What comes to mind when you hear the word discernment? If you are like many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, you may think of something harsh and judgmental and lacking in love. Indeed, in chapter 8 of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, Tim Challies explains that sometimes “the desire to defend the truth seems to overshadow the ability to exhibit love. Truth and love are brought into conflict rather than being equally present.” But rather than giving up the practice of discernment, Challies cautions us to avoid several common dangers.
Innocent as to what is evil
The apostle Paul says in Romans 16:19, “I want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil.” The most effective strategy for discernment is to study what is true and good rather than what is false. The more we know truth the more we will be able to discern the lie without risking being caught up in evil things.
Guilt/honor by association
In Acts 17 we read that the Bereans were more fair-minded than the Jews of Thessalonica because they “searched the Scriptures daily” to see if Paul’s preaching was true. Unfortunately, we sometimes fall into the trap of accepting or rejecting someone’s teaching simply because of who their friends are or because we heard them mentioned in a book or sermon. Rather than taking such things as blanket endorsements, we ought to evaluate their teaching in light of God’s word and then make a decision about them.
The critical and the disputable
While there are certainly doctrines which are vital to the faith and which, if there is any mixture of error will undermine the whole of Christian teaching, there are also those things which are not so critical to the faith, and we will do well to remember this distinction. When we focus on peripheral issues, we may divide brothers unnecessarily, and when we treat all issues as peripheral, we may forsake truth for unity. Neither of these should be the case.
Proverbs 6:12-14 classifies a man that sows discord as “a worthless person,” and “a wicked man.” It is possible for Christians to set out looking for error, rather than simply reacting to the presence of error within the church. When this happens, spiritual discernment can quickly devolve into quarrels and oppression, neither of which is pleasing to God.
Relying unduly on others
When seeking help and insight in the area of discernment, it can be easy, especially in the information age, to seek out books or blogs or websites rather than relying on mature believers and leaders in our own local church. It is not that other believers are unable to aid us in this task, but without the oversight and accountability of the local church, we risk being influenced in our own discernment by men and women who are unqualified and undiscerning themselves. The anonymity of the internet allows all manner of self-proclaimed experts to voice their opinions without submitting to any local church. This is both dangerous and unbiblical.
One temptation when it comes to discernment is to divide everything into two categories: safe and unsafe. This is certainly convenient, but it fails to take into account that even unbelievers may at times express truth in beautiful ways and believers may be completely wrong on any number of issues. We must trust the Holy Spirit to help us discern the truth rather than simply avoiding any view that disagrees with our own, and we must exercise discernment even when we are within the so-called “safe” camp.
As is true with any area of spiritual growth, we may fall prey to the sin of pride as we make progress in the practice of discernment. We may begin to think that we are strong and wise and become proud of our ability to discern truth from error, or we may grow to love the attention that our discernment brings as others ask for our thoughts on difficult subjects. Instead, we must actively pursue humility and give glory to God for the truth he has revealed, because it is only by his truth that we are able to tell what is false.
Another danger is that we may leave the church altogether in our effort to practice consistent discernment. Some believers have done this, substituting books and recorded sermons for the fellowship of a local church. While discernment may expose weaknesses and even errors within our local church, we ought to “lean into” the fellowship rather than withdraw, so that we may “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10:24).
Truth without love
Finally, we must avoid the danger of practicing discernment with improper motives. Challies warns that “discernment can be done out of anger, a contentious spirit, a critical heart, or a desire to cause disagreement….We must not allow our eagerness to defend truth to overcome our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Let us exercise discernment in love by first loving God whose word is truth, and in turn loving our brothers and sisters in Christ just as we love ourselves.