Defining Discernment

What exactly is discernment? Many people no doubt define it in terms of good decision-making, and we would certainly agree that discerning people tend to make better decisions over all. However, Tim Challies in chapter 3 of his book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment argues that the biblical concept of discernment is about much more than just making good decisions. He says that “biblical discernment looks beyond the will of God to the truth of God.” If we are going to know God’s will, we first have to know God’s truth because his will is always consistent with his nature. So discernment actually begins with the pursuit of truth, but it involves far more than merely knowing the truth.

To know truth is one thing, but to know how truth is applied to real life is another. Wisdom recognizes that truth has a moral component so that knowing what is true makes one accountable to act in a definite way. Discernment takes that one step further by recognizing not just how the truth applies to a given situation but also where and when to make the application. Truth means recognizing the foolishness of a fool, while wisdom recognizes that there are times when a fool ought to be confronted and times when he should be avoided, and discernment knows when to do which.

To help define discernment, Challies turns to the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek. In the Old Testament, the word bin is used nearly 250 times and is usually translated “insight” or “understanding.” The primary idea behind this term is to separate or make a distinction between things, and so it suggests that discernment involves comparing things to one another in order to make a distinction between them by noting their similarities and differences. In the New Testament, the most common word for discernment is diakrino which again is used to mean “to make a distinction” or “judge between.” On the basis of these terms and their usage in Scripture, Challies offers the following definition:

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

This definition is thorough yet concise and helps to clarify what exactly we are discussing, but let’s take a closer look.

Discernment is a skill – A skill is something which can be learned, practiced, refined, and improved over time. That discernment is a skill implies that we are not born with a certain measure of discernment that cannot be changed. No one is born discerning, and no one can reach a point in this life where discernment is no longer necessary. Challies reminds us that, “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.” (cf. Heb. 5:14)

of understanding and applying God’s word – Understanding and applying mean that we don’t just receive knowledge, we develop insight into how that knowledge relates to the ways of God and how it works in our own lives and circumstances. The source of this knowledge which we understand and apply is God’s word. His word is truth, the measure to which all things may be compared, and the source of our spiritual life. By his word, we come to know God himself and Jesus whom he has sent. When we study God’s word, we see things from his perspective and learn how to please and glorify him.

with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong – The goal of discernment is to make a distinction, to judge between two or more competing claims or ideas. With God’s word as a standard, we can distinguish what is true from what is false and what is right from what is wrong. These two categories suggest that we must engage both doctrine and behavior, theology and practice to see what is consistent with God’s character as revealed in the Bible. As Challies notes, discernment is “a discipline that applies to all areas of life.”

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