Discernment 101

I talk often about the need for discernment in our reading, but sometimes I think that term may mean one thing to one person and something far different to someone else.

I think most people agree as far as the actual definition. To discern means to perceive or to distinguish between. Of course, discernment implies a standard or some way of making a distinction.

This cover is bluer than that one. Or, That book is full of lies.

In the first, two objects are being compared to each other. In the second, the lies exist in contradiction to an understood standard of Truth.

So what does it mean for a Christian to apply discernment to what he reads?

When I advocate discernment, I have in mind the latter kind. I believe Christians should use the Bible as the gauge by which we measure truth and error, good and evil, right and wrong. A book that twists or deviates from what the Bible lays out before us is in error because the Bible is Truth.

So far, I think most people who have thought about discernment at all would agree, but here’s where I think some of us might part company. If we identify a book as containing that which is not true, what do we do?

I tend to think a lot of people would say, Stay away from that book and any such like it. For some people that may be the right move, but I don’t think that should be the blanket answer. It certainly isn’t what I’m advocating when I say we should read with discernment.

Instead, I think we should read (or watch or listen to) what is in our culture, and then point the finger at that which departs for God’s revealed truth and say, That is not true.

Understand, there are limitations to this use of discernment. Sometimes a determination needs to be made as a matter of self-protection or family-protection. When I was in college, I saw a bunch of raunchy movies that led me to the decision to put some limits on what I viewed. My choice, for me, requiring discernment.

But there are lots of other movies I’ve seen that I would go to see again, but I will cry loud and long to whoever will listen that the work of fiction contains untruth.

As I see it, lies are immediately disarmed once they are identified as lies. Lies can only hurt if they slip by and people believe them. Consequently, to stay away from all fiction or from fiction that is clearly from a secular point of view, means I can’t stand up and say, Do you see the lies here?

If Christians don’t do that, then who will?

Published in: on July 31, 2009 at 11:15 am  Comments (7)  
Tags: , , ,


  1. Excellent point Becky! That has always been my understanding of discernment also. After all, isn’t that what Christ did? He was with the people of this world, pointing out the errors in thought and action, and pointing them to the proper way God intended for those things to be done.


  2. Wonderful, wonderful post 🙂 Thanks for sharing.


  3. Thanks for this post and for pointing out that sometimes staying away from something just because it contains some untruth should not be a blanket answer. I see that mistake committed far too often.

    On a related strand, do you have any words of wisdom to show the difference between continuing in something versus calling it quits after something disagreeable has appeared? Note that this may be an exercise in futility; I recall a well-meaning pastor’s wife saying that movies should be turned off after the third curse word. I mean, if I’m watching a movie and counting curse words aren’t I focused on the wrong thing?


  4. The comment above made me think that part of discernment is knowing when to turn something off. Like the example above. I was reading a book, good book, but 2/3 in the book, I had to put it away and not finish it because it had a lot of cussing in it and I found those words worming their way into my head. When I start cussing in my head, its time to put away the book 🙂
    Another example is romance in a book. I choose not to read a lot of the stuff, especially the explicit stuff because the images from those books are burned into my mind, and those are images I don’t need there.
    There is a lot of wisdom in the Sunday School song “Be Careful Little Eyes What you See (ears, hands, etc…)”.
    ‘”Everything is permissible for me”- but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”- but I will not be mastered by anything.” I Corinthians 6:12


  5. Rae and Ryan, thanks for your comments. I do think Christ was a good example of discernment. He knew that the Pharisees, despite their religious talk, were dead inside, and He wasn’t sidetracked from the issues of eternal value by their trumped up questions. Same with the woman at the well. He saw past the peripheral issues they tried to raise to trap him, and saw to the needs of their heart, pointing them to Himself.



  6. I recall a well-meaning pastor’s wife saying that movies should be turned off after the third curse word. Daniel, I’d say that system was in trouble as soon as the pastor’s wife made it a system for somebody else to follow. When it comes to things like cursing and other content that might be objectionable, I think it’s an individual thing. I think my standards might be similar to Morgan’s. I don’t want to be thinking curse words, and reading cursing puts those words in my head. I can hear people curse and it doesn’t do the same thing. So if I go to movies and there’s swearing, it doesn’t affect me the same way as if I read it.

    But here’s the thing. Do I have a right or a responsibility to tell others, you can see movies with cursing but you shouldn’t read books with it. No, on two fronts. First, the standard is mine. Second, my “passing a rule” defeats the concept of discernment.

    The idea of discernment is for each of us to come to a place of recognizing what God wants for us. If I pass a rule and say, this is what discernment looks like, I may put my standard in place (if I am very influential), but in essence I would be replacing the Holy Spirit who wants to guide us into all Truth.

    As a person who has been a Christian a long time, I can set an example for newer believers, but I should not lay out a list of books to avoid to be a “good” Christian. We who are believers are saved by grace, and are in the process of having God conform us to the image of His Son. As we become like Jesus, it should make a difference in us, but I don’t think that will translate into us passing along a lot of rules.

    In some ways, I’m more tolerant than I was years ago—understanding that an unbelieving author who glorifies a sinful character isn’t lost because of that portrayal. So why should that “offend” me? It doesn’t. It grieves me because it is a clear indication that the writer doesn’t know or accept God’s standard, but it doesn’t offend me.

    That’s the kind of thing that I probably should read so I can stand up and say, Here’s what the author is doing, and this is what she is missing.

    It’s similar to what I felt I needed to do with The Shack.

    I don’t know if that answers your question, Daniel.



  7. […] might also want to read the first “Discernment 101″ post written three years […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: