Several months ago, we added another member to our family. Jack was a yellow Labrador puppy who lacked discernment. It didn’t seem to matter to Jack whether he was eating the inner sole of a shoe, a dirty sock, or the expensive dog food we had purchased for him. It all went down just the same. If a sock went missing, we’d sometimes find it again when Jack would cough it up on the kitchen floor. The reality of Proverbs 26:11 played out right before our eyes. It says, “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (NASB). Thankfully, our socks and shoes are safe from Jack these days. He’s grown in size, weight and discernment.
When it comes to making wise and sound judgments, the Bible speaks about the naïve and the fool. The naïve are like children who have not honed their senses to be able to discern what is harmful and what is not. The fool lacks sense because he may know what is harmful, but he still rushes into danger with little fear of the consequences. Both of these types of people, the naïve and the fool can be found in the world we live in, as well as in the Church.
Children and fools lack discernment. The former because of a lack of teaching, inexperience and immaturity. The latter lack it because they will not listen to their teachers, nor will they learn from their experience.
In the wisdom literature, it is the wise person who is discerning, while the transgressor and fool walk in darkness, unwilling to discern the way of the Lord. According to Hebrews 5:14, maturity comes when the senses are trained to discern through practice. This reference to practice is a clear reference to the “Word of righteousness,” the Scriptures (Heb. 5:13). Broadly speaking, this idea of discernment is closely connected to the concept of wisdom and as such is a major theme throughout Scripture.
So how does one grow in maturity so that they are not a naïve babe in their understanding? Hosea 14:9 says, “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; Whoever is discerning, let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right, And the righteous will walk in them, but transgressors will stumble in them” (NASB). This text speaks about the need for understanding and knowledge of the ways of the Lord. Knowing the ways of the Lord is necessary because they are just and righteous. Therefore, those who strive to be wise, must first know the ways of the Lord and then they must walk in those ways. This is wisdom and discernment. We cannot grow wise and mature in the Lord if we remain ignorant of the ways of the Lord as described in the Scriptures. One who is lacking discernment is this way because they do not avoid the ways that are not of the Lord and may even rush headlong into them. The one who transgresses the Law is the one who will stumble in many ways. He does not care to discern, and so is indiscriminate in how he walks in life.
Philippians 1:9-10 also connect the idea of knowledge and discernment. It says, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ” (NASB). Paul had seen the evidence of the love of the Philippian church, and he prays that it would abound more. But his prayer does not disconnect it from discernment, but rather includes knowledge and discernment so that the love of the Church is approved by God. Sincere and blameless love will be discerning and will withstand the day of Christ because it was not a foolish love of mixed or impure things. There are many people in the church that act as if discernment is unloving. They don’t like it when someone says that the book they are reading is from a false teacher, or that the song they love singing in church or listening to in their car in has bad, unbiblical theology. Like little children who see no problem playing in a pig sty, they want to continue blissfully ignorant of those things that oppose God, while still claiming that they do not themselves partake in the sins of those they promote. But discernment is not unloving. The truth is that willfully remaining undiscerning and immature and gullible to lies and deception is irresponsible and dangerous.
As mentioned above, Hebrews 5:14 speaks of solid doctrinal “food” that can be absorbed by the mature—those who have made it a practice to train themselves as to what is good and evil through their growing sense of discernment. Maturity is a product of discernment. The means to such maturity is knowledge and application of the Word of God. Bible reading is just the beginning, just like putting the food into your mouth is only a means for nourishment to be received into the body. We must begin by choosing the correct spiritual meals, but we must also make sure that it is digested and becomes fuel for the spiritual life through wise practice of the precepts and commandments of Scripture.
For Christians, discernment and wisdom are not spiritual options for a few believers, while all others can remain in a perpetual state of spiritual infancy. Rather, the natural course of spiritual life comes as the result of biblical discipleship that is required by the Great Commission when one teaches all that the Lord has commanded. All Christians are to hear and understand the Word of God, and then are to grow into maturity, which is marked by a proper practice in life that can process daily decisions, questions, dilemmas and scenarios through a biblical grid. This biblical framework of thought will allow the wise believer to narrow down his or her responses and come to one or more conclusions on how to act in a God-honoring way.
This, of course, takes time to develop. Nobody ever grows wise after hearing a few sermons or reading their Bible through one time. Discernment, as all spiritual and natural growth, is incremental and grows over time. A new Christian will have less discernment than a mature believer. The steps to growing in discernment and maturity are: 1. Growth in the knowledge and understanding of the Word, 2. Growth in application of the Word through the empowerment of the Spirit of God in several situations, 3. As success and failure comes in application or failure to apply the Word, the discerning Christian who seeks to grow in biblical maturity will add these successes and failures to his wealth of knowledge so that he can either repeat or avoid them in the future. This process is both linear and cyclical. It is linear in the sense that the steps need to happen in this order. But they are also cyclical in a process that must go through several repeated cycles in which former biblical lessons are built upon newer ones, and each layer of spiritual lessons contribute to a richer life of growing maturity. This process cannot be shortened, although it can be accelerated or slowed. This is what leads to a person who may be chronologically younger being quite mature beyond his or her years and an elderly person who still acts like a fool.
The poor spiritual state of the Church in many places lends itself to the fact that it is largely undiscerning. The Church’s inability to tell truth from error shows that it has lost its discernment. Like the loss of the human body’s immune system, the loss of discernment in the Church means that all sorts of wickedness and false teaching has come to roost in the pulpit of the Church all over the world. The root of this epidemic can be largely traced to the fact that the church has failed to clearly teach the Bible and doctrine. By skipping doctrine and teaching shallow sermons in a desire to rush to application and tips for living, the church has become poorly equipped to handle much of life through a biblical lens. What many have thought was the cure for moral ills has actually disarmed the Church to handle life in a truly biblical way. Additionally, the pablum of what is most popular in many pulpits has ill equipped our churches to handle the growing onslaught of false teaching. The only remedy is to return to a hearty, biblical pulpit that dispenses strong doses of the Spirit empowered Word of God. Watering down messages will only continue to exacerbate the problem as the spiritually starving in our churches continue to feast on cotton-candy sermons when they actually need to be satisfied with the meat of the Word. Warnings are needed, as are large doses of doctrinal lessons.
Where can we begin? First, by admitting our part in this epidemic that has resulted in the loss of discernment. Whether it is the pastor that has taught shallow sermons, the layman that has not spoken up when she is spiritually starving, or those that have purchased the best-selling Christian books that are full of spiritual poison. The reality is, if nobody listened to Joel Osteen, his ministry would die overnight. If nobody purchased Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling or Bethel Music, then they would never be given a chance to produce more of their products filled with bad theology. But the reality is that simple economics are why these books and music CD’s are carried in every retailer all over the world.
Second, we must go beyond recognition of our own part to prayer. We need to ask the Lord to forgive us in as much as we have been a part of the problem. We need to pray that He will help us as we seek to discern what is edifying and what is not in our homes, churches and schools. We also need to be patient and to have a spirit of grace as those that are more mature guide the less mature into understanding and growing aware of the things that they have net previously seen. After all, who among us does not still need to grow in some area?
Where there is biblical discernment, the Scriptures will guide and direct us. Where it is lacking, another inferior source of authority will take the place of Scripture in informing our understanding. May we seek to live lives saturated by biblical thinking so that in all things, Christ will have preeminence.