Discernment is a much needed gift among Christians. This has always been true, but for the day in which we live it has become even more critical. During major cultural changes, discernment is especially needed as we remain faithful to God and his Word and seek to be salt and light in and to the world (Matt. 5:13-16).
Not only is discernment a gift, it is also to be fostered and nourished. It is something in which one can grow.
I often think of the words of the writer of Hebrews (5:11-14):
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
The author notes that discernment is “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” This consists of knowing God’s truth and the practice of living and applying those truths in all of life. In essence those foundational truths God has revealed in the Word are believed and it is in living those truths that one gains, grows and learns the truth and the person grows in discernment. This does not mean truth is made more truthful by living it. The truthfulness of truth is not dependent on one’s believing or reception of it. Rather, the truth is experienced and understood at another level than truth propositionally.
Recently I read with great interest an article written by Sinclair Ferguson, What Is Discernment?, a pastor-theologian from whom I have learned much and for whom I have great respect. He defines discernment in this way:
True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.
It is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action. It includes the ability to “weigh up” and assess the moral and spiritual status of individuals, groups, and even movements. Thus, while warning us against judgmentalism, Jesus urges us to be discerning and discriminating, lest we cast our pearls before pigs (Matt. 7:1, 6).
Ultimately, Ferguson summarizes by stating that
discernment is learning to think God’s thoughts after Him, practically and spiritually; it means having a sense of how things look in God’s eyes and seeing them in some measure “uncovered and laid bare” (Heb. 4:13).
Having and living with discernment affects the way we think and live. Ferguson highlights four:
- It acts as a means of protection, guarding us from being deceived spiritually.
- Discernment also acts as an instrument of healing, when exercised in grace.
- Again, discernment functions as a key to Christian freedom.
- Finally, discernment serves as a catalyst to spiritual development:
In conclusion, how, then, is discernment to be obtained? Ferguson states,
We receive it as did Christ Himself—by the anointing of the Spirit, through our understanding of God’s Word, by our experience of God’s grace, and by the progressive unfolding to us of the true condition of our own hearts.