It was a break between sessions at a conference for church leaders. As I stood in line for a drink I engaged in conversation with a young church leader.
It soon became clear he was tussling with an element of confusion. My friend had found that certain members of his congregation were quite forceful on some current theological issues. With integrity and thought he had listened to podcasts, read books and watched DVDs they had recommended. Meanwhile he had his own interests and ideas stimulated by podcasts, books and conferences. What was God saying? What should he pursue and what shouldn’t he give much attention to? What should he tolerate and what should he stand against? This was a fine young leader, not naturally double-minded or uncertain. We talked a bit more, prayed together and returned to the next session. However, it set me thinking about the subject of discernment.
We live in a day of information overload. There seem to be more books being published than ever; then there is the whole world of social media; on top of that there are innumerable podcasts and blogs; add on YouTube, God TV, live streaming from mega churches and conferences, and the result is overwhelming!
In the wider context the world is fast becoming more anti-Christian and even aggressively atheistic. In the media there is a steady stream of articles, documentaries, current affairs programmes, sitcoms, comedy shows etc. that undermine our faith and promote overtly unbiblical lifestyles and opinions.
In addition Western culture now worships ‘tolerance’ and many people under 40 find it increasingly difficult to make any judgmental comments on areas of belief, values or lifestyle.
A final complication is the whole spiritual realm! We have a real spiritual enemy who endeavours to withstand the advance of God’s Kingdom and constantly tries to deceive us. Deception by it’s very nature is hard to discern!
All of this emphasises how important it is that we learn to discern good from bad in a whole range of areas. I guess every sincere Christian wants to avoid deception, identify what God is saying and endeavour to obey Him. Let’s look at some biblical principles that help us tell right from wrong.
1. The Gift Of Discernment
First of all there is a gift of discerning of spirits – a grace gift of the Holy Spirit that enables us to distinguish the work of evil spirits as opposed to the Holy Spirit or mere human activity. In my opinion this gift is linked to other revelatory gifts such as words of knowledge, words of wisdom and prophecy. It is an important gift and God is eager to give it because He doesn’t want His people led astray by the devil. It’s important to emphasise that this is a gift to the church so it will be exercised in a corporate context. This is true of all the gifts but especially true with the revelatory gifts, they are not for ‘lone rangers’!
2. Christian Community
This brings me to my second point; being properly engaged with the Body of Christ is important for avoiding deception and for sharpening our discernment. We need to be properly related to other Christians if we are going to discern effectively what God is saying to us. I would say a major way God has helped me avoid shipwreck and make correct course adjustments is through meaningful relationships with godly men and women.
3. Ask God For Wisdom
Thirdly, the good news is you can ask God for wisdom and be confident He will give it to you (James 1 v 5). God wants us to be wise. Jesus clearly placed a high priority on wisdom e.g. Matthew 7 v 24-27; Luke 16 v 1-9. So we can be confident that God wants us to be wise and discerning, and loves it when we seek spiritual wisdom!
4. Our relationship with God
My fourth point is that a healthy, growing relationship with the Lord is central to developing our ability to discern things wisely. Proverbs 9 v 10 tells us wisdom begins with a right relationship with God. Those who have a living, experiential knowledge of God are not easily deceived, instead they stand firm and take action (Daniel 11 v 32 ESV).
5. The Holy Spirit
A closely associated fifth way to good discernment is found in Ephesians 5 v 15-18. The Bible exhorts us to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit as a way of ensuring we live as people who have a clear understanding of the Lord’s will. We must keep drinking of the Spirit because being filled with the Spirit is important when it comes to the sharp discernment required in the spiritual battles we are engaged in.
6. God’s Word
The sixth and final vital truth I want to highlight is that we need the solid food of God’s Word in order to become efficient in distinguishing good from evil. We need to be filled with the Word (Colossians 3 v 16) as well as filled with the Spirit. The Bible is a work of the Spirit for spiritual ends, when it is expounded we are exposed to a force which is remarkably inspiring, transforming, convicting and equipping. The gift of discernment feeds upon sound teaching. It is the Word of God which gives the objective standards by which we can measure the difference between right and wrong, the good and the best, God’s will and our own ideas. Whatever wisdom we may have known we will swiftly lose if it is not sustained by Bible truth.
My prayer for myself and everyone of you is that we mature to be those who have trained ourselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5 v 14).