In the year 2012, discernment is golden. To be honest, it’s always been that way. The ability to decide between truth and error has been needed ever since God created mankind and placed them in the Garden. However, given the current trying milieu of multiculturalism, multi-religiosity, and postmodernity, it just seems like discernment is needed now more than ever. Mark Twain once remarked that a lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is putting on its shoes. If that was true in the 19th century, then it’s most certainly true today with mass and social media.
Discernment in its simplest definition is the ability to decide between truth and error, right and wrong, even best and better. It’s akin to wisdom, and they go hand in hand. One who discerns well is wise, and one who is wise discerns well. So, just as one can grow in wisdom (Ps 19:7), one can also grow in discernment as God through the writer of Hebrews alludes to: But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil, (Heb 5:14).
It’s important to note here at the outset that discernment is listed as a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians 12:10, but it’s not just a spiritual gift. It’s also a spiritual discipline. Some by the supernatural gifting of the Holy Spirit have the ability to easily and quickly perceive whether something or someone is from God or Satan. However, those who do not have this gifting can work at developing discernment through exercise, and even those that have the gifting can better the gifting. As Hebrews 5:14 tells us, we can train our senses to discern good and evil and should do so. Romans 12:2 reiterates the same thing, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Discernment is so crucial for the following reasons:
1. We are faced with potentially life-changing choices every day. It’s not every day that we make “big” decisions, but every day is filled with seemingly insignificant choices that have the potential to completely change our lives. Therefore, discernment is as crucial to Christians as the steering wheel is to a car. Without them, you’ll easily go in the wrong direction and perhaps even off of a cliff.
2. We are bombarded with messages contra to God’s revealed will. God has revealed to us in Scripture what pleases Him, but everywhere we turn, we see images, info, and ideals that run contrary to biblical insight, which can with little trouble draw us away from God and His desire for our life. You’ve probably heard that if you hear a lie enough, you begin to believe it, and that’s still the case today. It’s an all-out blitzkrieg on our minds and hearts. Therefore, discernment is needed to navigate to spiritual safety in the dangerous world we live in.
3. Wolves wear sheep’s clothing. Spiritual danger is not always obvious as God through Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.” The angel of darkness and his servants masquerade as angels of light so that we might be sucked in and then devoured. Discernment helps us see through the disguise, keeping us safe.
4. It’s an indicator of growth. In the verse just prior to Hebrews 5:14, which we’ve looked at twice already, we read, For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant, (Heb 5:13). That is followed up with, But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil, (Heb 5:14). These verses talk about moving from infancy to maturity, from liquid food to solid food, which is nothing more than growth, and growth is evidenced by having trained our senses through practice to discern well. You know you are growing if you are getting better at discerning.
5. We who follow Christ want to please Him. If you are a follower of Jesus, your greatest joy should be the thought of His smile, that He would be pleased with what you have done. But, in order to do the things that make Jesus smile, you must first know what those things are. Therefore, discernment is the key to blamelessness before God, as God through Paul tells us in Philippians 1:9-11, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” If you’re going to please your Lord Jesus, you must grow in discernment.
Now that we’ve established what discernment is and why it’s so important, let’s turn our attention now to how to grow in discernment. I want to share with you eight principles to sharpen your discernment.
1. Ask God for it. I know that sounds simple, right? But, it’s fully biblical. God tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:31 to “earnestly desire the greater gifts” and then again in 1 Corinthians 14:1 to “desire earnestly the spiritual gifts.” If we couple these scriptures with what God tells us in James 4:2, which says “You do not have because you do not ask,” then you need to desire to grow in discernment and ask God to give it. Seriously, ask the Giver for the gift!
2. Read the Word. We need to have a steady diet of Scripture going in to us, which means we need to regularly read the Bible. Simply reading through the Scripture at even a surface level will give you a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible and help you become acquainted with the Bible so that your discernment will begin to be sharpened.
3. Study the Word. While simple reading of the Bible will help you, you also need to dig deeper into the Word. Again, as Hebrews 5:14 points out, “solid food is for the mature.” Studying the Bible gets at that solid food, which will in turn train your senses to discern good and evil.
Before we move on, let me point you to a very dangerous but common pitfall when it comes to discernment. Instead of studying the Word so that one might know truth from error, many people depend on their feelings, their gut, their spirit their heart to guide them. I have had several folks tell me, “That just didn’t agree with my spirit,” and my usual response back is, “But does your spirit agree with the Word of God?”
Never just trust your heart. Let me say that again louder: NEVER JUST TRUST YOUR HEART! The heart is a terrible guide because it so easily gets messed up. As Jeremiah 17:9 tells us, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” I don’t want to completely disregard the role that our feelings, gut, spirit, or heart can play. These things might be the beginning of your discernment. The things might be the warning buzzer that raises your discernment antennae, but they cannot be your final measure because your feelings, gut, spirit, or heart can be untrained, poorly trained, or misguided. You need knowledge of the Word of God, which comes through study, to prepare you to discern rightly.
4. Acquaint yourself with false teachings. An important tool in the discerner’s tool box is being familiar with false doctrines and philosophies. When you begin to understand what’s out there, you can more easily spot the error when it pops up. Being a student of history is also helpful in this area because it’s likely that some Christian somewhere has had to deal with the false teaching you’re facing. However, we must still heed God’s word to us in Romans 16:19 “to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.” In other words, get acquainted with false teachings, but be better acquainted with truth!
5. Test the spirit and teaching. You can’t just accept things at face value. God tell us to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world,” (1 John 4:1). Whenever you hear something, go straight to the Word of God, and make sure it’s in agreement. That’s what the Bereans did with Paul and Silas in Acts 17:10-12, “The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.” They tested the spirit and the teaching against the Word, and you should as well.
6. Develop relationships with discerning, godly people. Discernment like most other things can be caught as much as taught. Therefore, you should surround yourself with people who discern well so that you can imitate them and be sharpened by them. Might I throw in that the best place to do this is the local church? Oh, I just did. Get connected to the local body for these relationships!
7. Seek the counsel of discerning, godly people. More than just learning to do what they do and to think how they think, discerning, godly people are a great resource for you. If you are having trouble discerning or are unsure of your discernment, get their input. God gifted them with their ability to discern for the benefit of others (1 Cor 12:7). So, let them fulfill God’s purpose by seeking their counsel.
8. Guard your heart against a critical spirit. God wants you to be discerning, but Satan loves to take a good gift or discipline and use it against you. As you develop your discernment, you must constantly check your heart against pride, which manifests itself in a critical spirit or a holier than thou attitude. Do not seek growth in discernment without seeking growth in humility as well!! Too many do not and become a blemish on the church instead of a help to the church.
May your discernment become razor sharp for the pleasure of God and the good of yourself and others!