7 Things I Learned about Discernment

Whitney Hopler

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Published Jun 05, 2024
7 Things I Learned about Discernment

Discernment is all about being able to tell what's true from what's not, and what's right from what's wrong. When we think with discernment, we seek God’s wisdom to align our understanding with the truths that God reveals in the Bible. Discernment means being able to understand ourselves, others, and situations in light of what's real, what's good, and what really matters. It encompasses our capacity to make wise decisions about morality and what is beneficial versus what is detrimental to living holy lives. Discernment involves seeing the world from a perspective that reflects mature faith. This empowers us to lead lives that resonate with God's values.

Every day, our minds are saturated with messages streaming toward us from media, advertising, and conversations with other people. Figuring out what to pay attention to, and how to respond well, requires discernment. Developing and exercising discernment helps us live lives that honor God and fulfill our purpose in the world

Here are 7 things I learned about discernment that I hope will prove helpful for you.

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1. The more we learn, the more we know we have more to learn.

It’s both humbling and motivating to grow in discernment. The more wisdom God gives me, the more I understand that I need to keep learning. Through the lens of discernment, I’ve discovered that God always has something fresh and profound to teach me in any situation. One way I’ve experienced that is by taking what I call “wonder walks” in nature to look for awe-inspiring glimpses of God’s work there. Every part of nature reveals something about God’s qualities. Even though I’ve taken thousands of wonder walks in nature, I’m still learning more about God from his creation. I love to lean back on the trunk of the majestic sycamore tree in my backyard and gaze up into its crown full of strong branches and lush leaves, and the sky beyond that. It reminds me to lift my perspective beyond my circumstances to find God at work in the midst of them. Proverbs 1:5 says, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.” This verse highlights the fact that God calls us to be lifelong learners, continually discovering more and growing in wisdom. We never reach a point where we should stop learning from God. Instead, as we seek God more, he teaches us more and inspires us to continue the journey with him. Both Proverbs 3:34 and James 4:6 say that God opposes people who are proud but shows favor to humble people. We should be humble and willing to admit when we don't know something, as well as continually open to learning more.

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2. Spiritual routines are much more than just routines.

The basic spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, and meditation are essential practices for growing in discernment. Even though I incorporate spiritual disciplines into my daily routine, those practices are never boring. I keep them fresh by being free in my conversations with God, looking forward to learning something new from God, and keeping an open heart and mind. Bible reading comes alive for me when I ask the Holy Spirit to help me understand and apply what I’m reading. Hebrews 4:12 points out: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” We need to know God’s Word well in order to develop discernment. Psalm 119:105 says that God's Word is like a light that shows us the right path. Prayer and meditation are just as vital for discernment as Bible reading. Prayer is simply talking to God, while meditation is simply listening to God. God has made the process of communicating with him simple, so we never need to be stressed about it. God often gives us discernment when we pray, asking him for wisdom. James 1:5 encourages us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Meditation helps us become more discerning as we think deeply about the Bible’s truths. Joshua 1:8 urges us to meditate on scripture to be able to apply it wisely: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” When we pursue discernment through spiritual routines, we will discover the wonder of God’s messages to us.

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3. Critical thinking skills are vital.

We all have many messages coming at us every day. It’s only by developing critical thinking skills that we can evaluate which messages are worth our attention. In 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22, the Bible advises: “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.” We should be discerning about the information we consume, and be willing to question it if it doesn't line up with what we know to be true from God. I’m grateful that I learned critical thinking skills in the journalism classes that prepared me to start my career as a newspaper reporter. But I see too many people today who become deceived because they simply accept something they read on social media as “news” without evaluating it critically. When we build our critical thinking skills, we can evaluate information to discern whether or not it’s really accurate and reliable. We shouldn’t just accept and absorb messages, but ask God for the wisdom we need to properly discern them. James 1:5 promises: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

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4. We need discernment even for fun.

We all want to have fun. But in our quest for fun in life, discernment is vital. Many ways that the world offers to have fun are unhealthy. I discovered that as a child when my mother brought home something that was marketed as a fun board game, but ended up being extremely dangerous. She said it should be fun to explore playing with a Ouija board when she set it up for our family one night. It was fun briefly – until a strong negative feeling that we couldn’t explain overwhelmed us, and the board began giving us scary messages. Shortly afterward, we suffered through a variety of illnesses and accidents. Mom came to realize we may have been harmed by unknowingly letting evil spirits into our lives through the Ouija board. Trying to contact spirits apart from God’s protection is never wise. We had learned that important lesson and developed more discernment. So, Mom burned the board and we said prayers for God’s help. Afterward, the string of crises ended. We encounter messages promoting all sorts of unhealthy “fun” – from pornography to drunkenness – in our fallen world. But we can truly have fun only when we can discern the kind of fun that’s good for us. God wants us to enjoy our lives, and he provides many opportunities for us to have fun. However, 1 Corinthians 6:12 encourages us to be discerning when making decisions about what to do: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but I will not be mastered by anything.” The Bible delivers a similar message in 1 Corinthians 10:23: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but not everything is constructive.” When we grow in discernment, we desire ways to have fun that are truly good for us and others.

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5. What’s most important is a person’s heart, not appearance.

5. What’s most important is a person’s heart, not appearance.

God can work through anyone – regardless of what they look like to us. 1 Samuel 16:7 reveals that God looks at people’s hearts rather than appearances: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” I once judged someone I was interviewing about his faith as untrustworthy because his face was covered with the scars of burns from a prison fight. My mind was closed to what he was saying because I was so distracted by the physical reminder of his criminal past. But the more he talked, the more wisdom he shared, and soon I could discern that his heart was truly wonderful. I felt embarrassed that I’d judged him, and reminded myself of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:2: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” When we consider a person’s heart – his or her core character – rather than just how they appear on the surface, we grow in discernment.

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6. God works powerfully in mundane moments as well as dramatic ones.

I have experienced God’s extraordinary work in many ordinary moments – and thanks to discernment, I’ve learned to recognize those glimpses of God. God's power isn’t confined to spectacular moments. He works just as powerfully in the everyday moments, guiding, providing, and shaping our lives according to his divine plan. Psalm 139:2-3 says of God: “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.” God's awareness and involvement extend to every moment of our lives, whether significant or mundane. He knows us intimately and cares about every detail.

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7. Love and truth must go together.

Just as God exercises love and truth together, so should we. Love, when expressed with truth, creates a compassionate and just foundation for our relationships. Truth, when expressed with love, maintains its integrity while remaining kind and considerate. 1 Corinthians 13:6 tells us: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” Love is aligned with truth. True love finds its joy in what is true and good, not in deception or wrongdoing. What good is it to love people but lie to them, or to be honest yet harsh with people? The people in my life who I admire the most spiritually are those who express both love and truth. They speak and act in caring ways, but they don’t neglect telling the truth and living with integrity. When we develop discernment, we aim to be loving and truthful together day by day. Ephesians 4:15 reveals that when we practice both love and truth, we can grow to become more like Jesus: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” 

We can develop discernment when we seek God’s wisdom to see ourselves, others, and situations in ways that align with God’s perspective. It’s important for us to understand accurately, but not stop there. We also need to act on that wisdom faithfully, exercising discernment day by day. Then we’ll grow in spiritual maturity and enjoy close relationships with God. Let’s pray for discernment, along with the Apostle Paul in Philippians 1:9-11: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.”

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headshot of author Whitney HoplerWhitney Hopler is the author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including Crosswalk.com, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and Dotdash.com (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). She has also written the young adult novel Dream Factory. Connect with Whitney on X/Twitter and on Facebook

Originally published Wednesday, 17 July 2024.