Christians, are we doing discernment wrong?

There is a word that used to be a good one—a helpful one, even. A biblical word called “discernment.” In its simplest sense, discernment means to use wisdom. To judge the validity of a line of reasoning or teaching against the wisdom God gives us. This is a good thing, something we’re commended to practice throughout the Bible.1 It’s something we should apply to every area of life, including what we read, hear, and even with whom we associate.2

But in our current age, discernment has taken a turn. This isn’t something that has happened suddenly, of course. There has always been a fringe group of people running so-called discernment ministries, which are rarely discerning and not doing any sort of genuine ministry. But the vitriol these groups offer has gone mainstream as we continue to be shaped by algorithms and dopamine addiction.

Representing Jesus in a divided climate

The world is divided. Actually, fractured or fragmented might be a better word. And as a result of this fragmentation, we tend to believe the worst of people. And that includes our fellow Christians. Since 2016, I’ve seen friends turn on one another, relationships fall apart, and coalitions splinter—all because of this increased fragmentation. As division, rather than discernment, has persuaded us that we cannot trust one another.

That’s a dangerous place to be. It’s a tragic one too because of how it affects our ability to represent Jesus in the world.

And that really matters when we talk about discernment: representing Jesus. The primary duty of everyone who professes faith in Christ. We are meant to live our lives, with God’s help and through his power, in a way that shows the world what it means to worship Christ. We are to love God and our neighbors and really mean it.

Admittedly, I kind of stink at this a lot of the time (or at least I think I do). Most of this has to do with this nasty problem of mine called pride.

When “discernment” makes us dumb

Maybe a little background is helpful. See, my wife and I rarely fight about anything of consequence. Not money or parenting issues. We don’t have serious disagreements on faith issues either. Instead, all our disagreements center on nonsense: the details of old TV shows, random details of life, and the like. This is why we often say to one another, “Hey, let’s keep fighting about this since it’s really important.” It’s our code for when we’re being dumb or prideful.3

When I first started developing doctrinal convictions, my pride problem was exacerbated. I had ideas about how things should be, and I was certain everything I believed was biblical and clearly in the text. But I had a problem: when I opened my mouth, my words were about as loving as hitting someone in the face with a sledge hammer. I didn’t know how to hear other points of view. I wasn’t a good listener, in part because I didn’t think I really needed to listen to people I disagreed with.

Because I was prideful, I was too blind to see where other points of view had merit, or even when I was right in what I saw, didn’t know how to be discerning and graceful. That’s the problem with so much modern “discernment,” or Twitter interaction for that matter. It has too much in common with those Paul warned about in Galatians 5:15: people are so busy biting and devouring one another that they inevitably consume one another.

Discernment doesn’t lack love

These days, I try to take a more balanced approach. For example, I actively avoid reading or listening to people who feed those unhealthy and ungodly impulses. I also intentionally try to read from within the broader spectrum of orthodoxy than I might have back in 2011 or 2016.4 And that is helping me be more discerning and less of a dork.

It requires me to be thoughtful, which itself is the hallmark of true discernment. Discernment is an expression of love for God and for people. And so it requires us to judge accurately, and express myself clearly, without treating truth as a blunt instrument or a weapon. “Discernment” of that sort isn’t love—it’s sin.

Do not let your name be a verb

Does this mean we shouldn’t call out nonsense, or even name names in public spaces? Of course not. There are times and places to do these things. It’s even loving to do so at times. But it’s not what we should be known for.

For example, many years ago, a blogger’s last name became a verb for a while. He wrote many articles about the shady issues at a very large church—issues that needed to be addressed. People paid attention. That church is now gone, and its pastor is largely anathema in evangelical Christian circles.

This was good. But when his name became a verb, it was definitely not. He didn’t choose that, of course, but it still happened. Bringing light to the actions of this particular pastor was what he became known for, even more than anything else he had done before or since.

And that was not good.

Keeping discernment in step with the (fruit of the) Spirit

There are real people who are affected by what we say and do in every area of life, including online. While we are not to be people pleasers, we don’t get to run around using Galatians 5:12 as a cover for ungodliness.5 We can be unflinching in our positions, we can even use strong language when necessary, but for goodness’ sake, even this should be done with tears. We should weep as we speak painful truths. Our desire should be that people come to repentance; that those who’ve gone astray should return to the truth.

That’s what biblical discernment often looks like.

But viciousness, divisiveness, biting and devouring one another—discernment should never look like that because that’s not what discernment is. It’s not what representing Christ means, nor dos it honor him. Instead, it might just be driving people even further away.

Friends, we need to be discerning. We are commanded to be so. But let’s make sure we’re doing it right.

Originally published on January 5, 2016. This post has been revised for style and content. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

  1. See Proverbs 3:5–6, 1 John 4:1, and Ephesians 5:6–10 for just a handful of examples.[]
  2. That is, we ought to choose to associate with individuals of good character (see 1 Corinthians 15:33).[]
  3. Which is usually me, if I’m being honest.[]
  4. Working with a broad spectrum of believers is also a help to me in this regard.[]
  5. And that goes double for Jesus tossing tables and chasing people with whips—he gets to do things we don’t because he’s God and we’re not.[]

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.