Discernment: What is Spiritual Discernment?
Published September 20, 2023
In 1 John 4:1, the apostle gives us an exhortation to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”
This verse speaks of a significant topic found throughout the Old and New Testaments, namely, the topic of spiritual discernment.
It is painfully obvious everywhere we look today that the church has largely abandoned using any sort of discernment. All too often, we see pastors, who have been exposed as charlatans and frauds (men who have disqualified themselves from pastoral ministry through deception, arrogance, sexual infidelity, or other sins that prevent them from being above reproach), lay low for a while, pick up and move to a new city, and start a new church and instantly gain a new following. While some of this may be willful defiance of God’s Word, much of it is also due to a failure of believers to be discerning.
The lack of discernment in Christianity is tragic but not surprising, because the truth is that many believers do not know what discernment is. If we look at how Christians define discernment in the church today, we typically find something along the lines of “the ability to perceive something spiritual with the mind and the senses.” Other Christians view discernment as the ability to make good choices in life.
Because of the lack of clarity on the meaning of discernment, we need to lay out a biblical definition of this vital term for our Christian living: Discernment is the Spirit-empowered skill of using God’s Word to distinguish between truth and error and right and wrong. Each phrase in this definition is important to understand.
First, discernment is a Spirit-empowered skill.
Discernment, like so much else in the Christian life, is mysterious in the sense that it has both a divine and human element to it. The fact that discernment is Spirit-empowered indicates this is not something the unbeliever can do. Believers, though, have discernment, and can also develop and use it.
In Romans 1:31, we find Paul describing humanity in its condition of having rejected God and His Word. Paul lists several examples of what a depraved mind looks like, one being ‘without understanding.’ That term is the Greek equivalent of what we often find in the book of Proverbs when it talks about having discernment. The unbeliever who has rejected God to serve idols is without discernment. Their view of right and wrong is relative; ‘It’s right if I do it to you, but it’s wrong if you do it to me.’ We see, then, that the natural man cannot exercise discernment because it is a Spirit-empowered skill.
Discernment is a skill, however, which indicates it is also something we can develop, cultivate, and exercise. In Hebrews 5:14, the writer refers to mature followers of Jesus as having “their senses trained to discern good and evil” because of “practice.” This verse is one of the clearest statements in the Bible that we must train ourselves to exercise discernment. We need to hone, work at, and give effort to developing and putting into practice discernment every hour of every day of our lives.
Second, discernment is a Spirit-empowered skill of using God’s Word.
Here, we begin to deal with some significant errors when it comes to understanding the meaning of discernment. When we look at passages on discernment, we never are encouraged to look for a subjective feeling or to see if we have a peace about our situation. If we think of Jesus the night He was arrested, how many Christians would have skipped the cross because they just didn’t feel a peace about dying in such a horrific way? We must be very careful in how we think about discernment because people can justify all kinds of unbiblical things based on a subjective emotion or feeling.
Notice the writer’s critique of believers in Hebrews 5:11-14. Christians should be teachers of the Word of God, but because they have become dull of hearing, they are like people who need to go back to kindergarten and re-learn the alphabet. ‘Dull of hearing’ has the idea of being lazy or complacent in hearing the Word of God. In verse 14, the writer says that solid food is for the mature, who are those accustomed to – and putting in the effort to hear, understand, and obey – the word of righteousness. These people can be discerning because the way we exercise discernment is only through the word of righteousness – not through how-to books, podcasts, or anything else.
Third, discernment means we must distinguish.
This point is another place where people get a little weak-kneed about discernment. People don’t like to draw clear lines in our culture, nor do they care to think in terms of right and wrong or true and false. Biblical discernment, though, requires us to make distinctions, to draw lines, and to see the world in black and white terms.
Paul tells his readers in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 that they need to exercise discernment, exhorting them to examine everything carefully. Discernment doesn’t stop with the examination. After the examination, we must then hold fast to the good and abstain from the evil. When we examine something, we will come to a conclusion that it is either good or evil; that it aligns with God’s Word or it doesn’t. Note that discernment requires us to make this distinction.
Finally, discernment demands this type of distinction between good and evil, which can be broken down into two aspects.
We might first think of good and evil doctrine, or truth and error.
As believers, we are called to examine and discern what people say to see if those ideas and beliefs align with the Word of God. Discernment demands that we must use this Spirit-empowered skill of using the Word of God to distinguish sound doctrine from false doctrine.
In addition, we can say that good and evil also encompasses behavior and actions, so that we must distinguish between right and wrong.
It’s really a tragedy to see how many professing Christians over the years have capitulated to the cultural standards of sexuality, morality, justice, and any number of behaviors. These actions by believers betray a complete lack of discernment. The way so many so-called Christians think is rooted in the media, culture, worldly mindset, and standards of this present, evil age – rather than in the Word of God. This bears itself out when they can’t tell the difference between things that are right and wrong.
Discernment is based on an objective standard, the Word of God – not a subjective feeling or experience. It encompasses everything that can be classified as good or evil, including our beliefs regarding truth and error and our actions as being either righteous or unrighteous. The discerning person is trained to use the Word of God in the power of the Spirit to make these distinctions, and he or she has the willingness to do so, despite how unpopular it is in our culture to be discerning.
Some might ask, now, that if discernment is so unpopular and so out of step with our culture, why should we practice it? Why should we want to be discerning, and why does discernment matter? We will explore the answers to these questions next time.