This is the sixteenth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
Life is complicated. Every day we face decisions large and small that can be knotty and convoluted. Make a poor choice and we may suffer for it, or others may be hurt. If we’re smart we’ll realize we need wisdom that we can gain from trusted mature friends, and from the Scriptures, God’s deposit of wisdom for us.
God’s wisdom is not merely a collection of trustworthy principles for life, however. Wisdom includes a developed ability to make good judgments between what is right and wrong, or good, better, and best. It is what the Bible calls discernment, and it can save us from disaster.
Charles Spurgeon said discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between right and wrong; rather it is telling the difference between right and almost right. Discernment, in other words, is refined perception. It is an ability to see, at a deep level, our own strengths and weaknesses and those of others. Discernment helps us know what our true motives are.
The New Testament word for discernment (diakrina) means to separate or distinguish. Discernment is the ability to cut carefully between what is good and bad. A surgeon takes a scalpel in hand in order to cut a line between healthy and diseased tissue. We want our surgeons to be skilled so that they don’t leave behind disease and they don’t cut away what is healthy. We want them to use good quality scalpels, not butter knives.
Discernment helps us to be discriminating without being discriminatory. To judge without being judgmental. To separate without dividing. Discernment is fine work.
When we are discerning we are less likely to make foolish decisions based on rash evaluations of our situation. We will not take a black-or-white view of things; a tendency in our society today that comes from simple laziness. Bias is the easy way. Discernment respects others and honors God.
Hebrews 4:12 describes how the Scriptures are the scalpel God has gifted us: “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Generally we should avoid judging the hearts of others because only God knows the heart. If we don’t want other people to assume they know our motives, we have to withhold from judging the motives of others. Jesus said: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1–2).
On the other hand, we are called to exercise judgment. “Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!” (1 Cor. 6:2-3).
So what is the difference between exercising judgment and being judgmental? We are being judgmental when our motive is to devalue or control others, or to be self-righteous about ourselves.
Note that Hebrews 4:12 speaks of God’s word as alive and active. The word of God penetrates even into the inner recesses of our hearts. Scalpels cut, but with the purpose of eventual healing. We are not to apply verses of the Bible, in other words, in mechanical and crude ways to our lives or in judgment of others. The word of God develops a living dynamic in our hearts whereby our instincts and perceptions are trained. We can see sin over the horizon when we are tempted. We are able to sense when someone is lying to us or to themselves. We can spot the difference between a counterfeit and the real thing.
Hebrews 5:14 speaks of mature believers “who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” The ability to discern comes by training, in other words. There is no substitute for accumulated experience. A surgeon gets better and better with the repetition of the same procedures, and by reading profession literature as a habit. In the same way we get better and better at discerning the complexities of life through experience and by a lifestyle of reading Scripture.
Living the Bible means that we exercise a kind of penetrating vision that helps us see through the dust and fog of life, to see things the way they really are, and to make conscious choices about the people we want to influence us. Discernment is perception, insight, and correct judgment about the people wanting to influence us.
And so we come back to this principle: Living the Bible means living in reality. The alternative—to live in some degree of self-deception or extreme naiveté—is not right and not safe.
Coming Soon… A Book of Prayers for Kids
[If you believe this series will be helpful, this is the perfect time to forward this to a friend, a group, or a congregation, and tell them they too may sign up for the weekly emails here]
Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.