We live in the Information Age, a time in which the opportunities and avenues to learn are endless. I have taken advantage of many of these mediums myself: I read every day, listen to podcasts, read blogs, get my news from broadcast networks and Twitter alike, even getting alerts on my cell phone. I am saturated with information on a daily basis. And while we can certainly say that these are blessings of God’s common grace, sometimes being flooded with information is to our detriment. Think of the last time you did that often-regrettable act of engaging in a lengthy Facebook debate. Or, perhaps you were just a witness to one. What do we see in those conversations? Two things. First, we see tons of information. People using reasonings to justify their positions. It is clear that many attempt to research and gather ammunition as they type their argument. Their 1500-word diatribes are chock-full of points and observations, and yet, we all know that very it is rare for such engagements to ever “move the ball forward.” How can a people who value information so much be so appalled at the amount of information we are tossing back and forth?
It’s not the full-stop answer, but I think a significant reason many of us find ourselves unsatisfied with the results of such information-heavy debate is that we are missing the practice of Christian discernment in these conversations. What if a commitment to discernment in our engagement with others, in how we both take in information and how we disseminate it, is the way forward?
Discernment, in short, is knowledge filtered. In one of Paul's most winsome epistles, Paul prays for the church at Philippi that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment" (Phil. 1:9). I hang on that word "discernment" every time I read that verse.
What does Paul mean? It is a word only used a handful of times in Scripture, with a few of those occurrences from Paul's pen. The words used to describe the Greek word epignosis are "precise, correct, divine, ethical" knowledge. Paul prays for an abundance of knowledge, but he further clarifies what he means in using epignosis.
Paul didn't use this word much, but it is clear that he valued the concept of discernment in discipleship. He calls us to "test everything" (1 Thes. 5:21), taking "every thought captive" (2 Cor. 10:5), and "guarding the good deposit" of knowledge against falling into falsehood (1 Tim. 6:20).
Despite this, discussion on the importance of discernment doesn't make its way much to pulpits or small group lessons. We talk quite a bit about knowledge, but we often don't make the leap, like Paul did, to epignosis. One way we mature as disciples is to continually practice discernment (Heb 5:14).
And if we don't take the time to do so, we fall into various traps that are difficult to get out of. Here are three particular pitfalls we face if we fail to prioritize discernment in the Christian life:
1. We Lose Our Output Filter
The first trap of the undiscerning heart is that we lose our "output filter." A heart that does not recognize the benefit of precise or correct knowledge will be prone to jumping hastily into pointless conversations. The classic way we refer to this is "speaking without thinking." Our social media patterns certainly don't help in this regard. There is no, "Are you sure you want to tweet this?" warning. The undiscerning heart often has a foot-in-mouth tendency.
Training ourselves in discernment, however, will help us think more critically, weighing our words, and speak with conviction. Facebook tells us to react, but as Christians, we should be willing to let our speech "always be gracious, seasoned with salt" (Col. 4:6). We need output filters.
2. We Lose Our Input Filter
Not only does the undiscerning heart lose its output filter, but it also loses its "input filter." We should think about discernment in terms of what goes out, but we also must consider what comes in. You've heard this sometimes referenced as "what goes in must come out."
I watched a controversy unfold between two different theological camps over a certain doctrinal matter. The most intriguing yet saddening part of the conflict was the unflinching affirmations made by both sides. It appeared neither side was open to learning. Instead of using discernment, we often blanket accept what trusted pastors and teachers say simply because their name is tied to it.
Even the most respected teachers possess flawed beliefs. We must be cautious of allowing certain teachers to replace the authority of the gospel. Further, ascribing infallibility to any teacher, regardless of camp, diminishes the beauty of the Bible’s true infallibility. My faith is strengthened when I can admit that John Calvin was wrong at times. I need an input filter, just like I need an output filter.
3. We Diminish the Wisdom of God
Finally, lacking an output and input filter in our lives can cause us to diminish the wisdom of God. The undiscerning heart trusts its own judgments and leaves no room for the judgment of an omniscient God. They would disagree with men like J.I. Packer, who says, “[God] alone is naturally and entirely and invariably wise” (emphasis mine).
The act of discerning involves going back to a standard. When you go swimming in a lake, and want to determine which direction you’ve drifted, you look back for a fixed object, like a light house or tree. This fixed object acts like a standard. Similarly, in order for us to find our bearings and exercise discernment with our knowledge, we must go back to the pure standard of the wisdom of God.
Discernment is Discipleship
In the act of discernment, we grow as disciples. This growth happens by depending on God’s Word as our ultimate source of truth and wisdom.
When shaped by this Word, we become more careful guardians of our hearts. We are tossed to and fro less, and exercise caution when we engage, rebuke, teach, and exhort.
Just think how much richer your life would be if you practiced more discernment. Consider how much this would bless others. Tighten up your input and output filter. Take the harder, more tedious route of of filtering information, and you’ll grow in Pauline discernment.
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University, and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart_ or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.