The Lost Art of Godly Discernment

The Lost Art of Godly Discernment

Protecting Your Soul from the Enemy's Subtle Lies

by Leslie Ludy | February 1, 2017

Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw the disciples after themselves.  Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.

Acts 20:30-31

A dusky haze settled over the muggy summer evening as the scent of bug spray and concession food wafted through the air.  Busloads of church groups unloaded their giddy passengers while an enormous sound system boomed out pulsating music, setting the tone for the concert that was about to begin.  Thousands of people spread blankets and lawn chairs on the ground of the enormous field, anticipating an exciting evening of music from a well-known Christian band.

Eric (my future husband, who was then a young teenager), sat with some of his family members, unsure what to expect.  They had come to the event because it had been promoted by many local churches and ministries.  His parents, no doubt, thought it would be edifying to gather with so many fellow Christians for a night of worship. They had no way of knowing how wrong that assumption was.

A hush of anticipation settled over the crowd as the pulsating music abruptly stopped and the enormous stage became illuminated with futuristic lights.  Four leather-clad musicians swaggered onto the stage amid a haze of smoke, wielding their instruments like weapons.  A deafening sound shocked through the atmosphere as they began their first song.  The lead singer screeched unintelligible words into the microphone in a high-pitched, maniacal tone, while the other musicians’ bodies contorted crazily as they hammered violently on their drums and electric guitars.  The scene was identical to that of any secular hard rock concert, with absolutely nothing to identify it as “Christian” in any way.

Eric’s mom turned to her family in dismay.  “We need to leave!” she said firmly, grave concern in her voice.  Everyone else quickly agreed. They gathered up their lawn chairs and made their way through the distracted crowd toward the parking lot, confused and disturbed that such behavior was being touted under the banner of a “Christian gathering.”

Later, they learned that a well-known evangelist who’d been at the concert had started running through the audience not long after they had left, trying to warn people of the dangerous activity they were participating in.  In a grieved and despairing voice, he’d cried out the words “Ichabod!  Ichabod!” to anyone within earshot.  (“Ichabod,” from 1 Samuel 4:21, means “The glory of the Lord has departed!”)

Yet, most of the Christians attending the concert didn’t hear him.  Those who did hear him dismissed the warning as the words of an extremist “kook.”  Nearly every believer at the event was too enamored by the smoke, lights, and noise to recognize that “the glory of the Lord had departed.”

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Looking Beyond the Smoke & Lights

Just like that concert, there is a lot of “smoke, lights, and noise” taking place under a Christian banner today. Megachurches, Christian “celebrities,” and trendy Christian messages often dazzle us with impressive bells and whistles that distract the eye and deceive the heart. Like those concert-goers, it’s easy to naively accept anything that is labeled as “Christian,” especially when our fellow believers are enthusiastically participating in it. Add enough glamour and hype to anything “Christian,” and we can quickly become blind to the fact that the glory of the Lord has departed.

Early in my spiritual walk, I used to assume that every Christian book and album that hit the bookstores had somehow been spiritually directed and biblically tested by a committee of trusted, honorable, godly Christian elders.  I had observed the fact that pastors often looked to the newest Christian books to shape the direction of their churches and that music leaders usually followed the trends of the latest Christian artists to shape their church’s worship services.  It only seemed reasonable that the messages which were so influential in molding our churches would have first gone through a careful vetting and evaluation process to make sure they were in alignment with God’s pattern, nature, and Word.

It wasn’t until Eric and I became closely involved with the Christian publishing and music world that we realized how far from reality this assumption was.  

I vividly remember sitting across the table with the president of one of the largest Christian publishing companies as he bluntly told us that Christian publishing was an industry, not a ministry, and that making money, not making disciples, was their ultimate goal.

Another time, the CEO of a well-known Christian record label told us plainly that most of the new artists their company signed were teenagers who didn’t care much about God but just wanted to be famous. “It’s kind of sad,” he admitted, “but in the end we have to make money, so we sign them anyway.”

This widespread mindset in the Christian “industry” has provided an inroads for all kinds of flawed messages to enter the church and influence Christian thinking.  Many fame-and-money-driven artists and authors have wreaked havoc upon the hearts of unsuspecting believers who assume that their messages must be healthy since they bear a Christian label.

And then there is the incredible phenomenon of the Internet; a platform that can enable you to “make yourself famous” if you know how to wield it.  These days, you don’t need much knowledge of Scripture or proven godly character to influence modern Christianity.  If you have talent, likability, marketing skills, and a strong social media platform you can become the “next big thing” to hit the Christian world. 

For example, the other day I received a letter from a Christian publisher who was attempting to garner my support for an up-and-coming new author.  The letter did not mention anything about this author’s message, her walk with God, or her spiritual background.  It only talked about how many followers she had on Instagram and how many likes she had on Facebook.  Her credibility as a minister of the Gospel came solely from the fact that she had gained popularity online.

It’s no wonder that there is so much confusion within Christianity today.  We live in a day and age where “righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, and honesty cannot enter,” (Is. 59:14 NIV). Truth-centered, Christ-focused, biblically-sound believers are no longer commonplace; they have become the exception.

Rediscovering Godly Discernment

As set apart women living in such an era, we do not have the option of passively accepting anything and everything that is being dished out to us in the name of Christianity. Instead, God desires to equip us with the lost art of godly discernment.  We must learn to clearly recognize the difference between truth and error, and proactively protect our souls against the enemy’s insipid lies. Otherwise, we are in danger of becoming the “weak-minded women” that Paul warns about in 2 Timothy 3:6:  “For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins…” (NASB).

“Captivate” in this verse means “to lead into captivity.” In other words, if we listen and agree with the deceitful voice of the enemy, we cannot be bondservants of Christ because we have become enslaved to a lie. And “weak women” in this verse is a contemptuous term that means “silly and foolish.” We need only to study the fate of the “fool” in Proverbs to learn the end result of choosing this destructive path!

But God has not left us to fend for ourselves amid all the confusion and deception that surrounds us today. He desires us to “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) even more than we desire it for ourselves.  He does not intend us to spend our Christian lives being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” as it says in Ephesians 4:14.

Proverbs 8:33-35 presents us with a glorious promise, “Hear instruction and be wise, and do not disdain it.  Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.  For whoever finds me finds life, and obtains favor from the Lord.”

Godly discernment is available for every one of us.  But it doesn’t just automatically come to us.  We have a responsibility before God to listen to His voice, to hear His wisdom and not disdain it, to watch daily at His gates, and to wait at the posts of His doors.  And He promises that if we seek His wisdom diligently, we will find it (see Proverbs 8:17).

If you have ever struggled to know whether a Christian book, message, musician, or leader is truly Christ-centered, biblically sound, and worthy of your respect and attention, then I encourage you to actively develop and cultivate the lost art of godly discernment.

Here are four essential principles to help you toward that goal.

1. Beware of Itching Ears

Several years before giving his life on the mission field in South America, Jim Elliot wrote about a woman he knew who had defended a certain style of worship service, declaring it to be “most satisfying to me as an individual.”  In reflecting upon this comment, Jim remarked in a private letter, “What in all eternity has that got to do with it?  Have her personal likes and dislikes any right to dictate method in the holy church of God?  It is this attitude which has brought hopeless confusion into our present order … let God be true and every man a liar.  Is it His way?  Then let my personal likes be filed in the waste can."

As modern believers, we are very much like the woman Jim described — prone to believing that something is right based solely upon how it makes us feel.  As a result, many of us have developed a classic case of “itching ears” when it comes to Christian messages:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

“Itching ears” in this verse means to be “desirous of hearing something pleasant.” When we having itching ears, we no longer want to be molded and shaped by God’s truth, or convicted and refined by His Spirit. We try to modify His Word to align with our own ideas and desires, rather than let our ideas and desires come under submission to His Word.

There are many ear-tickling messages prevalent in the church today.  Messages that exhort us to pursue our own happiness, fight for our own applause, cling to our own desires and wants, pattern our lives after the trends of pop-culture, treat sin with a wink and a chuckle, and make the Christian life all about self are a few of the most common ones.  And often, these ear-tickling messages come in attractive packages.  When a little bit of truth is carefully blended with an ear-tickling lie, it’s easy to become convinced that it must be on target, simply because it sounds so pleasant and right.  Ear-tickling messages never bring us to a place of conviction, repentance, or brokenness over our sin.  Instead, they merely help us put a spiritual label over our self-focused, sinful lives and provide us with a plethora of excuses for never needing to change or grow.

If you find yourself evaluating a message based on how it makes you feel or picking and choosing truth based on your personal preferences, you are an “itching ears” believer instead of a discerning one.  So instead of asking, “How do I feel about this?” I encourage you to begin asking an entirely new question, “What does God say about this?” Be willing to “file your personal likes in the waste can” as Jim Elliot said, in order to put God’s ways above your own preferences.

And remember — although God’s conviction might prick, in the end it leads to abundant life and true happiness.  So don’t let your feelings and personal preferences overrule the gentle work of His refining fire in your soul.  “Those whom I love,” He tells us, “I rebuke and discipline” (Rev. 3:19 NIV).  Let us not quell the amazing work of His purifying Spirit by choosing “itching ear” messages. His ways — not ours — are perfect (see Psalm 18:30).

2. Make God's Word Your Lifeline

When George Müller (the famous missionary to the orphans of England in the 1800s) first became a Christian, he found himself far more drawn to Christian books and religious materials than to the Word of God.  He later wrote,  “I fell into the same snare into which so many young believers fall; the reading of religious books in preference to the Scriptures. My difficulty in understanding [the Bible] and the little enjoyment I had in it made me careless of reading it. And thus, like many believers, I practically preferred for the first four years of my divine life the works of uninspired men to the oracles of the Living God. The consequence was that I remained a babe, both in knowledge and grace.

Many of us can relate to the struggle he describes.  There are so many devotionals, books, blogs, and Bible studies available to us that it’s easy to turn to those things as our primary source of spiritual fuel.  But nothing can replace His Word.  It is meant to be “a lamp unto [our] feet and a light unto [our] path” (Ps. 119:105).  If we are careless toward His Word, we will be susceptible to believing lies and error because our feet are not standing on the solid rock of His truth. Now, more than ever, the Bible cannot be our casual companion; it must become our lifeline.  We cannot regard God’s Word as moldable to human opinions and ideas.  We must find out what God says, and then build our lives upon that unshakable foundation.

Christian books and resources certainly have value in a believer’s life.  But if we allow human thoughts to take the place of God’s Word, our ability to discern truth from lies will be hindered.  As Corrie ten Boom once said, “God's viewpoint is sometimes different from ours — so different that we could not even guess at it unless He had given us a Book which tells us such things.

Early in my Christian walk, for example, I heard a lot of right-sounding messages about the importance of building up my own self-esteem.  Youth leaders and well-meaning Christians told me that if I wanted to be free from insecurity, I should focus on my own inner beauty and goodness and protect my “sense of self” at all costs.  These ideas sounded so healthy and wise that I didn’t even question them.  It wasn’t until a few years later when I began truly digging into the Word of God and immersing myself in the Scriptures that I realized that the popular notion of self-esteem was in direct conflict with Christ’s clear message of self-denial (see Matthew 16:24 and Luke 9:23).

When we are ignorant of God’s Word, we are prone to being tossed about with every wind and wave of doctrine that swirls around us (see Ephesians 4:14).  But when God’s Word is our lamp and our light, we will be much quicker to recognize and renounce ideas that do not align with His pattern.

If you are looking for practical ways to grow in your knowledge of God’s Word, I encourage you to set aside time every day, not just for casually reading your Bible, but for proactively studying the Scriptures and letting them shape your thoughts and beliefs. If you come to a verse or word that you don’t understand, use study tools such as a concordance or BlueLetterBible.org to unearth the true meaning of the words you are reading and the context in which they are written. Take time to memorize larger portions of Scripture and meditate upon them often. Play an audio Bible, such as Word of Promise, in the background as you are driving or doing chores around the house. Immerse yourself in God’s Word as often as you possibly can.

Whenever new thoughts or messages are presented to you, learn to weigh them against the Word of God that you have hidden in your heart.  Before you nod along with other Christians’ ideas, stop and ask yourself some key questions.  Does this message agree with the truth of Scripture, not just on some points, but in its entirety?  Do these thoughts and ideas align with God’s nature and character?  If you are unsure, take time to seek answers in God’s Word. Remember, He has promised that those who diligently seek His wisdom will find it!

3. Embrace the Old Paths

As consumer-driven westerners, we are extremely drawn to anything new and trendy.  We have been conditioned to seek after the “latest and greatest” when it comes to everything from technology to coffee drinks.  And sadly, we often take this consumer mindset into spiritual things as well.  Church leaders and Christian publishers are constantly scrambling to “give the customer what they want” by offering new and exciting bells and whistles to keep their consumer-driven audience interested.  Whether it’s creating a “Biblezine” for young women (turning the Word of God into a fashion magazine because girls today won’t read a normal Bible), offering Xboxes in Sunday school classes (because today’s kids can’t sit through a “boring” Bible lesson), or producing an “interactive media experience” to give weekly Bible study groups a little more pizazz (because the attendees would rather be at home watching reality TV) — the Church today is desperately trying to compete with the culture to somehow keep Christianity exciting.

When we as believers insist on “bells and whistles” to feed our consumer mentalities, we rob the Gospel of its beautiful simplicity and diminish the power of God. We also become prone to deception, because worldly tactics can never communicate the undiluted truth of Jesus Christ.  Certainly there is nothing wrong with utilizing modern technology or creativity to help us deliver truth.  But when our technology and artistry promotes worldly trends or exalts a specific person instead of lifting high the name of Jesus, we can be sure that the glory of God has departed.

One of the best ways you can avoid becoming just another “Christian consumer” is by approaching Christian events, church services, books, music,  and resources with a new attitude.  Instead of asking, “What am I getting out of this — we should be asking “What is God getting out of this?”  When our focus is on the glory of God rather than on feeding our own selfish wants, we won’t chase after every new and trendy message that flashes through modern Christianity.  Rather, we will esteem the “simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3) — the uncomplicated, powerful, life-changing truth that needs no human bells or whistles to prop it up.  “If be lifted up,” Jesus says, “I will draw all men unto me” (Jn. 12:32 KJV, emphasis added).

I encourage you to study the lives of men and women throughout Christian history who walked the “old paths” of simple, uncomplicated, powerful Christianity; men like Hudson Taylor, George Müller, D.L. Moody, R.A. Torrey, C.T. Studd, and Jim Elliot — and women like Catherine Booth, Elizabeth Fry, Amy Carmichael, Esther Ahn Kim, Corrie ten Boom, and Gladys Aylward. Their examples will inspire you toward one singular aim in your Christian walk:  not to be entertained or catered to, but simply to love and honor your worthy King.

4. Understand God's Nature

Over the years, Eric and I have encountered many believers who share our passion to fight for truth and stand against compromise in the Church.  Many of these Christians wield an impressive grasp of doctrine and brilliant-sounding theological arguments.  But all too often, these zealous men and women feel completely justified in taking on an attitude of disgust toward other believers who don’t share their convictions, even openly mocking them for their lack of biblical understanding.  Spending time around Christians who have this attitude has helped us realize that there is a big difference between godly discernment and fleshly criticism.  

As you fight to see the glory of God return to Christianity once again, never forget that truth must always be delivered in a way that reflects God’s nature. Our quest for discernment can quickly turn into a haughty, demeaning attitude toward others if we are not guarded against human anger and pride. No matter how doctrinally sound or intellectually brilliant an idea may be, if it is marked by arrogance and self-seeking, God says it is not of Him: “This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (Jas. 3:15-16).

As you seek to grow in godly discernment, be wary of clustering with believers who are impressive in doctrine but deficient in gentleness and love. Their arguments may be compelling and their grasp of Scriptural ideas dazzling, but if they are characterized by an ungracious attitude toward others, they are not operating in cooperation with the Spirit of God. Never confuse discernment with a critical spirit.

Beware of having a “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2) like many well-meaning Christians who, in their passion to fight for God’s glory, look down on those they disagree with and treat them with contempt.  Scripture tells us clearly, “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:20).  It is not merely standing for the truth that matters, but standing for the truth in God’s way.

It is more than possible to stand firm in your convictions while still exuding the love and humility of Christ.  But it doesn’t happen by accident. Look to the Scriptures and study the example of Christ, as well as the lives of strong-yet-humble leaders like Moses, David, and Paul.  While you are growing in discernment, ask God to simultaneously infuse you with His heart, His love, His burden for those who are lost and those who are compromising.  Unless you operate in His attitude of love and grace, your zeal and passion for truth will be rendered completely ineffective and empty (see 1 Corinthians 13:1).

. . .

Becoming a discerning Christian in “such a time as this” can feel like a daunting task.  But I’d like to leave you with two important thoughts.

First, rely on God’s grace.  Don’t try to grow in godly wisdom by looking to your own efforts or willpower.  Ask Him to equip you with the supernatural strength and wisdom you need to navigate the cloudy waters of modern Christianity.  He can remove the fog of confusion and grant you a clear understanding of His truth — all you must do is ask.

Second, remember that Christianity, in a nutshell, is all about Jesus.  You may not yet have every hermeneutic tool mastered, every doctrinal notion refined, or every theological argument perfectly polished or figured out (maybe you don’t even know what the word “hermeneutic” means!). Set your gaze upon Jesus Christ, and He will direct your steps. Reject messages that lead you away from Him, and embrace those that lead you into a fuller surrender to Him. If you fix your eyes upon Him, you will be “neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:8).

Jude 1:24 leaves us with a wonderful promise:  “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy…”

It is God alone who is able to keep us from stumbling.  So let us offer ourselves fully to Him, holding nothing back, that He may lovingly shape us into lights that shine with His glory in the midst of a perverse and crooked generation (see Philippians 2:15-16).