Discernment: Developing Discernment
Published October 2, 2023
One aspect of being a follower of Christ is exercising spiritual discernment.
As we have gone through our study of discernment, we have defined this trait as the Spirit-empowered skill of using God’s Word to distinguish between right and wrong and truth and error. Just as great athletes go to great lengths to develop their craft, so every believer must work hard to develop the skill of spiritual discernment.
Many Christians get discouraged when they look at people around them and realize there are varying levels of proficiency in discernment. God does gives certain believers a spiritual gift of discernment. Some people have been uniquely gifted to discern where doctrines, teachings, or behaviors have originated. One of the chief biblical examples of this gift bestowed on an individual is King Solomon, who was divinely granted discernment by the Lord. Various people in the church will be more discerning than others, and that’s merely part of God’s sovereign will.
Regardless of spiritual expertise, however, every believer is called to develop and exercise discernment, even if some are not gifted in a special way by the Spirit in this manner. Everyone can become more discerning by putting in the effort to develop spiritual discernment.
So what are the drills we need to employ to develop this skill of spiritual discernment? There are six practical steps we can take to be more discerning people in order to follow our Lord’s will for our lives.
First, we should pursue discernment.
Believers will not become more discerning by accident. We must begin to think about discernment, to value discernment, and to see discernment as something we want to pursue in our daily lives. In Proverbs 2:3-6, Solomon tells his son that to become wise and to develop discernment, his son must seek it. It is only when we start to highly value discernment, searching for it as for hidden treasure, that we will learn God’s wisdom and gain His understanding about life. Even someone, like Solomon, who was so uniquely gifted by God, was not exempt from needing to develop discernment by pursuing it with intentionality.
The pursuit of discernment is challenging for believers because we are, by nature, people who find intentionality difficult. We must overcome our tendency toward procrastination and laziness to pursue discernment. It’s also a challenge to pursue discernment because it is inherently a difficult task. When Solomon compares seeking discernment to searching for hidden treasures, the implication is that the task is arduous. Discernment isn’t easy; and if it was, then everyone would be discerning!
Second, we should pray for discernment.
We cannot overlook our total dependence on the Spirit of God to develop discernment. Prayer is the crucial first step once we have committed ourselves to this pursuit. In James 1:5, God promises He will give us wisdom, which involves discernment as a crucial aspect, if we pray for it. We should have full assurance that God is going to give us the wisdom we need in every situation where we seek Him in prayer.
Paul, in Philippians 1:9, also gives us an example of praying for others to be discerning. We should pray for believers God has put in our lives, that the Lord would increase their discernment. Additionally, we want fellow brothers and sisters to pray on our behalf. Prayer is a team sport and a group effort.
Third, we should pore over God’s Word.
We must go beyond studying the Bible to the point that the Word of God permeates everything about us. Christians should want God’s Word to dwell within us richly, as Colossians 3:16 admonishes us. The wisdom encompassing discernment comes to us when God’s Word is living within us because we have not only read the Scriptures but absorbed those inspired words into our souls.
The struggle many Christians have with developing discernment from the Word of God is that they just don’t think of the Bible this way. Numerous believers sadly compartmentalize their lives, and the Bible only gets consideration some of the time. They also despiritualize their lives, and they think the Bible only pertains to so-called spiritual things, so it gets excluded from much of their decision-making, especially in areas where they think life is not spiritual. However, the Scriptures, as Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:14-17, can equip us for every good work in all areas of our lives!
Fourth, we should practice obedience.
The only possible way to find out if we have any discernment ourselves is to manifest our obedience for what the Word of God says in situations we encounter. It is here, in situations we face in our lives, where our discernment is truly put to the test, whether that be discerning truth from error or right from wrong. In James 1:22-25, James tells us, not just to receive the Scriptures in humility, but to obey God’s Word. This obedience proves we are effectual doers of the Bible.
John MacArthur wrote, “Disobedience always undermines discernment.” When we hear the Word of God but willfully choose to disobey it, how can we possibly grow in discernment? We should not wait to obey God’s Word until we have more discernment or knowledge. Rather, we must be faithful to what we have received; and as we pray and seek God in His Word, the Lord will be faithful to increase our discernment even more.
Fifth, we should participate in the church.
A sound, biblical church, led by discerning shepherds, is one of the greatest safeguards we have against a lack of discernment. It is no accident that during one of the most confusing times in the world’s recent history (COVID-19), the one institution God gave to His people to help them discern how to respond in a godly way shut down. How many churches shuttered their doors over the course of 2020 – and even into 2021 – is an indictment on the discernment of their spiritual leaders. The real tragedy, though, is how many people struggled to know what they should do in the middle of the confusion because the place to help them be discerning was closed.
The church can be a utopia of “discernment sharing.” Every believer should honestly assess their levels of discernment. Those who have very little discernment should seek out someone who has more, following and gleaning discernment from them. Those who have more discernment than others should find individuals who have less for the purposes of discipling and helping them learn to develop discernment in their lives. We are all at different levels with this skill, and we need each other in the church to help us become more discerning.
Sixth, we should persevere in spiritual growth.
No matter how much discernment we have, we need more. In fact, one of the marks of someone who is discerning is a growing humility, recognizing how much discernment they still lack. We must be constantly reminded that whatever discernment we have comes from God’s Word and Spirit. Spiritual discernment is not inherent within us, and so we must continue to grow in discernment.
In 2 Peter 3:17-18, the apostle reminds us that being discerning against error only succeeds if we are persistently seeking to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Complacency in what we know is the enemy of discernment, and it was this exact state of mind and actions that led to the readers of Hebrews going back to spiritual infancy.
Someone might say, “Yes, but I’ll never be as discerning as another brother or sister in Christ!” That may be true, but everyone can be more discerning than they are today. We can develop this skill of using God’s Word to distinguish between what is true and false and what is right and wrong. As we seek to develop discernment, we will need to learn to exercise it in various circumstances. Next time, we’ll conclude by considering how to exercise spiritual discernment.