So let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good. Job 34:4 (NLT)
Let me begin with a question. How great is our need for discernment? There is a meme that has been floating around the Internet for several years: “Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.”-Abraham Lincoln. Regardless of our sources of information, we must develop discerning hearts and minds.
One of the significant challenges of our age is to filter all the competing voices vying to persuade us. In a more innocent age or perhaps a more naïve time, news anchors, politicians, medical professionals, and clergy were thought trustworthy and reliable. Whether or not they were is beside the point; that was a general perception.
However, the age of modernity and certainty has given way to an era of skepticism and even cynicism. “Independent fact-checkers” have emerged in recent years, but who checks on the fact-checkers? Notwithstanding, there is more susceptibility to gullibility than ever. As pastors and leaders, what can be done to immunize our people against such foolishness?
First, let us recognize that the vulnerability to misinformation has always been with us. Paul had to warn the Thessalonians against those saying that “the day of the Lord had already come.” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). Jesus warned: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” Matthew 24:6 (NIV).
We know that there is a spiritual gift of discerning spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10, 1 John 4:1), but how, in a more general sense, can our discernment be trained and improved? In Hebrews, we read: “For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil” Hebrews 5:13–14 (NET).
Discernment is a skill that must be learned and refined. Lessons must be taught under supervision in an environment that lends a sense of safety and security. As with the transition from milk to solid food, it is accomplished gradually and with patience.
The art of discernment is best learned and practiced in community. Paul, speaking of prophetic messages in the church, said: “So let two or three prophets speak [those inspired to preach or teach], while the rest pay attention and weigh and discern what is said” 1 Corinthians 14:29 (AMP).
Even great apostles are not exempt from evaluation. Luke records in the book of Acts: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” Acts 17:11 (NIV).
If the words of Paul were not exempt from examination, should we not be even more careful with messages received from celebrity televangelists or megachurch pastors? Just because it is seen and heard on television or printed in a book doesn’t make it valid. Discernment is a great need in the world, but even more so in the church. “People without discernment are doomed” Hosea 4:14 (CSB).
Nothing that I have written to this point should be considered radical or unusual. Why, then, are there so many stories about people following a leader over a cliff or falling prey to some spiritual fad or gimmick?
Perhaps we should start with the obvious? If deception were easy to detect, it really wouldn’t be deception, would it? Webster’s dictionary defines discernment as “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure, or a power to see what is not evident to the average mind.”
The Father of Lies
Satan is a deceiver. He deceived Eve in the garden and subsequently has deceived countless millions of people throughout history. Satan has enlisted both willing and witless co-conspirators. Jesus declared: “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” Matthew 24:24 (NIV).
Our task is not to condemn or rebuke those who are being deceived but to adequately prepare and train those for whom God has given us responsibility so that they can become skilled in their ability to discern between true and false. We add our amen to this prayer of Paul:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:9–11 (NIV).
God’s Word Is the Answer
We previously recalled that the Bereans searched the Scriptures to verify the validity of Paul’s message. Paul himself reinforced the importance of studying the Word: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” 2 Timothy 3:14–15 (NIV). The outcome of studying and knowing God’s word is wisdom that results in salvation.
Wisdom and discernment go together. “Wisdom reposes in the heart of the discerning and even among fools she lets herself be known” Proverbs 14:33 (NIV). Perhaps, pastors, the best way to instill discernment in those that God has given into our care is to: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” 2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV).
The preaching of the Word combined with practical discipleship and examples is the best way to foster and develop discernment in our people. I pray that this will be a priority for each one of us.