By Roland W. Keith
What is the difference between wisdom and folly, or common sense and foolery? Perhaps the primary distinction is that of discernment. The ability to analyze a situation and act with keen insight and good judgment. I once heard a man describe another as being “born without any common sense.” While some individuals may be born with a better natural disposition for attaining good sense, it is not actually, or not entirely, dependent on heredity. Discernment is to a large extent a learnable trait. Paul addressed this problem in his letter to the Hebrews, writing, “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14).
We can learn good judgment. As in all skills some may become proficient in its use while others may struggle at times, but all can achieve a discerning heart. The first lesson of discernment for the man of God? “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Solomon also wrote, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). Man is not wise enough to navigate the natural world without the need for guidance, let alone the spiritual one. However, if we are sensible enough to follow the path that God has laid out for us, though we may occasionally stumble, God will uphold us along the way (Psalm 37:23).
For those of us who are seeking to know and follow the way of God there is a growing knowledge that many in the world are not interested in the Lord’s wisdom, or any path for that matter, which does not allow them to do as they please. Concerning such people Isaiah wrote, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:20-21). In his letter, James compared such folly to true wisdom, writing, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:14-17). Paul wrote that we should put such things away from us (Ephesians 4:31).
We have all heard that a bad apple can spoil the whole barrel, or as Paul said it, “Bad company ruins good morals” (I Corinthians 15:33). We often think that we can rub shoulders with those of the world without being affected, but that simply isn’t true. We influence them, and they us. The question is when we are out and about in the world are we letting the Lord’s light shine through us, or are we allowing ourselves to be unduly influenced by them? And, what about our children? Do we allow them to venture into situations that put undue pressure or temptation on them? Or, are we preparing the soil of their souls and implanting the word of God within them so that they will develop honest and good hearts?” (Luke 8:15). Are we raising up healthy trees that will bear good fruit or spiritually diseased trees that will produce bad fruit?” (Matthew 7:17-18).
The Bible is full of examples for those who failed to exercise discernment. The account of the old and young prophets in I Kings is a prime example. When the king invited the young prophet to his house the prophet replied, “for so was it commanded me by the word of the LORD, saying, “‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water nor return by the way that you came.’” Later when he also turned down the invitation of the old prophet, we read, “And he [the old prophet] said to him, "I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the LORD, saying, 'Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.'" But he lied to him” (13:9, 18). The young man went in and ate with him only to find that his disobedience to the Lord would cost him his life (13:19-26). He had trusted the word of a man over the Lord’s command with tragic results.
In the New Testament Martha, a diligent hostess and housekeeper, was worried about serving her guests, not discerning that under the circumstances the opportunity to listen to the Lord teach was of greater value (Luke 10:38-42). It is possible to allow us to fill our minds with so many concerns that they affect our discernment, just as it is possible that one may affected out of neglect or ignorance. It is also possible to fail in our discernment out of willful disregard, as noted by Jesus’ condemnation of some of His listeners on one occasion: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:23-25). These were experts in the Law and religion of the Jews who had no excuse for their failure to act with Godly wisdom.
One of the saddest examples of a failure to exercise discernment was recorded by John: “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in Him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:4-43; see also I Samuel 15:24). These were believers who knew the truth, knew the Law and what was right and yet still acted contrary to good judgment because their love was misplaced. Just as sad is the fact that two thousand years later such actions within Christendom are in fact not uncommon. Inside and outside of the body of believers are those who refuse to love the truth and perish (II Thessalonians 2:10-12).
Solomon noted that “In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly” (Proverbs 13:16; see also Proverbs 16:13). The spiritually prudent are ever watchful and strong in the faith and their determination to do God’s will (I Corinthians 16:13). Jesus said that if we seek, we will find (Matthew 7:7). His brother encouraged us to ask for wisdom, knowing that God gives to those who ask (James 1:5). Knowledge, understanding, common sense, discernment— none of these are beyond our grasp. If we prayerfully seek them in our studies of God’s word we will find them, and the ability to comprehend them will be granted to us. As Solomon wrote, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of His saints” (Proverbs 2:6-8).
Paul told the Philippians, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8). When we focus our thoughts on high spiritual things trusting the Lord for strengthening and guidance and we examine His word daily we will certainly grow in our faith and spiritual strength (Acts 17:11; Proverbs 23:23).
In the end, spiritual discernment in the fullness of its strength will depend on our own effort, our trust in the Lord, and our openness to the truth. Yet, more than these, it will depend on our love for the LORD. We will be like the rulers of Jesus’ time who loved the glory that comes from men more than the glory that comes from God or will we love God the most? Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. Whoever does not love Me does not keep My words. And the word that you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me” (John 14:23-24). Our spiritual discernment, even our earthly discernment, will ultimately be as strong or as weak as our love for God. It is that love that will drive our effort, or lack thereof, to grow in the wisdom of God and hone our ability to discern all things aright.
Hi! I'm Roland. I began writing after retiring from the Navy in 2015. I believe that we each should strive to learn from one another, by sharing our thoughts and ideas. As a writer my goal is to help other seekers of truth to find and grow in Christ.