In June of 1992 I wrote an article on discernment where I defined discernment as “Seeing the reality which lies behind appearances.” I still use this definition. My article was prompted by reading on an article on the ‘gift of discernment,’ which I will address below. Here I have reproduced and revised a portion of what I wrote as it is as relevant or more than when I first wrote it. This is particularly true as I cannot recall a time in my six decades that we have ever been more divided and polarized in our culture with different views and attitudes toward truth and the false idea that perceptions matter more than reality.
We begin our study with 1 Corinthians 2:14-15
14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. 1 Corinthians 2:14–15 (NKJV)
In 1 Corinthians 2:14 the Greek word anakrino is translated discerned and in verse 15 it is translated judges and judged. Discernment and judgment are closely linked and require the exercise of wisdom. Scriptural discernment is basically making right judgments by seeing the reality that lies behind appearances in order to agree with what the Holy Spirit is doing. After all, with what we are facing in the church and our culture we need to exercise discernment, as it is through discernment that we can see the roots of issues and then choose how to respond as He leads.
In seeking to understand and exercise discernment it is helpful to first understand what it is not. I often hear talk in the church about the “gift” of discernment. The scriptures speak of no such gift. 1 Corinthians 12:10 speaks of the gift of discerning of spirits (a revelation gift that any Christian may function in at times). This however is not discernment as the scriptures teach it, even though it is useful in the process of discerning. True discernment is the outflow of wisdom and revelation working together and demonstrates spiritual maturity. Here are the Corinthians verses with more context and three verses from Hebrews.
13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. 16 For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? 1 Corinthians 2:13–3:4 (NKJV)
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Hebrews 5:12–14 (NKJV)
In both passages we see a link between discernment and spiritual maturity. Discernment needs to be exercises and is the fruit of a humble heart that chooses to be led of the Spirit and recognizes its dependence upon Him. Discernment flows primarily in the lives of those who choose to walk in truth and refuse to compromise because of their love for the truth (2 Thess. 2:16, Eph. 4:21).
Paul’s discernment was rooted in his refusal to compromise truth Jesus had revealed to him. This led to him having to rebuke both Barnabas and Peter (Gal. 2:11-20). Paul understood something that we in the church have largely neglected. We are frequently told by both the world and much of the church that we are not to judge, and this is true in terms of a critical fault-finding spirit (Jas. 4:11, Rom. 14:4, Matt. 7:1-5). We do however have a responsibility to judge all things in terms of fruit and discern the truth that lies behind appearances (Matt. 7:15-20, 1 Cor. 2:14-15, Heb. 5:12-14, Phil. 1:9-11, Jn. 7:24). At times this means confronting sin and heart motives which can lead to being labeled as “judgmental” or “critical” (Acts 5:1-11, 8:18-24, Gal. 2:11-21).
My idea of discernment as ‘seeing the reality which lies behind appearances’ comes from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:15-20 where He refers to wolves showing up looking like sheep and the importance of inspecting fruit. Jesus teaches that at times we cannot discern wolves from surface appearances because they look like sheep. The same is true of tares looking like wheat until they mature (Matt. 13:24-30). To discern the truth that lies behind appearances we need to love truth more than the package it comes in. We must seek truth and seek to discern it in the lives of our supporters and opponents. A love of the truth is manifest in love for the church, the body of Him who is truth (Eph. 4:21). This is illustrated for us in the Old Testament illustration of the role of discerning.
I began this study by noting the overlap between judging and discerning. In Exodus 28:30 Aaron is commanded to wear the breastplate of judgement when he comes before the Lord. In the breastplate are the Urim and Thummim. Also on the breastplate are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. This passage specifically says Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart continually.
What I see in this is that discerning and making right judgments requires carrying the issue we are seeking to discern over our heart. If we want to truly discern what is happening in the lives of others, from the Lord’s perspective, we need to bear people over our heart in intercession (as Aaron did with the breastplate representing the nation). Intercession born of love for Jesus and His church leads to the spirit of wisdom and revelation being released in our lives and manifest as discernment.
Paul knew clearly the relationship between love and discernment. He began Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians with a prayer for discernment only after he was confident of peoples love for the church and one another (Eph. 1-15-21, Phil. 1:9-11, Col. 1:4, 8-11). This love is, among other things, a deeply rooted commitment to speak truth to others out of a desire to see them come to maturity (Eph. 4:15, Prov. 27:6).
The purpose of discernment is protection and growth. We seek to see the reality that lies behind appearances so we can protect His flock, and agree with Him about what He desires in the lives of individuals, local assemblies and the church at large. When we sincerely walk with Him in spirit and truth (Jn. 4:24) His Spirit in us is faithful to guide us into all truth (Jn. 16:13). Walking in this manner positions us to see the church built up and established.