In the final chapter of his book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, blogger Tim Challies gives a step-by-step method of practical discernment. Rather than trying to duplicate his steps and the example he provides, I think it would be helpful to boil it down to a few principles that can be easily understood and applied.
Understand the Issue. Before you can practically assess whether any particular statement or idea is true or false, or whether a behavior is right or wrong, you have to know what you are dealing with and the importance of that issue. In Proverbs 18:13 we are told, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him.” If we are not careful, we may end up making a judgment about something that is not even at issue, and that is not discernment but foolishness. Ask questions like, “What exactly is being said?” and “What is really at stake here?” and “Is this issue important enough to make a judgment about and risk disagreement with another Christian?” These are all good questions to ask before engaging in the process of discernment.
Test Your Conscience. While it is certainly not infallible, a conscience that has been molded and shaped after God’s word by the Holy Spirit is a powerful and helpful guide. In fact, the Bible warns us against violating our conscience, even going to far as to say that to act against the dictates of our conscience is “sin” and contrary to faith (cf. Romans 14:23). If you cannot accept a statement as true or a behavior as right in good conscience, then you must refuse it. But at the same time, your conscience must be held up to the light of God’s word to see if it is correct. Paul makes it very clear in 1 Corinthians 4:4 that even though his conscience does not condemn him, it is God who will ultimately judge his actions. In other words, just because your conscience does not ping you when you listen to or act upon some idea, that doesn’t mean it is therefore good and acceptable to God. You must compare your own heart to a higher standard.
Search the Scriptures. This involves searching for relevant Bible passages to the issue at hand, carefully observing their teachings, and comparing them to each other in order to get a full view of the Bible’s teaching on the subject. You may then expand your research to include Bible dictionaries, commentaries, sermons, and other materials that address the issue, maybe even seeking out advice from another mature Christian in the church. All of your research is for the purpose of answering one question about the Biblical text: “What does it mean?” Once you have summarized the relevant passages, you seek to fit them together into a coherent response to the issue at hand.
Make a Judgment. Once you know what the Bible says about the issue, you can compare that with the statement or action in question to see whether it is true or false, right or wrong. If it is a true statement or right action, then we must hold fast to it, embrace it, and cling to it as a necessary and good element of the will of God. It is not enough to simply accept it and walk away, we must incorporate it into what we believe and do, rejoicing that God has graciously shown us what is true and right. On the other hand, if it is a false statement or wrong action, we must turn away from it and abstain. This means we cannot entertain it or pursue it, because it is contrary to the clear teaching of God’s word. It is not something to be toyed with, but must be dealt with ruthlessly in our own hearts and minds. But instead of simply rejecting what is false, we ought to also seek out the corresponding right thought or action and employ it. So even when our discernment leads us to reject something false or harmful, it should ultimately result in our putting on some true thinking or right deed. This is how the practice of discernment helps us grow in spiritual maturity as we put on the truth and obey the word of God.
As he concludes the book, Challies offers a warning and some encouragement. First the warning. He says, “Nobody dies from lack of discernment or by not believing in discernment. Rather, a lack of discernment leaves people to wither under the attack of false doctrine. A lack of discernment leaves Christians unable to protect themselves and others, and allows sin to flood in.” This is a serious warning that we would do well to heed, but then he gives a word of support. “In practicing discernment you can anticipate growing and maturing in your faith and bringing glory to God for the spiritual life he has bestowed upon you. You can heed his call to guard the precious deposit of the gospel that has been entrusted to you. You can please God and bring to his name if you practice the discipline of spiritual discernment.”