Charles Spurgeon once said that discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong, but instead, knowing the difference between right and almost right.
Today, it seems, we need this knowledge more than ever before. Making wise decisions, although challenging at times, because everything’s not always black and white, seems all but abandoned.
Days of the Judges
I’ve said for quite some time that it feels like we are living in the time of the Judges. Times that were marked by people “doing what is right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17:6; 21:25) This way of living though was expressly condemned by God. Deuteronomy 12:8 says, “You shall not do what we are doing here today—every man doing what is right in his own eyes;” And yet here we are.
Postmodernism has presented us again with this theory that there are no absolutes and that we should just live accordingly. Sadly we’ve once again accepted this without a fight.
The Church, who is uniquely positioned to lead in this area (truth and discernment), hasn’t risen to the occasion either. Prudent judgment is not exactly how I would describe the state of the visible church. We’re a fractured people. We’ve confused ourselves about what is right and almost right. Add to that we don’t appear in the slightest to be marked by love, at least not as God defines love. These are truly extraordinary times and they’re going to require an incredible amount of discernment to navigate.
Although this all sounds bleak, I want to show you the path out. I want to give you some hope. I want to teach you what God’s word says about discernment, about our need for it, and also about its intimate connection to love proper.
Real Knowledge & Discernment
Let’s begin with Paul’s words to the church in Philippi. At this moment in Paul’s life he was awaiting trial in Rome—this is what Roman prisons were for—to detain a person until trial. Prisons were not used as a means of punishment, at least not in Rome. In conveying their love and gratitude for this particular church, Paul and Timothy also shared what they were praying for in the lives of these believers.
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” – Philippians 1:9-11 NASB
The first observation is that Paul prayed for the church’s love to abound. Love was and always will be paramount to God. But what did Paul mean, exactly? Well, he actually meant two things. The first is that Paul was consistent and no doubt expected this church to grow in what I will call “love proper,” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a. But Paul also had a specific display of love in mind. And we see this plainly in the context of these three verses.
With respect to love proper, we’re all familiar with 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a:
“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails;”
Now, if the church operated in these expressions of love I believe our discernment issues would fall into place. But it’s still important to read Paul’s words within their specific context. Just as Paul would never mean for the people to abound in love as defined by a modern reader (that is a love that is solely a feeling), Paul also isn’t telling the people to abound in love in any way they choose. He had a specific idea in mind and a purpose for that idea.
Let’s look at the text again. “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment,” The preposition “in” is also rendered “through.” The idea is that love is displayed in or through the use of real knowledge and good discernment.
According to the Bible Sense Lexicon, the term “real knowledge” is defined as “coming to understand something clearly and distinctly or as true and valid; often with a personal familiarity that necessitates a positive or negative reaction.” In this way, love understands correctly and makes a decision.
Understanding vs. Acceptance
By understanding I don’t mean mere sympathy or acceptance of falling short, although that may be included. Remember, God does this with us. He knows we are but dust and has mercy on us. Instead what Paul was referring to is taking the time to understand what’s going on so as to make a wise and good judgment. This was what Paul meant by love. (This is not just listening and it’s surely not passing judgment without gaining understanding. It’s both/and. The results of this kind of love are remarkable. Paul said to the Colossians:
“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it (that is their faith and love see verse 4), we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” – Colossians 1:9-12
This all sounds spectacular in light of growing in understanding, and it is absolutely.
Then we have discernment, which can’t be separated from this knowledge. Discernment means the mental ability to understand and discriminate between connections; especially as acquired through experience.
So now what we have is knowledge and discernment as expressions of love, and we see that it means having the ability to discriminate rightly. But we have to look at the “why”—what’s the end game with discernment? In our next post we will dive into the why behind it all.
Do you feel the Church needs to grow in real knowledge and understanding? Comment below or email me at email@example.com.