While discernment can be more complicated than we might expect, all believers should understand what it is and how to get it.
One of my friends grew up in the Soviet Union when the government was much harsher and KBG agents were a common factor in everyday life. He was about 10 or 11 years old when a new believer came into the church. This was always an event because the church was underground in Russia at that time, and Christians had to be careful who they shared their faith with in case that other person was a government agent. So this new believer had finally been accepted into the church because the leaders felt like he was safe to welcome.
Well, my friend went home and had the strangest, vivid dream about the new man who had come to the church. In his dream, the man grew horns and a tail like a devil. He was a very young boy, and the dream frightened him badly enough that he told his parents, and they told the church leaders.
It turned out that the new ‘believer’ was actually a KBG agent who had managed to disguise himself well enough that he fooled everyone. Only this dream that the Holy Spirit give my friend warned the church about this man’s true intentions before it was too late.
When discernment comes up in a conversation or sermon, a lot of Christians think about stories like this one with my friend. They believe discernment is the supernatural insight that God grants some believers, when the Holy Spirit gives someone knowledge about a person or situation that they could never have figured out naturally.
When we talk about the spiritual gift of discernment and general discernment, we’re talking about two different things.
The gift of discernment, like all the spiritual gifts, is something only some believers have been given; but as far as I’m concerned, all Christians are meant to have general discernment in the Spirit. Some believers say things like “Oh, I don’t have that supernatural gift, so I’m just going to go on trusting God will take care of me.” That sounds nice, and yes to trusting God, but the Bible warns us that we all need to grow into spiritual maturity, and part of that is being discerning.
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 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, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrew 5:11-14, ESV).
Spiritual maturity involves studying the Bible and growing in your understanding about how scripture applies to life. That means paying close attention to what’s happening in life because you’re not going to be able to apply the Word to something you don’t even see happening, right? Sometimes Christians can be really gullible, and that’s a shame. How often have you heard stories about some con man that no one in the world would believe for an instant, but there’s a Christian writing him a check?
Whatever happened to believers applying the apostle John’s command for us to be wary of frauds? “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). John’s basically saying, “Use your head! Get into the Word, and grow in discerning good from evil.”
Now I’m not saying Christians need to jump into every grimy scam out there so you have experience, but you shouldn’t be a fool either when it comes to identifying counterfeits, evil schemes and when people twist scriptures to their own ends. If you’re someone who grew up sheltered and you don’t have street smarts, ask God to give you extra spiritual discernment. He’ll more than happily give it to you.
One of the first Bible stories I think of when it comes to Christians having discernment is actually in the Old Testament.
Maybe you’ve heard of King Jehoshaphat who was a godly ruler of Judah. Well, in 2 Chronicles 18, Jehoshaphat does something really dumb. He makes an alliance with the ungodly king of Israel, Ahab. If you don’t recognize Ahab’s name, you probably know his wife, Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel were bad news, so what is a godly king like Jehoshaphat doing in an alliance with them? He wasn’t acting in discernment for sure, and he nearly paid for it with his life. Ahab asks Jehoshaphat to join him in a war God’s prophets warned him against, and Jehoshaphat almost gets killed.
This is the part I love, though. Jehoshaphat does what all believers should do if they want more discernment, especially if they realize they’ve just made a really bad decision. He goes home and repents (see 2 Chronicles 19). It’s a good thing too because in the very next chapter, a huge army of Moabites and Ammonites show up to try to conquer Judah. This time, though, Jehoshaphat doesn’t lead his soldiers into battle. Instead, he leads the whole nation in prayer. “O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). God does a wild miracle then and makes all their enemies turn on each other and kill each other.
There’s plenty of times in scripture where God sent his people out to battle, but this wasn’t one of those times, and Jehoshaphat knew it. How? Because he’d grown in discernment.
Some people say failure is the best teacher, but that’s not true. I’ve seen plenty of people fail over and over, often at the same thing. They get into the same abusive kinds of relationships. They’re fired for the same reasons from job after job. They make bad financial decisions again and again. Failure doesn’t guarantee that a person is going to learn anything about why they failed.
Repentance is the actual key here. Repentance requires you to look at where you went wrong and why you failed; then it turns you to God and aligns you with God’s Word and wisdom. If you truly repent, you will always walk away with greater discernment.
Repentance is particularly important because worldliness dulls your perception of reality and therefore your discernment.
One way that this can show up in a lot of Christians’ lives is your desire to be like other believers or have certain spiritual gifts because they seem more prestigious. The Bible calls this out: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1). When you crave others’ gifts, you miss what God wants to give you and do through you.
Repentance means turning from those passions at war in your heart and submitting yourself to God’s will. At that point, he will fully use the gifts he’s put in you, and you’ll see more clearly where he’s leading you. You’ll have a clearer sense of God’s voice and direction. When that starts happening, you’re not going to be easily sidetracked with other people’s desires for your life. You’re not going to be captivated by shady promises. This is how repentance leads you back to God’s Word, tunes you to God’s Spirit and helps you grow into spiritual maturity.
Becoming mature in the Spirit and growing in discernment aren’t easy because repentance isn’t easy. It’s hard to honestly acknowledge how you fail; it’s even harder to surrender to God and let him change you; but it’s so worthwhile. The Bible challenges its readers with this: “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 upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them” (Hosea 14:9).
You don’t want to spend your life stumbling around, falling prey to wicked people and ending up in compromising positions. With all your heart, cry out to God, “Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live. With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord! I will keep your statutes. I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies” (Psalm 119:144-146). As you become a person of the Word and practice repentance, you will grow in maturity and discernment.