It’s especially important for those of us who teach and preach and write about Jesus, in any capacity, to hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints. And it’s especially important to watch our words (James 3) and to “pay attention to our lives and our doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:16).
Discernment is an acknowledgement that we don’t live in a perfect world, but a broken one. God’s creation is shot through with both beauty and death, so it is a gift from the Creator that He teaches His image-bearers to judge the difference.
That first indulgence in the Garden, you might say, was a sin of poor judgment, a willful lack of discernment. The serpent seduced Eve with a kind of fuzzy naiveté, convincing her and Adam that the lines between good and evil were blurrier than what they’d heard from the Father.
And since that fateful day in Eden, the enemy has been confusing, marbling in falsehood with truth in order to lead people away from the God who created them.
It is the mission of Jesus to rescue people from spiritual blindness (Matthew 13:13) and redirect their passions toward the true and the beautiful (Romans 12:2). And it is the mission of those who have been rescued by the gospel to help rescue others by sharing with them that light has come into the world and has not been extinguished by the darkness (John 1:5).
Discernment seems to be a constant theme directed toward the people of God. Throughout the Old Testament, we can read warnings from the prophets about the importance of fleeing what is false, usually idols, and running back to the One who formed them and rescued them from peril.
The book of Proverbs is essentially a constant stream of wisdom about the choice between good and evil, prudence and foolishness. And we don’t just read warnings but vivid, real-life examples of discernment or lack of discernment in the characters that fill the pages of our Bibles.
The Old Testament serves, in many ways, as a kind of ongoing morality tale about what happens when the people of God pursue what seems delicious but is forbidden. You hear the lament and angst in the voices of the prophets, exasperated by Israel’s lack of discernment. Here is one of Jeremiah’s famous laments (2:13):
For my people have committed a double evil:
They have abandoned me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug cisterns for themselves—
cracked cisterns that cannot hold water.
The reason God is described as being “jealous” throughout the Old Testament, the reason He weeps when his people follow after false ideologies, is because it takes them away from His care, away from what is beautiful and toward what is unsatisfying and destructive.
As Moses warned an earlier generation of Jewish pilgrims, discernment is ultimately a choice between “life and death” (Deuteronomy 30:15). The warnings for God’s people to choose wisely didn’t stop when the prophets stopped speaking but continue on with fervent warnings in the new covenant.
Jesus, often caricatured as being a nice guy who only smiles and never tells anyone they are doing wrong, nevertheless warned of coming judgment that would separate “the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25). He spared no words in echoing the prophets, warning his disciples about “wolves,” teachers whose words seem to be spiritual but lead to death (Matthew 7:15-20).