Unglamorous Discernment

Discernment BibleMost evangelical women would probably say that they have the spiritual gift of discernment. In Charismatic terms, the supposed gift manifests itself as an almost psychic sense about people or situations, typically indicated with a knowledgeable nod and a voice lowered in gravity. The discerning woman (or man) often claims direct revelation from the Holy Spirit, though some just rely on foreboding feelings and impressions. Charismatic discernment always has to do with detecting the presence of demonic spirits.

Non-Charismatics tend toward defining discernment in terms of distinguishing truth from error. Basically this definition is correct, but it often gets perverted into heresy hunting. I’ve been writing about that problem, perhaps because I struggle with that temptation. Those of us who understand how desperately present-day evangelicals need to discern between good teaching and bad doctrine tend to get so obsessed with exposing false teachers that we lose sight of our responsibility to emphasize truth.

But what does Scripture say about discernment? Very few discernment blogs actually explain what discernment is. I can think of several ways to approach this important topic, but I believe we best begin the conversation by looking at the relationship between discernment and the doctrines we learn from studying God’s Word.

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. ~~Hebrews 5:11-14 (ESV)

The Hebrew Christians who first received the letter to the Hebrews had fallen back to Mosaic Law as a requirement for salvation, having forgotten the fundamental message of the Gospel. Simply put, they needed basic Bible teaching. Before they could tackle more  complex aspects of the Christian life, they needed foundational teaching that would develop their ability to discern between good and evil.

Discernment, therefore, is less a spiritual gift and more a quality that every Christian can — and should — cultivate by reading and applying God’s Word in all areas of life. As much as we might crave the excitement of “sensing” demonic activity  or exposing false teachers, true discernment revolves around Scripture and its revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Granted, this view lacks the glamor typically associated with discernment ministry. After all, studying the Bible, besides being plain hard work, is a solitary endeavor most of the time. Even pastors, teachers and writers only get to publicly show a fraction of what they learn when they open their Bibles and study aids each morning. But let me assure you that understanding Scripture in context and as the Holy Spirit intends will give us all the discernment we need.

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4 thoughts on “Unglamorous Discernment

  1. Hi DebbieLynne,

    Tim Challies’ book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is a helpful book I’ve read and enjoyed before giving away (or I’d send it to you if you don’t have it already :). He wrote it in 2008 and it was then and still is practically the only book/pamphlet/essay/resource that credibly explains what discernment IS, and how to develop it, which Challies defines as “the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong.”


    you did a good job of distinguishing between wrong discernment and correct discernment, the Bible being the foundation of course as the way to go about it. It’s a shame there aren’t more credible resources to point people to as to how to develop this critical skill. Things have worsened since 2008, with the bookstores veritably flooded with books from “prophets” and “visionaries” who promise to teach discernment if you attend their prophet school, or listen to what their vision is, and so on. The Charismatics, as you noted. So thanks for the warning and the education here.


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