How to Develop Your Spiritual Discernment

We carry the world in our pocket. From international news agencies to social media platforms, we’re endlessly besieged with bytes of stories, political commentary, cultural opinion, conspiracies, blogs, and the ever-maddening notification ping of breaking news. A staggering 3.5 billion people on our planet have been identified as users and consumers of this assortment of media. In fact, most of us will spend an average of three hours every day engaging with this unrelenting barrage of information.

Over the past several months, we’ve seen how quickly news and social media can elicit fear, provoke anger, and fuel movements. This information overload is sometimes more than we can bear and has sent believers and unbelievers alike spiraling into despair and hopelessness as we’re simply trying to discern what to believe.

Throughout Scripture, believers are repeatedly cautioned to maintain a sharpened awareness of the difference between truth and error. Paul implored the Thessalonian church: “Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21–22). Similarly, Paul encouraged the Ephesians to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph 5:10–11). Therefore, spiritual discernment is not optional for the believer but is a clearly commanded necessity for proper Christian living. However, many believers have never been adequately instructed regarding how to develop truly biblical spiritual discernment. Such instruction is vital in the information surplus of our day.

Desire Wisdom

Our desire for spiritual discernment is directly related, at a deeper level, to our desire for wisdom. This type of wisdom is to be searched for, longed for, and pursued by every believer. In the opening sentence of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin said, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Calvin reminds us that to receive true wisdom, and therefore the spiritual ability to discern, begins with a right knowledge of our Creator. No doubt he would have had Proverbs 9:10 in mind: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The current inability to determine truth from error finds its origin in a fundamental lack of understanding of the holiness and glory of the triune God and the sinful depravity of man.

Like a father speaking to his son, the writer of Proverbs implores, “If you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:3–5). Wisdom is more important than finding buried treasure and should be sought after with greater vehemence than all the fine jewels in the earth (Matt. 13:44–45). For at its heart is the treasure of God Himself and without Him we fail miserably at discerning the “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4).

Know Truth

In an age of scrutinizing everything as “fake news,” truth seems a rare commodity. A second characteristic for one who desires proper spiritual discernment is to know the truth. In other words, everything we analyze must be viewed through the lens of truth––God’s Word. Paul instructed young Timothy to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Tim. 6:20) and “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13–14). Paul uses military language here to heighten the importance of what has been given to our charge. Every believer is called to know the truth of God’s Word to such a degree that we maintain a defensive position against everything that undermines His truth or seeks to violate it in any way.

Any survey of believers makes it devastatingly obvious that many do not know the truth and therefore are defenseless against the increasing onslaught of error. One way to correct this deficiency is to examine our daily intake of Scripture. Are you filling your mind and heart with God’s Word to such a degree that it begins to spring to remembrance as you scroll through social media or turn on the news? Is your first reaction fear, dread, and hopelessness, or is your first reaction the calm reassurance of our Lord: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27)? Knowing the truth sets us free from the shackles of worldly virtues and unburdens us to enjoy the glorious guarantee that God is sovereign and controls all things. The truth that has been “entrusted” to us must be known, both in mind and heart, in order to be spiritually discerning in an age of error.

Test Everything

A third component in growing our spiritual discernment is to learn to test everything. Combating issues of falsehood and error within the church, John gives clear instruction to his readers in 1 John 4:1: “Test the spirits.” The word test is a fascinating word in the New Testament and comes from the word that means “the testing of the strength of metal.” In other words, this type of discernable testing requires fire––the fire of our knowledge of God and the knowledge of His Word. If we’re driven by a yearning for cultural acceptance or a comfortable go-along-to-get-along attitude, we will never be discerning people. Never subjugate your minds to the media of this age and blindly be led in paths laid for us by the enemy of our souls. John MacArthur aptly said, “Unless we are willing to examine all things carefully, we cannot hope to have any defense against reckless faith.” Only in careful scrutiny will we be able to discern light from darkness.

Our growth in spiritual discernment depends on our desire for wisdom, knowledge of the truth, and a willingness to test absolutely everything through the lens of that wisdom and truth. So, the next time you begin to scroll through myriads of bits of information, your growth in discernment will determine if your hope is anchored in the solid rock of Christ or the shifting sand of this world.

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Ligonier Ministries