I am a subscriber to the Reformed Baptist Discussion List and yesterday a member of the list asked an interesting question. He is a pastor and a member of his congregation asked him how he could become a more critical thinker. The pastor pressed him a little and essentially the man was asking how he could gain the discernment he has seen in some other believers where they are able to know right from wrong, biblical from unbiblical at the early stages of contradicting the will of God. I thought I would provide some thoughts as response to that question.
I would like to confess that the title of this article is misleading. There is no easy way to gain discernment. Like everything else in the Christian life, it is difficult, costly and requires great dedication. As a wise grandparent may have told you, the good things in life – those things of great value – rarely come easily. It seems, though, that they are usually worth the effort.
First, I’d like to begin with a couple of definitions of words we may use synonymously but in reality have very different meanings:
Wisdom – Wisdom relates to the mind, the intellect and the control of behavior. Wisdom is a way of thinking about life and reality that enables someone to appreciate and pursue what is good in life while avoiding what is evil. God reveals life’s values and how humans can achieve those.
Instruction – Instruction is the learning of wisdom through moral and intellectual discipline.
Discernment – Insight is insight and understanding; the ability to make distinctions between good and bad, better and best. In the book of Proverbs this is synonymous with the word “insight.”
Discretion – Discretion is the application of insight in making good decisions.
Start With Wisdom – Start With Proverbs
The first few verses of Proverbs describe the purpose of the book:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth–
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
To summarize we can say that this book is given to teach wisdom through instruction. This allows insight and prudence which in turn allow discretion. We could also say that as we are instructed in wisdom we learn to be prudent in our discernment between what is good and what is evil. Discernment plays out practically in using discretion to making decisions. What we see is that there is an entire book of the Bible, and a long one at that, whose purpose is to teach wisdom which is a necessary prerequisite to discernment.
Practically, then, begin with Proverbs. Read and devour the book. Allow the wisdom of God given to Solomon and other men to become your wisdom. Apply the Proverbs to your own life.
Fear the Lord
One needs to read only seven verses into Proverbs to learn the key to wisdom. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7). To be wise, one must fear the Lord. This is not a fear that we can equate with terror and trembling, but what the Geneva Study Bible calls “a reverent awe and worshipful response of faith to the God who reveals Himself as Creator, Savior and Judge.” In other words, to have discernment one must first be wise, and to be wise one must have a deep and intimate knowledge of God.
How does one know the Lord? By immersing himself in Scripture. Scripture teaches all we need to know and all we are required to know about God. If we know Scripture, we will know wisdom. Make the cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 119 your cry: “Oh how I love Your law, it is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 199:97)
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5) If you want to be wise, ask God for wisdom. Ask with faith (verse 6) but also ask knowing that wisdom is something you must work towards. God does not indicate that He will give us wisdom as He gave it to Solomon. Wisdom will lead us ever back to the Scripture which is the tool God has given us to make us wise.
Walk With The Wise
“He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.” (Proverbs 13:20). To be wise we must walk with others who are wise. We must choose as our companions those who also value wisdom and discernment. We must flee from those who are fools and who reject God’s wisdom, preferring earthly wisdom over that which is heavenly. I believe the primary mark of a fool is his arrogance against God, so avoid those who are humble towards men, but arrogant towards God.
Just a couple of days ago I posted a quote by Warren Wiersbe and will do so again here. “My books are my tools, and I use them. I cannot afford to be a book collector; neither the budget nore the diminishing shelf space permits such a luxury. I enjoy my library. Each book is a friend that converses with and teaches me. Better to have fewer of the best books than to clutter your shelves with volumes that cannot serve you well. Above all, love your books, use them, and dedicate all you learn to the service of Jesus Christ.” Reading good books is one of the best ways we can walk with the wise. Though they may have gone to their reward long before we were born or though we may never meet them in this life, we can walk with wise men through the words they have written. Read Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Tozer, Sproul, MacArthur…there are so many who can teach us so much.
There are no shortcuts to gaining wisdom and discernment. Just look at the long list of men who have not been able to “finish strong,” having fallen for false teachings even after many years of study and dedication. Press on, never believing you have arrived, always examining your own heart and always asking God to increase your wisdom.