Discernment

By James Rochford

The Greek word for discernment is diakrisis (pronounced dee-OCK-ree-sis), which is a derivative of diakrino. It means “to evaluate carefully” or “to be able to judge, ability to make judgments, ability to decide.”[1] This term covers a lot of things. For our purposes, we are going to equate discernment as the ability to make wise decisions for difficult judgment calls. For instance, how can we learn to believe in people without being naïve or cynical? When someone falls into a serious sin, how long should we wait before trusting them with serious ministry? What are signs that someone might be in secret sin? What are signs that we can trust up-and-coming workers? How do we correctly weigh priorities in a group and keep our emphasis on the most important priorities?

The skill of discernment is important for a number of reasons. It helps us to recognize dangerous members in the church (Acts 20:29-30), not waste time with the hard hearted (Mt. 10:14; Eph. 5:15-17), and learn how to recognize the people whom God is raising into leadership. All of these judgment calls are subjective, and yet, vitally important to the health of the church. Therefore, we should consider several principles that will help to sharpen our discernment in making wise judgment calls:

Discernment takes practice. The author of Hebrews writes that mature believers “because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). If you’re not gifted in discernment, give yourself grace. You’re going to make mistakes. Just make sure that you’re open to God’s teaching, rather than trying to justify yourself from mistakes that have been made.

Don’t “mind read.” Sometimes, we will sense that the Holy Spirit might be giving us insight into a person’s problems. But discernment is not a “spidey sense” that tells you what is wrong. We shouldn’t judge someone based on these intuitions without objective facts. This might cause us to investigate further, but in the absence of any facts, we need to let it go. However, after pressing the case further, we might see further signs that surface. In this case, perhaps the Lord is guiding us to press the case further.

Similarly, consider if you hear funny noises from your neighbor’s house. You shouldn’t walk over and kick down the door, because you’re feeling suspicious. Instead, you should investigate further (e.g. ask questions, knock on the door, etc.; see the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window).

Look at deeds over words. Repeatedly in Scripture, we read that works are more important than words. Our walk is more important than our talk. Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Mt. 11:19). Speaking of the Pharisees, Jesus said, “They say things and do not do them” (Mt. 23:3). John writes, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 Jn. 2:6). And he said, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 Jn. 4:20). In the extreme case of false teachers, they can be discerned—not by their words—but by their actions (2 Pet. 2:18-19; Mt. 7:15-20; Jn. 10:12-13). Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” Of course, it is possible for a person to say one thing, but do another. The NT says that actions are more important than words (Mt. 21:28:31).

Therefore, we should beware of having a “good talk.” Learn to suspend judgment and wait for deeds. We’re not advocating cynicism, but realism. If you had a good talk, that’s great. But, not enough. Wait until you see action. If we ran our group according to what people said, rather than did, then the biggest hypocrites would be leading the group.

What is the difference between Negativity and Discernment?
Negativity Discernment
Comes from Satan Comes from God
Refuses to believe all things (1 Cor. 13:7) Rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13) Believes in what people can become, but isn’t gullible of human nature
Fatalistic Realistic
Often causes us to retreat from our people (“They’ll never change.”) Often causes us to move towards our people (“They really need me to speak to them.”)
Often clouded by emotion or hurt feelings (“They betrayed me.”) Experiences emotion and hurt feelings but places God first (“Their issue is primarily with the Lord…”).

The best indicator of FUTURE behavior is PAST behavior. Of course, there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit changes lives and hearts. But when entrusting someone with responsibility of some kind, we should base this on their record of sacrificial love and faithfulness in the past, rather than their possible record in the future. Of course, they could change and become a faithful worker if we entrusted them with a responsibility. God is surely big enough to do this. But the same could be said of anyone in the Body of Christ from the least faithful to the most.

Learn to empathize. Ask yourself: “What would I do in their situation?” This helps us to see what might be missing from their story or recounting of an event.

Look at the company they keep. Solomon wrote, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20). Paul wrote, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33 NLT). Much of the Proverbs tells us to look for this as well. If they feel comfortable around the values of people who are apathetic or hostile to Christ, what does this say about this person? Put yourself in their shoes: Could you regularly spend time around people who were hostile to Christ without being heartbroken or otherwise affected in some way? Why does this not seem to bother them?

Listen carefully. While we can’t know what’s going on inside a person’s heart or mind, Jesus said that we can learn this through listening to a person’s lips. Jesus said, “[The] mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Lk. 6:45). What are they passionate about? Do they talk about what they’re reading? Do they have stories about answered prayer? Do they have stories about witnessing or serving?

Beware of “niceness.” Jesus was loving, but he wasn’t nice. Thus nice people often make the worst Christian workers! Churches today will often consider the ornery, arrogant, or prideful people as bad Christians, and they will play favorites with the nice, polite, and compliant people. However, we should base our judgments on spiritual fruit and love, rather than etiquette or niceness.

Beware of temporary change. It’s possible for people to change temporarily to avoid confrontation.

Learn to face the facts. We need to avoid excessive optimism and face the facts with our ministry. Most people are biased towards believing that their discipleship is awesome, when it isn’t. They sometimes think that if they just ignore the problems that these will somehow disappear. While it is painful to see problems honestly, admitting these is the fastest way to start dealing with them. Therefore, we need to avoid minimizing, excusing, and even being in total denial of the problems right in front of us. This mindset is often motivated by the fear of rebuking others who need it.

Avoid hysteria. Hitting the panic button doesn’t help anyone. People are sinful. We need to learn to cope with this. It doesn’t help our discernment to be hysterical, when people fall into sin. Take your time to sit quietly before the Lord before making any sort of rash decisions.

Grow in the word and prayer. Solomon writes, “Commit your works to the Lord and your plans will be established” (Prov. 16:3). The psalmist writes, “Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments” (Ps. 119:66).

Confer regularly with colleagues. Who has good discernment on your team? Present your plans or observations to co-leaders for critique. Don’t just ask people to do their thinking for you.

Questions for reflection and discussion

What is one key point that you took away from this reading?

What is one area of discernment that you often overlook?

What are your personal tendencies with discernment? Do you lean toward optimism or pessimism?

[1] Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains.