The world is awash in religious information but floundering when it comes to developing spiritual discernment. How can you sort through the confusion?
Developing spiritual discerment is vitally important. Consider one man’s experience:
The young accountant was facing a difficult decision that could greatly affect his life and possibly even his career. The stakes were high.
He and his wife had just learned that the Sabbath was on Saturday instead of Sunday, and switching to a different day of worship had major implications for their future. Having gone to church on Sunday all their lives, they wondered how this could be.
There was also an economic factor. He learned that the Sabbath was to be a day of rest, but he had a job that required him to work half a day on Saturdays. As a young married man with two small boys to raise, he knew his job was very important to his family’s survival.
As he considered what he would do, he carefully studied the scriptures that showed the Sabbath was on the seventh day. They made sense.
Then he went to the pastor of the church he was attending and asked why that denomination worshipped on Sundays. The pastor gave a standard answer—Sunday was chosen to honor the resurrection of Christ. Not knowing that Jesus actually rose on another day, this explanation also made sense to the young professional.
That accountant was my father, and he was stymied. Both explanations seemed logical to him at the time.
Need for developing spiritual discernment
The challenge my dad faced called for spiritual discernment—the ability to clearly see what God desired. This ability is a critical need for all who wish to worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
In our world today, there is no lack of seemingly logical explanations for a wide variety of religious beliefs—some diametrically opposed to each other! So how can we acquire the spiritual discernment needed to determine how to worship God as He commands?
Let’s look at seven keys for developing spiritual discernment.
Key # 1: Recognize that there are spiritual absolutes
This is foundational for developing spiritual discernment. Absolutes are required in math, science, construction, logic, reasoning, and in almost every walk of life. But when it comes to God’s laws and morality, many people want to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. They refuse to acknowledge that God has authority over our lives and that He gives us specific instructions that we are to always follow, regardless of the circumstances.
The truth is, with God there are also absolutes. The Bible clearly reveals what God expects His followers to do. Disobeying what God says to do is sin. Discernment means identifying opposites or contrasts such as clean/unclean, good/evil, right/wrong and obedience/disobedience.
Having spiritual discernment requires us to make judgments. It is no surprise that people who don’t acknowledge God’s authority to set standards of conduct hate being judged. They don’t like anyone saying, or even quietly believing, that their conduct is wrong.
This sentiment was present in the men of Sodom as they accused Lot of “acting as a judge” when he tried to dissuade them of their ungodly intentions toward his visitors (Genesis 19:9). People today who reject God’s laws similarly accuse people of judging them if their ungodly deeds are not accepted and celebrated.
In today’s environment that is hostile toward God’s good and beneficial laws, many people cite Christ’s statement: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). People who reject most of the Bible’s teachings sometimes cite this verse. And sometimes even people claiming to be Christians misunderstand what Christ was saying.
A careful reading of Matthew 7:1-3 reveals that Jesus was teaching His followers not to judge in a hypocritical manner. The principle He was teaching was that we need to first resolve our own faults before we try to help our brother resolve his. If we weren’t to judge at all, we couldn’t help our brother.
On another occasion, Jesus said it more clearly: “Judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24, emphasis added throughout).
Key #2: Ask God for help
Realizing that we don’t inherently know all that we need to know is another fundamental principle for developing spiritual discernment. Today’s popular mantras to simply follow your heart or to look inside yourself for answers to life’s questions are not biblically correct.
Realizing that we don’t inherently know all that we need to know is another fundamental principle for developing spiritual discernment.Early in his reign King Solomon said: “Now O LORD my God, You have made Your servant king instead of my father David, but I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. … Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:7, 9).
His words “pleased the LORD,” and God gave Solomon what he had requested (verses 10, 12). When Solomon recorded some of the wisdom God had given him, he twice in the book of Proverbs noted that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25).
Echoing our need for help, Jeremiah told God: “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). Later, the prophet added: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).
And the psalmist requested of God: “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe Your commandments” (Psalm 119:66). We can do the same. We can ask God for spiritual discernment and know that Jesus promised, “Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22).
Key #3: Hate what God hates; love what God loves
At creation, mankind was made in God’s image, and God’s desire is for us to eventually become like Him as members of His eternal family. Paul explained that God has called us to be “conformed to the image of His Son,” and that the end result of this process is that our bodies will be “conformed to His glorious body” (Romans 8:29; Philippians 3:21).
With this concept in mind, Paul admonished the Corinthians: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Imitating God is how we become more like God, and the more we are like God, the better our spiritual discernment becomes. As we grow in discernment, our values, our thinking and our judgment become more and more like God’s.
So what should we imitate about God?
A good place to start is by hating what God hates and loving what God loves. Please note that God loves people and wants everyone to be in His family, but He also hates sin because of the toll it takes upon humans (John 3:16-17; 2 Peter 3:9; Romans 6:23).
So what does the Bible reveal regarding things God hates? The list is quite extensive, but here are a few types of conduct that God loathes—some of which He even describes as abominations: false worship (Deuteronomy 12:31; 16:22), divorce (Malachi 2:16), humans eating unclean meats (Leviticus 11:11), cross dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5), businessmen cheating others (Proverbs 11:1), lying (Proverbs 12:22), and the way of the wicked (Proverbs 15:9).
For seven more things God hates, see Proverbs 6:16-19. Capping off this point, Psalm 97:10 says, “You who love the LORD, hate evil!”
And what does God love?
He loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). He appreciates our heartfelt prayers (Revelation 5:8). He is pleased to see us do good and share with others (Hebrews 13:16), and He will take pleasure in inviting the saints into His Kingdom (Luke 12:32).
Amos the prophet summarized this key as he succinctly admonished the people of his day: “Hate evil, love good” (Amos 5:15). This advice is also valid today.
In the next issue we’ll consider four more keys that can help us develop spiritual discernment.
Sidebar: What Things Must Christians Judge?
Contrary to the mistaken idea that Christians should never judge (often wrongly attributed to Matthew 7:1), people who serve God are told to judge many things. Here are a few issues and areas of life that require us to make judgments.
- Doctrine: Is it sound or flawed (1 Timothy 4:1, 16; 2 Timothy 4:3-4)?
- Religious teachers: Do they teach truth or error (Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29-31; Colossians 2:8; Revelation 2:2)?
- Morals: Do we accept and live by godly standards or those of the world (1 Thessalonians 4:1-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10)?
- Friends: Do we choose them wisely (Proverbs 12:26; 22:24-25)?
- Culture: Do we strive to live godly lives or to be accepted by the world (1 John 2:15; Revelation 18:4)?
- Ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5).
It is not our job to judge people in the sense of condemning them. The responsibility for that kind of judgment is given to Jesus Christ, and His judgments are completely fair and merciful (Psalm 96:13; Acts 17:31; John 5:22). But God does expect us to discern what is godly and what is ungodly so we can live in obedience to His good and beneficial laws (Deuteronomy 10:13).