Give Me A Discerning Heart
According to Webster’s dictionary, discernment is “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.” Discernment is also associated with wisdom, understanding and judgment. In much the same way that people will lament that these days, and perhaps in any day, common sense is not very common, so also the capacity to discern between good and evil, right and wrong or the ability to ascertain the true value of ideas and principles is also rare. The world and even the church is in desperate need of the ability to discern matters. The prophet Hosea said, “Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.” Hosea 14:9 (NIV)
In I Thessalonians, perhaps in conjunction with spiritual gifts, Paul urges his readers to, "test everything and cling to what is good." Good sound advice from the apostle, but how do we make it happen. We know intuitively that God's word is the standard by which all things should be tested, but how do we make the application while being aware of our own cultural biases, historical perspective and theological inclinations.
It does not take a degree in theology to have discernment, but it does require proper discipleship, a fervent prayer life and a love for God's word. The book of acts tells us that the Christians in Berea were noble because they studied the Scriptures to see if the things that Paul was saying were indeed true. Do the people in our congregations check up on the preacher and verify the veracity of what they are being taught or do they simply accept it or perhaps simply ignore it?
Recently, Denise and I visited a church where we were acquainted with a number of the members. As the pastor began to preach, on a subject I vaguely recall, I waited with expectation for him to tell us the text from which he was preaching and I kept on waiting. I whispered in Denise's ear, "where is the text?" Finally, after about 25 minutes, the pastor announced his text and after 5 more minutes he read a few verses. It seemed as though he used the Scripture to reinforce his thoughts and ideas instead of the other way around.
The theme from our conference last January was 2 Timothy 4:2, "preach the word." If the word of God is our standard by which things should be judged, isn't it necessary to preach and to hear the word of God? It seems as though we have seen many reports and accounts of the lack of biblical literacy among Christians today. Is it any wonder that there seems to be an inability to discern even simple truth about right and wrong, about salvation and other things that should be considered elementary principles?
The term fake news has certainly come to the forefront of American politics and media coverage. Some people act as though they believe that “fake news” is something new, but the first purveyor of fake news was Satan in the Garden of Eden. He began by saying, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The serpent twisted things just enough to bring confusion into the conversation with Eve. Eve corrects the serpent, letting him know that they could eat from the trees of the garden except for fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, but then she adds “and you must not touch it, or you will die.”
If we do not know what God has said and if we have not hidden his word in our heart that we might not sin against him, we too could be subject to being deceived. In order to have discernment, we must know what God has said. Certainly, we can encourage those in our churches and others that we may disciple to read the word of God, but we must also be sure that when we teach and when we preach, our first and ultimate authority is the word of God. Proverbs 18:15 tells us, “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.”
Without a foundation in the Scriptures, we are likely to place more emphasis on our feelings and emotions and we will be more susceptible to attacks from the enemy, from the world and even from people who are close to us and perhaps well-intentioned, but nevertheless in error. We live in a day and age where anything goes because reactions are based on the flesh and spiritual discernment is lacking.
One thing is certain though, there is nothing new under the sun.
The lesser of 2 evils?
It is not unusual for us to be faced with choices that fall short of ideal, especially when people are involved. James reminds us that good and perfect gifts only come down from the father of the heavenly lights and he doesn’t change like shifting shadows. So, it is a given that when we face a choice when in reality neither choice would be our first choice, what do we do? Our approval or our vote, in one way or another, is our endorsement that we support whomever we choose, but if neither choice comes close to our standards, is it okay to support the lesser of the 2 evils? This is where we need discernment to understand the ramifications of our choices. And if we do not make a choice at all, is that a viable option? There are degrees of shadows and there are also shades of gray. We are called to walk in the light and also to shine as lights in the midst of culture that no longer even makes a pretense of righteousness. We must make choices every day, what do we read and what do we watch on television? Who do we associate with and confide in? Without being trained to discern between light and darkness, between right and wrong, it is likely that we will be overwhelmed, intimidated and confused by the choices that confront us.
To reiterate, because we live in a fallen world, the choices that we will be forced to make will rarely be black-and-white. This is probably startling to some people and perhaps a little disturbing and it is wise to be prepared make difficult choices as well as be ready to admit that sometimes we will make the wrong choice. Do not let pride stand in the way of admitting that you made a mistake. We should also be prepared to stand firm in withholding a choice if it falls outside of the parameters of what should be acceptable to a child of God. JB Phillips in his translation of the New Testament translated Romans 12:2 this way, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” Sometimes the most difficult decision of all will be to say, “None of the above.” It is better to withhold our endorsement or vote instead of simply choosing bad over worse.
Paul in writing to the Ephesians, drives home this point: “…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Ephesians 5:8–10 (ESV). The only possibility of learning to discern what pleases God is to remember that we must walk as children of the light. Eugene Peterson in the Message translates John 7:24 this way: “Don’t be nitpickers; use your head—and heart!—to discern what is right, to test what is authentically right,” whereas the NIV says: “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”
While writing this article, news came that four people were killed in Tajikistan while riding their bicycles through territory held by ISIS. The sadness of their deaths was compounded as we read the views exposed by a couple from the United States. “You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place," Jay Austin wrote. “People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil. “I don’t buy it," he continued. "Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own...”
“Evil is a make-believe concept?” It might be tempting to say that this is just an isolated incident, but I think that we all know far too well that there are many who do not want to deal with the fact that there is evil in the world.
We have illustrated the need for discernment, but exactly how does one become a discerning person? Is it something that we are born with? If that were the case, there would be little hope for many people. In the rest of the article we want to identify three things that we can do to increase our discernment, wisdom and understanding.
Before we began it is important to establish the criteria for discernment. Job 12:13 declares, “To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his.” God is the source and the supply that we need to increase our capacity for discernment. There are a lot of authorities that claim to be wise and have understanding, but unless they acknowledge that the source is God they cannot have true discernment. Job continues in chapter 28:
20 “But do people know where to find wisdom?
Where can they find understanding?
21 It is hidden from the eyes of all humanity.
Even the sharp-eyed birds in the sky cannot discover it.
22 Destruction and Death say,
‘We’ve heard only rumors of where wisdom can be found.’
23 “God alone understands the way to wisdom; he knows where it can be found,
24 for he looks throughout the whole earth
and sees everything under the heavens. Job 28:20–24 (NLT)
Once we are convinced that God is the source of wisdom and discernment we can look to the Proverbs for the key as to how we may obtain wisdom:
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Proverbs 9:10 (NIV)
Our capacity and ability to increase discernment begins with an awe and reverential fear of God. If we are wise in our own eyes, we will most certainly fall short of having the discernment and wisdom needed to avoid the traps and snares of the enemy. Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes spent a great deal of time and words only to come to the conclusion that life is full of vanity and futility. However, the book draws to a close and he says, “Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.”
If the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, we then can see that an increase in discernment and wisdom will be found in the word of God. In the same way that the Bereans were noble because they searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul was telling them was true, the study of the Scriptures for us is just as important so that we are not taken in and deceived by those who manipulate and deceive in order to achieve their own purposes. Paul writing to Timothy said: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 3:14–15 (NIV). It is through the Scriptures that our capacity for discernment will increase.
The pressures of this life and the world are intended to draw us away from God and his plan for us. They promise freedom but they only deliver enslavement and God’s word is a safeguard against deception. We hide the word of God in our heart that we might not sin against him, but there are added benefits as well. Paul in writing to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:2 (CSB) It is also evident that discernment and wisdom serve not only to guard us against error and deception, but it also equips us to understand and know what God desires of us and what his heart is toward us.
A discerning and wise individual is a mature individual. Again, the writer of Hebrews points to the Scriptures as a key to discernment and understanding: “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 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.” Hebrews 5:11–14 (NIV).
It is an inescapable fact that the word of God is absolutely vital to assuring ourselves that we will be able to discern good from evil and righteousness from unrighteousness. There is a somber in note from the prophet Amos:
11 “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 People will stagger from sea to sea
and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
but they will not find it. Amos 8:11–12 (NIV)
Finally, if we lack wisdom and discernment, we should ask for it. We need to remember that God is the source of wisdom and discernment and it is through the Scriptures, that is the word of God, that is key and vital to prevent us from going astray. As preachers, preach the word rather than using the word to support your ideas. God is the source of wisdom and discernment. The fear of the Lord is the beginning and the journey is supported by the holy Scriptures and if we lack wisdom and discernment, let us ask God who will in his grace and mercy supply everything that we need to live lives that will honor him and produce fruit for the kingdom of God.