Learning to Discern

by Larry Browning

Recently, I was reading a book about Satan and his ways. One thing I learned is that the enemy of truth is subtle and cunning. We shouldn’t be surprised by the increase in lies and spiritual error as we near the return of Christ. The Bible says this will happen (Matt. 24:11), and God wants us to be aware of false teachings and teachers so we can stand firm. But to do this, we’ve got to be discerning and not simply accept what people say as the truth. I want to cover six things we can do to be prepared to recognize and respond to error.

1) Be Discerning: Learn to discern between truth and error.

Wisdom is the application of the truth of Scripture to our lives (James 1:5), and God wants us to ask for wisdom. But discernment takes that one step further. Discernment is the ability to judge or distinguish between two things using the wisdom of God’s Word. This kind of judging is crucial if we’re to make wise choices. We learn to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, sound and unsound, and truth and error through the work of the Holy Spirit within us. It’s the responsibility of every Christian to be discerning, but our attitude in discerning and confronting error is also important. We shouldn’t be hateful, argumentative, or angry, but instead, expose false teachings with love, kindness, and hope for change. We should listen carefully to what’s said and then confront with the truths of the Bible, not our own opinions. We know that God hates evil, but He also despises pride and arrogance, so our attitude in discernment matters to Him because a proper attitude reveals Christ in us to others.

2) Be Alert: Notice the corrupting pull of the world.

The Bible instructs us to “walk circumspectly” (looking around), “not as fools but as wise because the days are evil,” and to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). In other words, we need to be alert. We should be aware of the error we encounter in what we read, what we hear, and all the other forms of media. We need to increase in the knowledge of God’s will, His Word, and His ways so we’ll have His “wisdom and spiritual understanding.” It’s dangerous to add our opinions and philosophies to God’s wisdom, just as it’s foolish to substitute man-made rules and teachings for our liberty in Christ. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 describes the kind of people who will live in the latter days people who will have “a form of godliness” while denying the power of God. People are hungry for some sort of spirituality today, but they refuse the holy standards of the Bible. One of the key words in our culture today is tolerance. Remember, tolerance is how we treat people, but rationality is how we’re supposed to treat ideas. As Christians, we’re not to tolerate false ideas. Rather, we’re to sort truth from error and then expose error. Basically, there are two world views in conflict. One worldview is biblical; the other is anti-biblical. We as Christians are often called narrow-minded, but having distinctions requires a narrowing of thought. So, in a way, they’re correct. Jesus spoke of a narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14) which means that there’s no gray area when it comes to receiving Christ’s salvation and abiding in Him. This world system has always been committed to stopping others from seeing Christ in you.

3) Be Biblical: Know and teach the truth, and show it in your life.

Bank workers study genuine money, not counterfeit bills, so they can recognize bogus money. Why do we hate fakes? Because if we legitimize the counterfeit, it devalues the genuine. This is why evil disguises itself as truth and Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. We must study truth, God’s Word, so we can quickly recognize error. Even in some evangelical churches, people aren’t being taught the whole counsel of God. God doesn’t want us to remain spiritual babies. He wants us to mature in Christ so we won’t be “tossed to and fro” by foolish, crafty schemes and teachings (Ephesians 4:13-15). He wants us to grow in understanding and discernment, because he hates “every false way.” Truth is the most powerful corrective to error. If we will meditate on God’s Word, we’ll be less likely to fall for the counsel of the wicked. Once we know the truth, we can share it with others who’ve fallen into error or been deceived by false teaching. We can help other believers stand in the liberty of Christ and “not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). To be equipped to do this, we need to sit under solid, biblical teaching. We need to fellowship with strong mature Christian believers. And, we need daily quiet time with God so we’ll be able to discern the bad from the good, the good from the best, and live lives that will reveal Christ in us for others.

4) Be Courageous: Identify and expose the works of darkness.

God wants us to defend the gospel by exposing lies. We should identify the sources of error that may be influencing our lives or the lives of those we love. 1 John 4:1 instructs us to test the spirits, attempting to determine whether they are from God. Whatever their words, whether they’re spoken by preachers, teachers, psychologists, authors, or talk show hosts, all teachings are to be judged by the eternal Word of God. The exposes the methods of false teachers for us. They preach another gospel and a different Jesus from the one revealed in Scripture. They speak “a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:16). They dismiss guilt and justify sin, calling evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). They are “always learning” some new “truth” but never embrace The Truth (2 Timothy 3:6-7). They speak great “swelling words of emptiness” and entice people through the flesh, promising them liberty but enslaving them (2 Peter 2:18-21). They cause dissension in the church (Romans 16:17) as “untaught and unstable” people follow their example and twist Scripture for their own purposes (2 Peter 3:16). Christians are warned to have no fellowship with these teachers and their “unfruitful works of darkness” but rather to “reprove” them (Ephesians 5:11) and be careful not to be “taken captive” by their false doctrines (Colossians 2:8). False teachers are empowered by Satan, so we must be empowered by the Holy Spirit, so Christ in us can make us discerning, courageous and vigilant against this cunning enemy who seeks to “devour” us and others. 

5) Be Prayerful: Intercede for those caught in Satan’s snare.

Prayer is often the forgotten element in the battle against false teaching. Beyond graciously sharing the truth, we can pray from a heart of compassion and concern that God will correct those who are in opposition to Him so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil. We can also pray for those who have fallen prey to false teachers, that they will recognize the error of their teachings and embrace the truth of the Word of God. We should be alert and keep on praying for believers everywhere, that they will stand for truth and righteousness. We should be “serious and watchful” and develop keen discernment in our prayers. Just as King Solomon asked for wisdom so that he could discern wisely and govern his people well, so we need to pray for understanding as we seek wisdom and truth in the Word. We should pray that others who are ensnared would see Christ in us and be drawn to Him.

6) Be Proactive: Protect yourself against the poison of error.

There’s no such thing as a safe dose of poison, so we must be careful about what we allow to enter our lives. It’s wise to surround ourselves and those we love with a clear understanding of what God teaches in His Word. After we pray for protection, we can stand firm with the belt of truth. In fact, we should put on the whole armor of God, which is Christ, because our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of this dark world. To be proactive, we should learn to rightly divide the Word, and know these truths about the Word of God: It’s eternal and unchanging. It’s trustworthy. It’s useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. It originates in God Himself by the Holy Spirit. It will be fulfilled. It’s understandable through the Holy Spirit’s teaching. It means what it says and it’s not to be altered. It’s unified, neither contradictory nor inconsistent. It’s the standard for testing all spiritual teaching.

With the increase of spiritual error in the world today, we must be courageous to confront false teachings in confidence, with compassion and by wisdom. We must know, share, and live the truth, prayerfully asking God to use us to change the hearts and minds of those deceived by Satan’s lies. We must learn to discern so we won’t fall for what’s fake. My prayer for you is that you would all be so surrendered to God and thereby, so discerning and so steadfast, that as others observe you and look into your lives, Christ is all they’ll see.