Discernment: The Dangers of Practicing Discernment
Published October 9, 2023
There is one last area to consider about discernment, and that is how to practice it.
Discernment has developed a bad reputation and is often equated with divisive behavior. All Christians, at some time in their history with the church, experience the effects of professing “discerners” wreaking havoc in the church and creating chaos over secondary matters, leaving a trail of spiritual destruction in their wake as they insist on dogmatic adherence to their beliefs.
People also link being discerning and being judgmental. Some Christians don’t like to be around those who talk about discernment because they always feel as if they are on trial, when even the most insignificant aside could result in a long, exhausting confrontation.
Still others see discernment as entirely negative, identifying those who engage in discernment as the ‘heresy-hunters.’ This group of “discerners” are constantly speaking in terms of condemning others for their false doctrine or defective obedience, finding joy and delight in pointing out the flaws and sins of men and women around them.
Seeing these behaviors from people who wear the mantle of discernment produces believers who are hesitant to want to practice discernment. Countless Christians want to be in the Word and in prayer. They desire to make godly decisions in their lives and believe sound doctrine. However, they avoid the umbrella of ‘discernment’ because of all its negative connotations.
Because of the potentials pitfalls and unbiblical ideas about how to practice discernment, it is important we close our series by focusing on how to exhibit this skill in a Christ-like manner.
We begin by discussing the dangers of discernment.
The call to be discerning in the hands of someone who is spiritually immature, or well-intentioned but misguided, can become dangerous. Such people often give discernment a bad name. So how do we navigate discernment in a wise way to avoid being judgmental, critical, or cynical? Scripture helps to guide us in our practices of discernment as we seek to distinguish truth from error and right from wrong.
One danger in practicing discernment is exercising improper judgement.
It is very possible to quickly morph from seeking to be discerning to practicing an ungodly form of judgement. In Matthew 7:1, Jesus commands His followers to refrain from judging. This verse is routinely ripped out of context to argue that no one should ever exercise any discernment about anything. This, though, can’t possibly be what Jesus meant by His statement.
We read a few verses after this command, where Jesus requires that His followers exercise judgment in distinguishing between what is holy and what is not – or what is a pearl and what is worthless. Later in the chapter, Jesus tells us to beware of false prophets, which requires judgment. Since false prophets do not come wearing a sign around their necks that warns us of their presence, we must exercise judgement if we are to mark these individuals.
How, then, do we put all this together so that we are obeying the command telling us there is a sinful kind of judging and the verses exhorting us to exercise judgement?
We have to first avoid three areas of judgment God has reserved for Himself alone.
We must not judge others in matters of conscience. Romans 14 presents a situation with two genuine Christians, both of whom love and want to honor the Lord. There is a serious problem, however: they disagree on what it means to honor the Lord in a certain area of life – and it’s not an area where Scripture speaks with clarity. Paul tells the Romans not to judge one another because we are not the ‘Lord of the conscience’; we are fellow servants with our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we say we are practicing discernment, but we are judging people on issues of conscience, then we are being judgmental.
We should not judge others regarding the motives of their hearts, which are reserved for the judgement of God alone. In 1 Corinthians 4:5, believers were judging which servants of Christ were the most faithful. Paul tells his readers to stop this behavior because they cannot see into the hearts of men. In fact, Paul admits he can’t even accurately assess his own heart. If we judge people based on our perceptions of their motivations or inner workings of their hearts, then we will venture away from discernment into a sinful type of judgement.
We must not judge others harsher than we judge ourselves, which gets to the heart of Matthew 7:1. Hypocritical judgement is common in the church, and it is condemned by our Lord. It is far easier to point out the sins in others than it is to address the transgressions in our own lives. Our goal should be to eliminate sin from people’s lives, not to cast condemnation on others to deflect from our own sin.
There are areas where God has given believers license to judge.
We can judge people’s doctrine because we are required to test everything we hear to ensure it lines up with the Bible. We can also judge people’s actions when they violate Scripture. As we observe in 1 Corinthians 5:12, Paul’s expectation is that believers will judge other believers living in clear violation of God’s commands through the process of church discipline. If we want to avoid the danger that crops up in discussions of discernment, then, we need to make sure to stay clear of improper judgement. As Jesus said in John 7:24, we should judge with righteous judgement.
A second danger is seeking to practice discernment with the improper context.
Many Christians go out of their way to find error – the classic heresy hunters, who are consumed with exposing all false teachers in the universe and parsing their every statement. These people develop entire ministries that are nothing but negative criticisms of those who do not live up to their doctrinal tests.
Scripture, though, does not instruct believers to go out of our way to look for what is evil. Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 14:20 that they should not spend all their time thinking about things that are evil, nor should they become fascinated with false teachers and teaching. We gain no spiritual benefit if we spend our time doing nothing but criticizing others. We will become cynical and bitter, finding our delight in the shortcomings of others.
Rather, Philippians 4:8 points us to what we are to focus our minds on. We should be people who are fixated on the truth. Our minds should be consumed with what is good and pure and right and true and lovely and excellent.
The world has enough error; we don’t need to go looking for it. Error will find us through something we are reading, or what we are asked by another person, or conversations about a popular speaker or author in our small group or church. In those cases, errors have to be addressed, but there is a proper context where discernment takes place.
Christians should consider discernment similarly to the immune system in our bodies. If we have a healthy immune system, we don’t live in fear of germs so that we are paralyzed and unable to go about our day. On the other hand, though, just because we have a healthy immune system doesn’t mean we go around licking doorknobs to find and fight off every potential germ we can encounter. The person with a healthy amount of discernment uses it to protect his spiritual wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around him who might be in danger, but he doesn’t need to go around looking for spiritual disease that isn’t already threatening him.
We want to make sure we are exercising discernment in the proper context of protecting ourselves and our brothers and sisters around us from spiritual threats that are real and present dangers.
Hopefully this gives a good understanding of the dangers of discernment. In our last post on this important topic, we will consider discernment and decisions.