“Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments.” ~ Psalms 119:66, NASB
“Discernment is God’s call to intercession, never to faultfinding.” ~ Corrie ten Boom, author
“Some people think they have discernment when actually they are just suspicious…Suspicion comes from an unrenewed mind; discernment comes out of the renewed spirit.” ~ Joyce Meyer, Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, ‘When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; And He will reign as king and act wisely And do justice and righteousness in the land.” ~ Jeremiah 23:5, NASB
One of the most difficult aspects of life is to be able to discern right from wrong; making fruitful decisions from wise discernment. Theologian John MacArthur defines discernment as “the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides a similar definition, defining discernment as “the ability to see and understand people, things, or situations clearly and intelligently.” And Christians are called to be discerning:
“…examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22)
Yet, effectively discerning good from evil—right from wrong—is not always as black and white as many of us seem to believe based on our actions. That is not, however, to say that Christian discernment is about remaining in the gray; refusing to take an ethical or moral stance—to be accepting of everything. Failing to act on Truth. As I currently understand the topic, such thought is far from a Christian definition of discernment.
The reason that I provide definitions for discernment from both MacArthur and Merriam-Webster is that the two definitions used together more comprehensively capture what I believe it is to possess Christian discernment. First, as MacArthur asserts, I see discernment being about the application of truth. And being a Christian, the truth from which I seek to make careful distinctions is a capitalized “Truth”—not established by men, but by God. Second, as defined within Merriam-Webster, I believe that our discernment is predicated on our “ability to see and understand people, things, or situations, clearly and intelligently” within context of the Truth. But, how can we be discerning when, as Paul cautions, we see in a mirror, dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12)?
FOR GROWTH, NOT ‘MEASURING UP’
I believe that when Paul is writing to the Corinthians, his description of seeing in a mirror dimly alludes to the process of sanctification. For, unless we are Christ, logos incarnate—the Word made flesh (John 1:14)—we cannot discern Truth with perfect clarity. Jesus, the embodiment of Truth, is the foundation on which Christian discernment is measured. And none of us measure up to Christ.
While this inability to discern perfectly may seem to some a reason for discouragement, I believe it is intended as a cautious encouragement. What is my rationale? First, we may not be Christ, but that is why He is Lord and we are dependent on Him. His loving sacrifice and intercession on our behalf is what provides us salvation. Second, following His resurrection and ascension into heaven, came Pentecost—when His disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is a gift from Jesus—and as it pertains to discernment, I view the Holy Spirit as His eyes and ears, allowing His believers to “see and understand people, things, or situations” with His heart and mind (a.k.a. “the Truth”). It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that provides us the means to know Truth (1 Corinthians 2:12). Without the Holy Spirit, we are unable to know Him and follow Him. We cannot truly serve as His ambassadors.
Yet, as I understand scripture, we are still responsible for promoting the sanctification process in our lives—with emphasis on process.
THE BLACK, WHITE, & GRAY OF DISCERNMENT
The sanctification process, which I have written about previously, is the process in which we develop more into Christ’s likeness. When the sanctification process is complete—which I believe happens in the life to come—we enjoy a state of glorification; representing a true likeness to Christ. To exhibit Christian discernment, then, is to filter through the sin and deception of the world to see Truth, and wisely act upon it through the Holy Spirit—to act upon it in a way that represents the heart and mind of our Lord Jesus Christ:
“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And He will delight in the fear of the Lord, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, nor make a decision by what His ears hear” (Isaiah 11:2-3).
Though, as mentioned earlier, Jesus is perfect. We are not. His resurrection provides us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, but we still must actively and intentionally develop a maturity to listen to It; rather than the flesh or the world (i.e. sin). Sanctification and discernment are like the chicken and the egg, in that one must be present for the other—but which came first? While I still, to this day, get perplexed by the chicken and the egg paradox, I can tell you that conversion—receiving the Holy Spirit—initiates both processes of sanctification and discernment. Without some initial measure of faith in Christ, growth in either is impossible. It is as if we are infants listening to our mother or father. We love them (there is “faith” and “dependence”), but we are far from understanding the depth and meaning of the words they speak to us. And like infants, we first learn meaning on a literal level (i.e. the “black and white”); acquiring greater depth of understanding and application of the abstract context (i.e. “the gray”) as we mature.
Now, let me provide further discussion and clarification about what I see as discernment’s black, white, and gray…
I consider the black and white of discernment to represent the explicit rights and wrongs that are communicated through scripture. I’m referring to actual commandments, where little interpretation is necessary. I believe that our convictions as Christians should be founded on the black and white of scripture. They are the starting point for building knowledge and discerning wisely:
“Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments” (Psalms 119:66).
Simply, that which Christ commands warrants—nay, requires—our obedience. Though, living in a society that is continually encouraging pluralistic relativistic thought can make holding any conviction sometimes seem “narrow-minded” and pejorative.
The gray of discernment, as I see it, is two-fold.
First, there is an element of gray with some scripture, where interpreting and identifying Truth is sometimes challenging. Remember, the books of the bible were written by individuals in a culture much different from that in which we live now. Even so, the bible does share a constant, eternal Truth, being the inerrant word of God. The challenge is for us to understand the historical and cultural context in which particular books of scripture are written, so that we can accurately decipher the deepest understanding of Truth possible.
Second, with regards to application, the historical and cultural contexts that are embedded—and absent—within scripture can sometimes make it difficult to understand how we are to best apply its Truth within the world in which we now live. There aren’t simple answers for how we should navigate some of our society’s social norms. For example, how far should we stretch ourselves socially, given that we have more access to more people in an instant with today’s technology? How do we use social networks/media to enhance our relationships? Or, does use of such resources lead us to “water-down” our actual investment in relationships? With the ability to travel across the world quickly, are short-term mission trips worthwhile, or would those resources be better invested in the work of long-term missionaries, who live, work, and play in the same culture as those with whom they share the gospel? Are “seeker churches” creating a falsified culture of what it is to live as a Christian? Do they allow those without a mature faith to disciple others though they themselves have yet to be equipped with the knowledge and experience necessary to speak with wisdom on the topic? I have personally gone back-and-forth on such topics over the years. I don’t claim to have the answers.
Thus, I try to make decisions about situations—no matter how similar they may initially seem—on a case-by-case basis. No two situations are the same, nor are any two people. As I have learned to actively and intentionally examine all circumstances and situations as being isolated from the next, I have been frequently surprised by the uniqueness of circumstances and situations that I had originally perceived to be similar. Coincidentally, the best course of action in one scenario has many times been inappropriate for another “similar” scenario. And this leads me to now provide a serious caution about discerning what is black, white, and gray…
Some of what we perceive to be gray while we are young in our faith may eventually become black and white for us as we mature in our faith and our understanding grows. Such spiritual growth in the life of a follower is expected:
“But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14)
That being said, we must never forget that we should always depend upon the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:12; 3:16) and constantly refer back to scripture (Joshua 1:8; 1 John 14:21). Essentially, we must not become self-righteous or arrogant in our understanding, and assume that we understand everything. We can only understand that which is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit.
“Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).
If we believe that we can accurately interpret everything in the bible as being “black or white,” then we are most likely erring in our understanding and application of God’s Word similar to what the Pharisees and scribes were guilty of doing during biblical times. Conversely, if we argue that everything is gray, we are most likely refusing to acknowledge Truth; knowing that acknowledgement makes us accountable for our actions. True Christian discernment will assuredly place us in conflict with the world on many an occasion. Yet, we are called to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses daily:
“And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me’ ” (Luke 9:23).
It should be apparent by now that I believe active and frequent engagement with the Holy Spirit and scripture is necessary for exhibiting wise discernment. Discernment, however, also requires an awareness and understanding of both our heart and our mind—our emotions and thoughts. We interact with the world through our feelings and our thoughts. Depending on circumstances and our responses to those circumstances, our feelings and/or thoughts can serve to strengthen or weaken our resolve to act upon the Holy Spirit, or refer to scripture for better understanding. The following section will share my thoughts on practices that I believe may facilitate the Holy Spirit’s ability to speak into our hearts and minds; leading to Christ-like action.
EMOTIONS, THOUGHTS, AND DISCERNMENT
Our hearts and minds drive us to behave in certain ways; therefore, discernment involves learning to filter through negative emotions and sinful thoughts to see that which is righteous and good. In other words, we must learn how to differentiate the voices of our heart, mind, and Holy Spirit; listening to our emotions and thoughts only when they echo the voice that comes from the Holy Spirit.
We must learn to be aware of our emotions, and understand those that should be listened to…and those that should be resisted. Emotions that are loving, compassionate, and in accordance to scriptural teaching should be enacted upon. We should fear the Lord, loving God and others (Matthew 22:34-40), while possessing humility:
“He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble His way” (Psalms 25:9).
As the above scripture from the Book of Psalms suggests, humility is essential for increasing sanctification and discerning wisely. Yet, we should be careful not to interpret humility to mean that we should devalue our worth (we are adopted sons and daughters of God), fear things of the world, or retreat into hopelessness or despair. We should always possess hope through our faith in Christ, and hold onto God’s promises with absolute conviction.
Emotions such as lust, fear (of the world—not God), anger, and despair should never be enacted upon impulsively; nor, should decisions be made upon the existence of such emotions. Rather, before making any decision that aligns with these emotions we should: 1) step back, 2) confront/examine our emotions (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22), and 3) understand from where they originate. We must filter through negative emotion by depending on our mind to take us back to scripture, so that we may follow a wise and fruitful path:
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8).
Likewise, our thoughts can betray us. I believe that Satan and evil spirits have the ability to influence our emotions and our thoughts negatively—encouraging us to deceive ourselves. In times when we our battling our thoughts, our emotions can help us examine whether our thoughts are to be followed. If we are thinking of acting in an unloving and uncompassionate way to another with selfish motives, I believe that our hearts—with help from the Holy Spirit—should act as our conscience. We shouldn’t feel right about what we are thinking of doing. And again, this should lead us back to God’s Word, for “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Ultimately, I believe that the healthier we are both emotionally and mentally, the healthier we are capable of being spiritually. For spiritual discernment requires us to trust in God’s character and His Word [scripture], while understanding the Truth that He speaks into our souls; allowing us to travel the straight path:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Yet, as Joyce Meyer suggests, we can be resistant in trusting God and others, and confuse discernment with suspicion:
“Some people think they have discernment when actually they are just suspicious…Suspicion comes from an unrenewed mind; discernment comes out of the renewed spirit” (Meyer, 2002).
I agree with Meyer’s assertion that suspicion is often a byproduct of an unrenewed mind. Paul writes to the Romans that a discerning Christian must allow the Holy Spirit and God’s Word to renew their mind:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
If anything, we should treat the presence of suspicion as a red flag—that we may—though, not always—be resisting some aspect of scriptural Truth. Instead of exhibiting discernment, we are more likely succumbing to self-deception; choosing not to see and understand people, things, or situations, clearly and intelligently within context of the Truth. This is understandable [though, still wrong], given that a clear understanding of Truth may require us to make uncomfortable personal decisions—ones that expose us and leave us vulnerable. Though, to cloak our suspicion and distrust under the guise of discernment is extremely damaging; especially when trying to foster communities of loving, trustworthy people. How can we love God and others when operating from a place of suspicion? Rather than live in suspicion, we need to learn to trust God, and trust in the power of His love.
Good discernment is essential for serving God and others in love. Moreover, the better we discern good from evil, the better ambassadors we can be for our Lord. As we become more discerning, progressing further through the sanctification process, the more consistently our desires will align with His desires—with our Lord’s will. And the will of our Lord is ultimately what will come to pass:
“If you abide in Me [through the Holy Spirit], and My words abide in you [through scripture], ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
But as we live in this broken world, we must remember that we are at war. We are at war with our flesh and the world. Without biblical wisdom we are destined for destruction (Hosea 6:14). Therefore, we must “put on the full armor of God, so that [we] will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). There are false prophets and evil spirits that work against good, but by examining everything as it relates to biblical Truth, through the guiding lens of the Holy Spirit, we can serve in loving faithfulness and righteousness; bringing glory to the name of our Lord through our words and deeds:
“Do 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).
Discernment keeps us from continually stumbling as we walk with our Lord, helping us know and avoid that which will drive us towards evil deed:
“A prudent man sees evil and hides himself, the naive proceed and pay the penalty” (Proverbs 27:12).
And discernment helps us see what is right and good even through suffering and persecution. A discerning follower will persevere in the Lord’s work; knowing that it will ultimately produce fruit:
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Now that I have provided my thoughts on discernment, allow me to conclude with the serenity prayer, which I believe expresses a Christian’s desire for a discerning heart and mind better than I can with my own words:
The Serenity Prayer (Niebuhr, 1951)
God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.