Take these simple steps in letting the Holy Spirit guide you in the midst of a world of confusion and noise.
by Charles F. Stanley
When was the last time you heard discernment discussed? It’s not a popular topic today, yet there’s probably never been a culture more in need of it. We’re overloaded with information but short on insight. One click online gives access to more information than our ancestors could have imagined. But how do we know what’s true? And has knowing more made us any wiser?
Lack of discernment is all around, causing overwhelming debt, unsolvable problems, and the emotional turmoil of strained relationships. Even right and wrong are up for grabs. We increasingly resemble the disastrous era of the judges in Israel when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).
In the midst of such confusion, believers need to develop a discerning spirit so that they can know truth and the Lord’s direction in every circumstance. Without it, we’ll veer off course and find ourselves in trouble. Discernment—the ability to look beneath the surface to see reality—involves evaluating information or situations, recognizing differences, considering consequences, and thereby making sound judgments. In our humanity, none of us have this kind of wisdom, but the Lord is willing to give us the discernment we need.
Why do we need discernment?
• To recognize God’s voice. To discover and fulfill the Lord’s plan for our lives, we must be able to hear His voice. Suppose you ask Him to guide you in making a decision. When a sense of direction comes, can you tell whether it’s from God or your own mind? If you seek advice from a fellow believer, can you determine if the Lord is speaking through him? Without discernment, you won’t know for sure and, as a result, might take numerous wrong turns in life.
• To discern God’s will. While the Bible in some respects speaks definitively about how to live, it doesn’t directly cover every situation. For example, no verse will tell you whom to marry or whether to move for a new job. But this doesn’t mean God is silent on the issue. Although your particular situation may not be mentioned in Scripture, biblical principles cover every decision you’ll ever face. The Holy Spirit, dwelling within, is there to guide us to the right understanding of how to apply God’s Word.
• To make wise decisions. Every day is filled with decisions—some inconsequential, others life-changing. We often run on autopilot without giving a second thought to our choices; then we see only the outward appearance of each situation instead of looking beneath the surface to consider possible future implications. For instance, do you stop to think about the financial burden a spontaneous purchase might cause?
• To distinguish good from best. Not every decision is a choice between right and wrong; we may just need to know the best path to take. God doesn’t want us to just limp along in our Christian lives; He desires that we thrive in the fullness of His will. Each day we’re confronted by decisions that set our course to one degree or another. The only way to make choices aligned with the Lord’s will is by seeking the mind of Christ on the matter. It may seem like a grey area to us, but He knows exactly what He wants us to do and is willing to guide us through His Word and His Spirit.
• To distinguish truth from error. We desperately need a discerning spirit is to recognize deceptions. Much of what we see and hear is based on a perspective influenced by the world and Satan, the Father of Lies. Even our school systems are plagued with error. Beginning in elementary school, children are taught that we’re a product of evolution. Universities continue the indoctrination with godless ideas and intolerance of a biblical worldview.
• To avoid being deceived by sin. Galatians 6:7 reminds us that “whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” Sin deceptively promises enjoyment, which lasts only briefly and eventually results in a bitter harvest. Many of life’s pleasures are given to us by God, but there will be temptations to go outside His boundaries. Then, we must consider the painful consequences that await us down the road—and also remember the blessings of obedience.
• To distinguish between legalism and liberty. Personal convictions aren’t necessarily moral mandates for all believers. Scripture is explicit about the Lord’s standards. Within those boundaries, God also offers protection by impressing on us to maintain or avoid certain practices, based on our unique strengths and weaknesses. So if someone pressures you to conform to his standards, you should be able to distinguish a biblical command from a preference.
To communicate with others. Perhaps the most difficult area of discernment is in the realm of relationships. It’s easier to read between the lines in a book than it is to truly understand another person. Remember, discernment is seeing the reality beneath the surface. This means we are to listen for not only what is said but also what isn’t said. Discernment is vital in determining whether someone’s being truthful, but it’s also important in our efforts to help others. By picking up on emotional signals that lie beneath one’s outward appearance or pleasant words, a sensitive individual is able to offer encouragement.
How to become discerning
Spiritual discernment is a gift of God. It’s not something we can manufacture in ourselves, but a quality He develops in us if we’ll choose to ground ourselves in prayer and Bible reading. The more time we spend communing with God and filling our minds with His thoughts, the more discerning we will be. The goal is to let His Spirit guide us in every moment. To do that, we must guard what we allow into our minds. Worldly thinking will overpower spiritual discernment if we spend two or three hours in front of the television and only ten minutes in the Bible.
Because of the Holy Spirit’s continuous presence within us, we never have to make a decision alone or depend on our own limited resources. He’s always there to guide us into all truth and help us recall Christ’s words (John 14:26; John 16:13). However, we have a responsibility to put Scripture into our mind so He can bring it to our remembrance.
The time to begin developing discernment is now. You cannot afford to wait until you are facing a critical decision. Sound judgment is produced through practice as our senses are trained to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:14). It’s not a matter of perfection, but a long process of learning to distinguish God’s guidance. We’ll all make some mistakes along the way, but each wrong turn is an opportunity to learn as we evaluate the outcome.
Begin today by spending time in prayer and filling your mind with Scripture. Ask the Lord for guidance, and to the best of your ability, do what you think He’s saying. If you’re truly seeking to follow Him, He’ll show you the way.