hosea, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Job, Jonah or countless other prophets. Agreed there is little recorded there of the happiness or joy that they had. However, I would argue that being discerning (or wise), between falsehood and truth, between wrong and right, between evil and righteousness is something we all need to grow in and in doing that, it leads (more often than not) to good things.

        If we’re talking discernment of spirits, then this should either lead to avoidance of evil or freedom of those in spiritual bondage (deliverance), again while never easy or without challenges, not one that should lead to a life without joy or happiness.

        • Phil,

          I think they are wrapped up together. Hearing God speak and hearing His direction for discerning are inextricably linked.

          You are also right in saying that discernment can bring joy; it helps keep people out of trouble!

    • Lois A Servaas

      Yes, I believe that Tozer meant discernment to be the knowledge of God — the beginning of wisdom, if you will. To have discernment you first have to really know God’s Word. the more you know it, the more evil you see — in others and in yourself.

    • John Shannon

      Phil, ‘appears you distinguished differences between happiness and joy, yet you went on to illustrate conflict w/Tozer’s ‘gift of discernment’ and YOUR “joy.” Do you subscribe to happiness and joy differing or not?

  4. SLW –

    I appreciate the response. Not sure I grasp all of your points but will try to respond as time allows. First let me ask: when you say “text” what do you mean? Do you mean the biblical languages or a particular version?

    I would like to respond within your preferential context; words have specific meanings, but text often has qualified meaning within the particular context.

    For the moment let’s agree to leave the domain of my “presumptive gift” alone. It serves no purpose for me to endure criticisms relative to my spiritual reality.

    But I would suggest you revisit your understanding of spiritual gifts, I sense a few loose ends in your hermeneutic.

    BTW, in advance of your response let me clearly say I do not agree with you that there is no scriptural support for Tozer’s position.

  5. Jake

    Regarding Tozer’s statement – without knowing the context we cannot determine if he was referring to a Biblically described gift, e.g., discerning spirits. However, since he knew the Bible probably better than most of his contemporaries and probably better than most of us, I think we can be reasonably certain he was not referring to a gift of that sort.

    We often speak of people being gifted – athletes, orators, scholars and the like. Even though the Bible doesn’t explicitily refer to the “gift of athleticism” or the “gift of intelligence” and more than it refers to the “gift of discernment”, certainly we must acknowledge God as the source of this giftedness. Where else would it come from?

    Also as some have said, there is great joy in doing the Father’s will and exercising the gifts he gave. Yet as any athlete or scholar will tell you, there are often times when it seems anything but joyful. Long hours, sacrifice, and times of despair all go with the territiory.

    Regarding Tozer’s statement, without knowing the context, I would think he was referring to the ability to quickly and accurately determine the Biblical truthfulness of various teachings. If that indeed was the case, then he might have meant that one must have a pretty thick skin and a lot of courage to point out error and preach the truth. One must be willing to at times “swin upstream”, as they say. It can be a lonely paddle.

  6. Well, perhaps I won’t sound as eloquent as some of you, but I know exactly what Tozer meant. I remember talking to my pastor about how some days, you see SO MUCH, and you can’t help but weep. The world is going to Hell in a handbasket! Then to top it off, you get into the body of Christ, where people should be there to glorify God but you see so clearly, pride, ambition, self seeking, and attempts to use the church as a tool to get somewhere other than to glorify God!

    All I could say was “amen!” when I read that. Which is why we so have to keep our eyes on HIM, because when we don’t, it could very well overwhelm us. I know at times it’s overwhelmed me, until I refocused on Him.

  7. francisco

    Guess what? Google to the rescue! Here is some context to get Tozer’s understanding of the said gift:

    “Among the gifts of the Spirit, scarcely is one of greater practical usefulness than the gift of discernment. This gift should be highly valued and frankly sought as being almost indispensable in these critical times. This gift will enable us to distinguish the chaff from the wheat and to divide the manifestations of the flesh from the operations of the Spirit.”

    Now, let me suggest you all here seem to be missing the point of Dan’s question. Go back to that quote and see whether or not Tozer depicted two scenarios he might have pictured himself and other Christians in:

    1) I’m not happy because I got the gift of discernment.

    2) I’m happy because I lack the gift of discernment.

    In which group did Tozer see himself? His statement suggests he saw himself in the first group. But then in fairness, we’d have to ask him what he mean by ‘being happy’. Let’s explore that next:

    Doesn’t God want each one of his children to be happy? If so, what kind of happiness He has in mind for us? Is the one we by default think we deserve here on earth: riches, friends, no war, no hell, etc? Or is the the one Paul experiences when he says he was “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing”? Wasn’t Paul’s life as a minister of the gospel rough and always in danger? But wasn’t that what Jesus had said Paul was going to experience for the sake of His name? And isn’t the fruit of the Spirit evident in Paul’s life: love, patience, JOY, meekness, etc. I have yet to hear someone giving me a clear biblical distinction between happiness and joy. I’d be glad to hear from ya’ll.

    Now, onto discernment. Tozer says that discernment would help us distinguish works of the flesh from signs of the Spirit. How then would we apply it? I think we could exercise the gift in assessing the health of a/our church (yet with divine perspective like Paul recognizes the grace of God in the messed-up Corinthian church in his first letter), her members (like Paul when he was aware of being in danger of ‘false brethren’), the genuineness of a revival (like Jonathan Edwards did by penning “Religious Affections’ to shed some light on the unusual manifestations witnessed during the First Great Awakening) and so forth. Or we can start applying that gift on ourselves to assess our spiritual health. How? By identifying sinful craving patterns and then be willing to be changed by God’s Spirit and then -as John Owen would have said- engaging in battle against indwelling sin less it kills us.

    • francisco –

      Excellent contribution. Thank you.

      Your last paragraph addresses the need for discerning saints in the Body … for example: discerning the spirits of such as “the third wave” in Pensacola; the shallow theology of our day (Ecumenism, Christian Green Movement, ad naseum); and the worldliness of the visible western church.

      On the other hand, I don’t believe Tozer’s quote qualifies as a fit in either of your two categories. I believe Tozer had the gift, as understood by him, and that that gift revealed to him the degradation of the visible Bride, which led him to see the broken heart of God, which must bring a saint to a similar heart condition.

      He was not speaking of the human condition of being happy as much as he was saying he discerned God’s unhappiness. How can we claim to be happy when God is not? True discernment won’t allow it!

  8. (Ecclesiastes 1:18) Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

    The Lord pointed me at this verse several years ago, and I’ve found it to be true. When it’s wisdom and knowledge of self, the cost is dying to self, or rebelling against God, both painful prospects. When it’s wisdom and knowledge of others, in most cases your gift is not received. At one point, my pastor was aiming his personal life on a crash course. He heard what I said, he agreed with what I said – and then crashed anyhow.

    Sometimes, I’ve found, God uses us simply to make people accountable, knowing full well that the warning will go unheeded. But they will no longer be able to say, “God, I didn’t know.”

    This is not a lot of fun, so, yeah, I can understand why Tozer would say that.

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