What Is Discernment in the Bible?

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Discernment in the Bible is the spiritual characteristic of sound judgment for perceiving the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and error, and identifying God’s will and direction for his people. Discernment is necessary to understand spiritual truth, live holy as God intends, avoid life’s pitfalls and dangers, and properly govern society.

Discernment in the Bible

  • Discernment is a spiritual gift given by God through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
  • Believers receive discernment by reading and meditating on the Word of God and through the renewal of the mind.
  • The Bible teaches believers to seek discernment in order to grow in wisdom, understanding, and knowledge of spiritual truth.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines discernment as “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.” According to The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, discernment in the Bible is a process of “assessing and evaluating, particularly in relation to trying to determine God’s will in a particular situation or for one’s life direction.”

Discernment and Wisdom

Wisdom and discernment are closely related in the Bible. Wisdom actually has its source in discernment. When we study the Bible, we gain knowledge, but that knowledge only leads to wisdom when discernment is present.

A person can spend their whole life studying the Scriptures but never gain wisdom because they lack discernment. Discernment is the ability to see and instinctually recognize subtle differences. Discernment allows one’s knowledge to penetrate the cloudiness and cut through layers of confusion and ambiguity to perceive distinctions accurately. Wisdom is the product of insight and understanding gained through the ability to discern.

Bible Verses About Discernment

A Gift From God

God is the source of wisdom and discernment:

Daniel 2:21
He [God] changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. (NIV84)
1 Corinthians 2:12–15
What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things … (NIV)

The Word of God

Lack of discernment always accompanies a deficiency in biblical knowledge. When believers are familiar with the truth taught in God’s Word, they can more easily detect what is right and wrong, or true and false. The Word of God itself can discern:

Hebrews 4:12
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (ESV)
Psalm 119:130
The teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand. (NLT)

Failure to discern what is truth from error, good from bad, or what is biblical from heretical, stems from not saturating our minds with the Word of God:

Hebrews 5:11–14
There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong. (NLT)
Romans 2:18
You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. (NLT)

Ask for Discernment

Scripture teaches believers to seek wisdom and discernment:

Psalm 119:125
I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes. (NIV)
James 1:5
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. (NIV)

Sound Judgment

Gaining discernment or sound judgment involves trusting in the Lord, not depending on our own understanding, and seeking God’s will. King Solomon advised his son to hang on to discernment so that he would stay safe and secure on life’s course:

Proverbs 3:5–6
Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. (NLT)
Proverbs 3:21–23
My child, don’t lose sight of common sense and discernment. Hang on to them, for they will refresh your soul. They are like jewels on a necklace. They keep you safe on your way, and your feet will not stumble. (NLT)

The apostle Paul prayed for the believers in Philippi to have discernment so they could judge the right way to go in life:

Philippians 1:9–10
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. (NIV)

Distinguishing Between Spirit

Discerning believers have insight into spiritual realities so that they can distinguish the difference between spirits:

1 Corinthians 12:10
He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. (NLT)
1 John 4:1-3
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (NIV)

Discerning Through A Renewed Mind

Discerning believers follow Christ in discipleship, distinguishing themselves from this world and letting their lives be transformed through the renewing of their minds:

Romans 12:2
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV)
1 Corinthians 2:16
“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (ESV)

Examples of Discernment in the Bible

  • 2 Kings 4:9: The Shunammite woman discerns Elisha is a holy prophet of God.
  • John 4:19, 42: The woman of Samaria perceives that Jesus Christ is more than a mere man.
  • 1 Kings 22:19–23 and 2 Chronicles 18:18–22: Micaiah discerns that a lying spirit is responsible for false prophecy.
  • Jeremiah 23:16-22: Jeremiah perceives that the false prophets’ message is not from God.
  • Acts 5:3: Peter is aware of the deception of Ananias and Sapphira.
  • Acts 8:23: Peter discerns the actual condition of Simon the Magician’s heart.
  • Acts 16:18: Paul distinguishes the spiritual source of a girl’s fortune-telling gift.

Sources

  • Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.).
  • The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Second Edition, Revised and Expanded, p. 89).
  • Discernment. The Practical Encyclopedia of Christian Counseling (p. 51).
  • Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser.
  • Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1996). God the Father, God the Son (p. 65).

 

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Fairchild, Mary. "What Is Discernment in the Bible?" Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2021, learnreligions.com/discernment-in-the-bible-5194992. Fairchild, Mary. (2021, August 25). What Is Discernment in the Bible? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/discernment-in-the-bible-5194992 Fairchild, Mary. "What Is Discernment in the Bible?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/discernment-in-the-bible-5194992 (accessed September 26, 2021).