Christian Discernment

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘discernment’ as the ability to make good judgements. Others define it as the ability to see and understand people, things, or situations clearly and intelligently.

For a Christian that has certain ramifications. We are often told that to understand people and why they act the way they do we have to try to understand them from their point of view. We have to place ourselves in their position and try to think as they do. There are situations in life when we certainly need to do that to be more sympathetic to their plight and to know how to help them to make an appropriate transition from where they are to where they should be. Some people might think that this is an arrogant statement to make.

This brings us to a consideration of foundational truths; truths that do not alter with age or culture, that are reliable and trustworthy. Truths that should form the basis for our understanding of what is right or wrong, profitable or destructive. Do such truths exist, or not?

Discernment For All

In 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, Paul the apostle tells the believers not to be contemptuous of what they hear from their leaders and teachers. Instead, they are to test, or examine everything. To hold on to the good, and avoid every kind of evil. In other words, they are to decide between what is truth and what is error; what is from God and what is not. Paul had already commended this kind of attitude in his reference to the believers he met in Berea.

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11).

What does this imply? Doesn’t it indicate that ultimate truth is available to everyone? And, that it can be discovered through the Scriptures? On this issue, the Christian worldview provides a sharp contrast to the secular worldview. The secular world view rejects the idea that there is an ultimate truth, while the biblical view relates truth to God himself.

Christians have to develop a biblical way of understanding life and judging all that happens around them. It’s true that some people are given the special gift of discernment when it comes to distinguishing between spirits (1 Cor. 12:10); or, to see when some people have not been honest with God (Acts 5:3-6); or, to recognise when Satan is seeking to distract from what God is doing (Acts 16:16-18); or, when certain things are happening in the Christian community where it isn’t very clear whether it is a work of God or something quite different and dangerous (1 John 4:1).

However, when Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Thessalonica, he addressed all of them. All of them were told to have discernment, or to learn to think biblically. To think biblically is what separates a mature Christian from an immature one or a new believer.

What’s Missing?

Why is this discernment missing among many Christians? Why can’t we see when secular perspectives have come to dominate our values, methods, and practices? When our reasoning and judgements have little to do with what the Bible teaches?

If discernment is the ability to think biblically, and there is a lack of discernment among many Christians, then what is missing in the equation? Surely, it is people’s understanding of the biblical message. Absence of personal devotions is one factor. Even where personal devotions exist, cursory reading of passages that are quickly forgotten contributes to this lack of understanding. Shallowness in preaching and teaching has never encouraged people to get excited about the Scriptures for themselves. Paul told Timothy,

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15).

In economics, we talk about the law of supply and demand. How do we assess what our congregations need? What guides preachers and teachers in their preparation? People’s natural ability to understand, or the Holy Spirit’s power to make God’s Word understandable? Perhaps we have relied too much on the former, and exercised insufficient faith when it comes to the latter. During my theological training it was impressed on us in our preaching classes that we should not give people more than they can cope with. It has always disturbed me that the work of the Holy Spirit to persuade, to convince, to open people’s understanding was not emphasised sufficiently. After all, in the life of the Church we are dealing with something more than mere educational principles.

Preaching and teaching needs to constantly lift people’s understanding of the biblical message so that they can grow to spiritual maturity. Evangelism-type messages have their place, but if congregations are not given much more than that on a regular basis, they will remain at the level of spiritual infants. And infants are not capable of exercising discernment.

What is indisputable, is that congregations are becoming increasingly ignorant of what the Bible really teaches ― the larger picture. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Satan is very successful in undermining the foundations of the Christian Church. What is his aim? Is it to create spiritual short-sightedness, as Peter calls it, or is it to leave believers no better off than they were before their conversion?

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. (2 Pet. 1:3-9).

Discernment In All Of Life

Discernment has to be applied to every aspect of life. God's Word provides us with the criteria by which we evaluate everything. How else can we have true knowledge of God and what He wants us to understand, except through what the Bible teaches? Nor does it come through a shallow understanding of the Bible. No Christian who neglects to study his or her Bible seriously will ever be able to claim to have ‘spiritual discernment’. Spiritual discernment is a biblical way of thinking. The writer to the Hebrews says,

Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb. 5:13-14).

This is the essence of discernment. This training is in the use and application of biblical truth to every area of life. It is the responsibility of every believer.

These days many Christians prefer to eat ‘pre-digested’ spiritual food that comes from sermons and paperbacks that offer simple solutions to life and don’t demand much effort or sacrifice. Training, however, involves hard work and discipline. Recovering the ability to discern the difference between good and evil lost in the Garden of Eden doesn’t come easily. A lot of effort has to go into the exercise of trying to digest ‘solid food’. But, it is the essential process if we are to aim towards spiritual maturity. It is the role of pastoral leadership to teach and preach to this end.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13).

It is only from the position of spiritual maturity in Christ that any of us can see and understand what is happening around us from God’s point of view. All of life is the arena where spiritual discernment needs to operate; and it needs to operate regularly and consistently. This is where (personal) training comes in.

The constant tug-o-war in the Christian life is between adopting God’s perspective on life and the world’s perspective. We don’t have to make any effort to think like the world thinks. It is natural to us. We have been conditioned to think like that since birth. It’s a thinking that puts ‘self’ at the centre of all we consider and do. To allow our thinking to be transformed by God’s perspective, requires a great deal of commitment. It can be very unsettling. Yet it is demanded of us in the light of all that God in Jesus Christ has done for us.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. 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. (Rom. 12:1-2).