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Defining Discernment

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Through the months I’ve spent writing my book on spiritual discernment, I have wrestled with various definitions of the word. While several definitions have been offered by other authors, none struck me as being quite right or quite complete. I have offered a definition on this site and was glad to receive some good feedback on its shortcomings. I went back to the drawing board and eventually arrived at a definition that really seems to accurately represent what the Bible means by discernment. So here it is with a brief breakdown of its component parts. Of course much of the definition’s context is missing, but I do trust this will still prove useful. So here it is:

Discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong.

When we practice discernment, we are applying the truths of the Bible to our lives. We are attempting to understand the words of the Bible and trusting God’s Word to give clarity so we might see things as God sees them. Our goal in discernment is to do just this: to see things through God’s eyes through the Bible and thus to see things as they really are. Like wiping the steam from a mirror, we seek to remove what is opaque so we might see with God-given clarity.

To aid our understanding, we’ll now unpack this definition, looking at each of the individual components.

Discernment is…

…The Skill…

Discernment is a skill. It is not an inherent ability like breathing or chewing, but a skill like reading or public speaking that must be practiced and must be improved. There is not a person on earth who has been born with a full measure of discernment or who has all of the discernment he will ever need. There is not a person who has attained a level of expertise that allows him to move on and to leave discernment behind. Like the master musician who practices his skills more as his acclaim grows, in the same way a discerning person will see with ever-greater clarity his need to increase in discernment. He will want to sharpen and improve this skill throughout his life.

God graciously enables and equips us practice discernment with increasing accuracy and confidence. Like other skills, discernment increases with practice. An apprentice to a tailor will at first make slow, hesitant cuts to a piece of fabric. His experienced tutor, though, will confidently make accurate cuts in one smooth movement. In the same way, what is at first difficult can, with practice, become more natural. The more we know of truth, the more our ability to discern will increase.

While the Bible does not make it entirely clear, it is likely the God did not immediately bestow upon Solomon the full measure of his eventual wisdom and discernment. It is more likely that God gave Solomon ability but required that he continually sharpen this skill. After all, God also granted Solomon “both riches and honor,” but these surely did not come in full measure that very day. Just as we are required to invest effort in learning what the Bible says and just as we are to strive after holiness, in the same way we are to work at the skill of discernment, attempting to become better at it through practice. This is clear from Hebrews 5:14 which reads “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Distinguishing good from evil, and doing so correctly and consistently, requires dedicated, ongoing practice. It is a skill.

…of understanding…

The Hebrew word most commonly translated as discernment is otherwise translated as understanding. Discernment is closely related to understanding and depends upon a right understanding of God and His ways. Because we can only base what we do on what we know, we must first understand who God is and how He wants us to serve and honor Him. Understanding must precede both interpretation and application. This is clear throughout the Bible, but especially in Proverbs were Solomon continually ties knowledge, wisdom and discernment, not as separate disciplines, but as related. And so to be people of discernment we must be people who dedicate ourselves to studying, knowing and understanding God.

…and applying…

Discernment involves not only understanding, but the application of that understanding. This is where we see the interrelated nature of wisdom and discernment and where we see how difficult it can be to separate one from the other. Discernment is wisdom in action, wisdom applied, and here we seek to apply the skill we have been practicing. We do not only know (understand), but we also do (apply).

…God’s Word…

God’s Word refers to two aspects of God’s revelation: revelation of Himself through the person of Jesus Christ and revelation of Himself through speech, and in particular, the words that were recorded in the Bible. Though in days past God revealed Himself through words of prophesy and other forms of personal address, today we know Him through the Bible which God has given to point us to the Word of God as it exists in the person of Jesus.

God’s Word is Truth. In John 17:17, as part of His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus affirmed to His Father, “your word is truth.” God’s Word is the very source of infallible truth. God’s word is our measure; it is our source. Hebrews 14:13 says that “everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.” Conversely, then, those who are mature are those who are skilled in the word of righteousness. The word of righteousness, those doctrines that are fundamental to the Christian faith are synonymous with the word of God.

We can only worship and glorify God on the basis of what we know of Him. In order to be discerning, we must know and understand what is true about God. To do this we turn to God’s Word. And so, to be discerning, we must first be students of the Bible. We must study it, we must read about it, and we must hear it taught from the pulpit.

When we engage in discernment we attempt to use God’s Word to rise above our own limitations so we can see as God sees. Through the truths contained in the Bible, God allows us to see things with His eyes.

…with the purpose of separating…

God’s word is the standard we use to differentiate between what is true and what is false. The concepts of separating and distinguishing are inherent in the words of the original languages translated as discernment. Discernment implies that we are to separate things in order to understand their differences.

Like the laser level that shows with perfect clarity any deviations from what is straight, the Bible teaches what is true, leaving what is false standing out with glaring clearness. We use God’s Word as a tool to separate what is true from what is false. We use it to make the light appear lighter, leaving the dark to appear ever darker.

…truth from error…

A constant theme when discussing spiritual discernment is the importance of distinguishing truth from error. The Bible makes it clear that doctrine is either true or it is false. We are called by God to examine all theology and to make such binary distinctions. When we speak of truth and error we speak of doctrine and theology – about ways of thinking rightly and truly about God. We think about how we think, knowing that we what think inevitably affects how we act. What we think of God will necessarily impact how we serve Him. If we want to serve him in a way that is true and pure, we must think of Him as He really is, thinking of Him without error. Only when we have separated truth from error are we able to rightly worship God.

…and right from wrong.

At times discernment will be concerned with truth and error. At other times it will be concerned with right and wrong, words which indicate a moral dimension to discernment, for this practice concerns itself not only with doctrine and theology, but with the practical application of those disciplines to our lives. Discernment is a skill we need to live lives that are morally and ethically pleasing to God. We need to be discerning first in what we believe and then in what we do. Where the concepts of truth and error concern what we believe, the associated concepts of right and wrong concern what we do and how we live. In this way we see discernment as a discipline that applies to all areas of life. As I wrote just two days ago, there is treasure everything. Discernment allows us to see and to form a theology of everything, a theology that touches and impacts all areas of life.

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