Spiritual discernment

by Michael E. Brooks

“But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. . . . And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:14; 3:1 NKJV).

Each time I return to South Asia,  I am impressed anew with the necessity of changing my approach to preaching and teaching. Not only is general knowledge of the Bible almost entirely lacking among the Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims of these countries, but their perspectives and goals are much different from those to whom I normally speak in the United States.

The latter are more rigidly materialistic, preoccupied with the body, its needs and desires.

It is not that Americans are necessarily more spiritual, but their worldview at least allows for the concept.  More importantly, most of my preaching there is to Christians, many of whom have been Christians for a long time.  Though this does not guarantee maturity or spirituality, it does help the mindset and perception.

This is not the case in many other places where Christianity may be virtually unknown. Those who have named Christ may be first generation Christians with no prior knowledge of the Bible, and may have been Christians only a short time.

It is also the case that other countries experience a far greater level of poverty and want, making focus on the material necessities more urgent.  It is very difficult to persuade someone of the many spiritual blessings available in Christ when they have no comprehension of the realm of spirituality.

Life is a matter of the here and now, the needs of the moment. There is little thought or concern for the future when one does not know where the next meal is coming from.

These observations influence my appreciation for the words of the apostle Paul quoted above. I understand his frustration at the difficulty of explaining necessary truths to people without the background essential to understanding.

This same frustration is apparent in the letter to the Hebrew Christians: “Of whom we have much to say and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11).

The speaker (or writer) has responsibilities to know his audience and to adjust his presentation to their capabilities and needs. This does not mean however that he is free to change his message, or ignore necessary content. His obligation remains to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2).

In studying missionary methods, as well as preaching effectiveness, I have sometimes seen the suggestion that certain doctrines (for example baptism) be deleted or at least deferred in cultures where there were inherent obstacles to their being accepted.

The argument is made, “If burial is an obnoxious concept, how can we expect to be effective when we require it (even symbolically) at the onset of Christian life?  Should we not wait until the audience is better able to accept it?” Or, when teaching Muslims, “If the deity of Jesus is considered blasphemy, why not emphasize his humanity and not force the issue?”

The Christian evangelist (and that is every Christian) is restricted in what he may teach (2 John 9-11; Galatians 1:6-10). We are to “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11).

Our faith has been delivered to the saints “once and for all” (Jude 3). There are methods available to help us reach a less spiritual audience, but some responsibility remains with those who hear. Like the various unproductive soils of Jesus’ parable (Matthew 13:1-9) even good seed spread by a diligent farmer will not produce in every situation into which it falls.

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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