What is Biblical Discernment?

Question: What is Biblical discernment and how is it applied to a Christian’s life?

Answer: Unfortunately there are those within today’s Christianity who consider discernment as almost a “dirty word”. Discernment discussions can be viewed as problem causing and sometimes seen as divisive within a body of believers. It’s ironic, however, that whether we go to the doctor for a prognosis of a persistent problem or to the mechanic for an unfamiliar sound under the hood, one of the top requirements should be to find a professional with a high level of discernment. A good doctor is a discerning doctor. A qualified mechanic is one that can quickly and accurately discern and diagnose the problem at hand. Why then is it when it comes to the things of eternal life, the things that will endure forever, discernment is often not even on the radar?

Discernment is invaluable in the earthly sense. How much more so in the heavenly? It is this Christian’s conviction that it’s only to the enemy’s benefit that biblical discernment is rarely embraced or even correctly discussed within many churches. Sadly this leaves the flock vulnerable to every wind of doctrine, causing them to be tossed to and fro as they attempt to safely sail through the tempests of this world.

Generally speaking, what is discernment? 

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines discernment as “the ability to see and understand people, things, or situations clearly and intelligently.” In our generation, both Christians and non-Christians alike are being sold the incorrect idea that our “heart”, that is to say our feelings are our most crucial guide and rarely lead us astray. Many today have allowed the intellect to be governed by feelings, instead of the other way around. Contrarily, a discerning heart and mind will take into account ones feeling, but these feelings have been carefully trained through the intellect, not one’s previous emotional highs and lows. The mind, even within many Christian circles is not essential today, rather how one feels is key. Even meditating on God’s Word has been popularly redefined to embrace eastern non-thinking meditative practices instead of the biblical concept of careful consideration concerning God’s Word. Sadly, once emotions take center stage, true discernment becomes crippled, unable to navigate the soul.

Biblically speaking, what is discernment? 

The King James Version (KJV) often translates discernment as taste, judgment, understanding, reason, knowledge, and wisdom. The Greek use in Philippians 1:9 is aisthēsis and is translated “perception, not only by the senses but by the intellect”. The word “discern” is used 15 times in the KJV Bible. Discernment is used 4 times in the New King James Version (NKJV) Bible and the word “discerning” is used 7 times in the NKJV. The KJV often uses the words knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and judgment in place of the NKJV’s use of the word discernment.

Regardless of whether the actual word “discernment” is used, the idea that Christians should be careful thinkers, desiring the understanding and wisdom of God to safely navigate one’s walk as well as rescue others, is prevalent throughout Scripture. “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” Proverbs 4:7.

Spiritually speaking, what is discernment? 

Spiritual discernment comes exclusively from the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth, as born-again believers humbly study and obey God’s Word. When the Lord Jesus enters the forgiven sinner, He illuminates our understanding and renews our minds, giving us a new heart now pumping with the power and love of Christ. Much like a seasoned ship’s captain’s dependence upon his compass, Biblical discernment is crucial to navigating the dark waters of this world.
The spiritual senses that are directly connected to discernment, i.e. Godly wisdom, understanding, knowledge, faith, etc. actually need continual exercise so we can safely grow in the direction of the Son. If instead of choosing to walk (exercise) by faith, we embrace walking by sight, our fleshly senses will grow strong, causing our spiritual eyes to dim and our ears to grow dull. We must daily choose to walk in the Spirit, abiding in Christ, not the god of this world.

What are Born Again Believers Called to Discern? 

Here are a few examples repeated throughout Scripture-

  • The righteous and the wicked, as well as those who serve God and those who don’t: “Then shall you return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serves God and him that serves him not” Malachi 3:18.
  • Good and evil: “But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” Hebrews 5:14.
  • The holy and the profane, the unclean and the clean: “And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean” Ezekiel 44:23.

Isn’t it obvious? 

How hard is it to tell the difference between good and evil? Well, if it were that simple, why has the Lord put so many warnings and exhortations in His Word, warnings to be on guard and exercise our senses in order to discern these things? It isn’t always that obvious to discern truth from error. After all, any good lie is mixed with much truth and the more truth a lie has, the more difficult it becomes to separate the two. Godly discernment is necessary especially in the times in which we live. (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

Improving Our Spiritual Palates: 

“How sweet are Your words to my taste” Psalm 119:103. When talking about a top chef or food critic one thing is for sure, he must have a discerning palate. It is rightly said the number one tool for any chef is not his cutlery set, but his palate. This heightened sense of taste and texture is usually a trait he was born with and then later mixed with years of training and development. The same is true for the Christian.Psalm 34:8 instructs us,”O taste and see that the LORD is good.” We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness, not this unrighteous world. Job asked his so-called counseling friends, “Is there injustice on my tongue? Cannot my taste discern the unsavory?” Job 6:30.

The Gift of Discernment: 

God gives His body many gifts for the edification of the saints, to keep us pure and clean so His light can brightly shine forth in this dark and dying world. Some have taught that there is no gift of discernment revealed in the pages of Scripture, however I would argue that 1 Corinthians 12:10 tells a rather different story.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reveals the role of spiritual gifts within the church. In the first part of verse 10 he says, “to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits.” Paul was very clear that false doctrines never have their origin in the hearts or minds of men, but rather originate from the devils. (1 Timothy 4:1) “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” 1John 4:1. The gift of discerning spirits is simply the spiritual wisdom and understanding to separate the truth from error, acknowledging the truth is from the Spirit of God and all lies, whether in word or in signs and wonders are from the enemy of our souls. As with all the gifts, the gift of discernment is crucial to the body of Christ.

Note of warning– Just as in all gifts from the Lord, there is a danger in taking what God has given in the Spirit and using it in the flesh. The church at Corinth is a perfect example.

God Gets the Glory! 

Discernment is the spiritually given ability to divide truth from error to both see and help illuminate the many layers of lies that are spoon fed to the body of Christ. Being spiritually discerning means keeping in step with the Spirit both in word and indeed. No Christian, washed in the blood of the Lamb can claim that he has the ability to attain or grow in discernment apart from the mind and power of Christ.

God gives as He sees fit, not based on our worthiness, but according to His will. Just as the gift of healing, tongues, etc. are abused in the flesh, so it is with the gift of discernment. Some are quick to speak the truth, but are devoid of God’s mercy and love. Discernment by very definition assists the teacher to understand when, how, and where it is best to speak and act. Much more could be said on this. See below for a few excellent related articles.

The Discerning King: 

So often Christians will hold to the promise that our Heavenly Father has made us kings and priests, yet often we misunderstand the promise. We are not called to be kings who make our own rules, foolishly going where even angels fear to tread. Instead, let us consider one of the key roles of any good king. It’s the major duty of every king throughout time to lovingly protect his people both through having a good military and laws that benefit the people. To do both, the king must be discerning. Consider 2 Samuel 14:17, “Then your handmaid said, The word of my lord the king shall now be comfortable: for as an angel of God, so is my lord the king to discern good and bad: therefore the LORD thy God will be with you.”

“King Solomon, honestly doubting his ability to correctly discern the Israelite people, prayed for gift of wisdom and discernment to rightly divide between good and evil. (1 Kings 3:9-10) His selfless desire was to receive from God the wisdom, judgment, and discernment for the edification of the people. If one of the key characteristics of an earthly king is discernment, how much greater for those who are spiritual kings entrusted with the eternal Word of God?”

Discernment and Understanding: 

To truly understanding something we must plumb the depths of its meaning and functionality. Understanding someone means taking time to listen and observe that person. Discernment both helps us reach the goal and itself grows as we patiently and persistently pursue understanding. When I consider discernment I can’t help but think of law enforcement. Detectives must discern truth from lies, dealing with many “professional” liars. They must learn to detect their lies by understanding the difference between someone telling the truth and someone spewing out lies.

Biblically speaking, our greatest goal as Christians might arguably be to first and foremost grow in our understanding of Jesus Christ. 1 John 5:20 reminds us, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” In Jeremiah 9:24, the Lord says, “Let him that glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD…”

If understanding the Lord is our most important goal, then discernment should play a central role. God’s Word, illuminated by the Spirit of God, should produce discernment in every believer. This “spiritual sword” of discernment then helps us understand aright by teaching us how to divide truth from lies, good from evil, the holy from the profane, and the sheep in wolves clothing from the sheep speaking the truth. May we never forget that discernment and understanding are inextricably linked.

Discernment and Truth: 

Another area worth briefly examining is that of truth and discernment. In 2 Thessalonians it says that all those who have not received the love of the truth will receive a strong delusion to believe a lie. I’ve often wondered why some within the church seem so sorely lacking in discernment. Granted, as mentioned above, discernment is a gift from the Lord, however as with all gifts, every believer should desire to grow in each area of their Christian walk. Just because some have the gift of helps doesn’t mean the rest should not be helpful. Just because some are specifically given the gift of giving does not excuse the rest of the saints from being generous with their time and money. The same is true for the gift of discernment. We all should desire to abound in the knowledge and discernment of our Lord Jesus, both for our own sanctification and for the edification of the entire body.

So why is this area of Christianity so lacking today? Perhaps for the simple reason that the love for the truth has grown cold. May we never forget that although God’s love is amazing and His grace unmerited, Jesus teaches that it is His truth found exclusively in God’s Word that sets men free. (John 8:31-32) His truth not only sets us free, but it also sanctifies us day by day. (John 17:17)

Embracing God’s truth is essential if we are to grow in the knowledge and understanding of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. Even earthly speaking, facts/created truth is essential for growing in knowledge of God’s creation. Could you imagine if when students entered fourth grade math, they started their year by being taught that nothing is true? How much could a student who embraced this lie actually learn? After all, if nothing is true then it doesn’t matter how she solves the problems presented before her. If the entire world actually lived this lie out consistently, we would most likely destroy ourselves in a day.

Without truth there is no thinking, and without thinking there is really no ability to discern anything. In fact, without truth, there is really no need to discern anything because nothing would be real. I personally believe that one’s level of spiritual discernment will be directly proportionate to his love for God’s truth.

“The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Thessalonians 2:9-14

Abounding in Discernment: 

Finally, let’s not simply grow in some areas of our faith. Let’s abound in every area! So often we desire to grow in mercy and grace. However, as good as this is, may we never neglect our growth in biblical discernment. Without love all things are useless but without discernment all things meaningless. “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ…” Phil 1:9-10 (NKJV).

May we carefully consider our own hunger and thirst for God and His righteousness. May we sincerely taste and see that God is good, once and for all turning from the lusts and pride of this world. May we realize with a renewed mind and transformed heart that our citizenship is truly in Heaven. Be patient. The joy of the Lord is our strength. Abound more and more in knowledge and discernment, knowing our redemption draws nigh. Allow God to be the One who fights your battles. Give Him all the glory and seek His face continually. His transforming power to testify of His glorious Gospel will only come as we make Him our wholehearted pursuit both now and forever! Amen!

A Few Discernment Articles for Further Study: 

Several Helpful Discernment Websites:

A Few Helpful Radio Programs: 

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