What is really involved in Christian discernment? Is it something mystical? An inner sense? Or is it more practical than that?

Hebrews 5:14 notes that discernment is the ability to recognize good and evil: "Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." But you might say that recognizing good and evil is the end product of discernment. What about the actual process of discernment: how do we get to the point of recognizing good from evil? How do we gain that ability? What is involved in discernment? If we know the process, we will get the product.

The process begins with establishing a solid definition. The American Heritage Dictionary defines discernment as: "To detect or perceive with the eye or the mind; to perceive the distinctions of [which can be considered "to define"]; to discriminate."

To detect. To define. To discriminate. Three "D's" that define "discernment."

To detect. The first aspect of discernment is detection. Put simply: open your eyes! Be observant. Pay attention. Scripture commands us to "be sober" (I Thess. 5:8), and to be "on the alert" (I Peter 5:8).

Remember what the Bible says about Satan and sin and evil: that people fall prey to "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life" (I John 2:16). That "each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust" (James 1:13). That there are people who "hold fast to themselves for an evil purpose; they talk of laying snares secretly; they ... devise injustices ... for the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep" (Psalm 64:5-6).

The implication is that evil is often disguised, camouflaged, or hidden. You have to be watching out for it. Satan doesn't walk around with a sign around his neck that says, "Satan: Watch Out!" In fact, the Bible teaches that he often appears as an "angel of light" (II Cor. 11:14). He is a deceiver - "a liar, and the father of lies" (John 8:44). You have to keep your eyes open, or you will lose the battle before you ever knew there was a fight.

To define. The second aspect of discernment is to define what you see. First, you have to see what's around you. Then, you have to think about what defines it. What are the characteristics of this thing, this thought, this situation? Why do I want this thing, this goal? How is this the same or different from other good or evil things I am familiar with?

To discriminate. First, you detect something. Then, you define it. Finally, you have to decide about it. "I've thought about this thing, this thought, this situation, this decision in my mind. These are its characteristics. Now, what does the Bible say about this? What does my reason tell me about this? What do trustworthy Christians think about this? What is God's Spirit telling me about this?"

This is where you are deciding if something is good or evil. After that, it is up to you to obey God, or to disobey him. Remember, the spiritual discipline of discernment - like all spiritual disciplines - is meant to bring us closer to God. Discernment helps us to recognize good and evil, and therefore, if we choose the good, to live a holy life. In doing so, it strengthens and deepens our relationship to God.

Detecting, defining, and discriminating: three very practial "D's" that define the art of Christian discernment.

Note: All Scripture references are from the NAS translation.

© 2008 Paula Marolewski

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Author's Bio: 

Paula J. Marolewski provides challenging and interactive adult Bible studies for individuals, Bible studies, small groups, and adult Sunday School classes at SinkYourRoots.com. Studies include such topics as Debunking the Myths about Knowing God's Will. The above article is an excerpt from Good vs. Evil: The Discipline of Discernment.