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10 Habits of Discerning People

Steve Halama on Unsplash

One glance at the headlines will tell you that the world is a dangerous, confusing place. From natural disasters to church scandals to heartbreak closer to home, it can feel like nowhere is safe. Maybe the best thing you can do is just hunker down and try to survive. But what if God wants more for you than survival? What if he wants you to thrive and enjoy his goodness despite the brokenness around you?

In John 17, Jesus prays for his followers—people like you and me—who are overwhelmed by the world around them: “I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that you protect them. . . . Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15, 17).

Instead of retreating from the world, God intends to equip us to meet its challenges with confidence and joy. Instead of changing our circumstances, he intends to change us by making us people who can discern the difference between what’s good and what’s not. Or as Paul puts it, God intends to transform us by renewing our minds so we’ll know what is good, perfect, and acceptable (Rom. 12:1–2).

So what do discerning people know that the rest of us don’t? What do discerning people do that makes them uniquely capable of navigating a broken, complicated world? At least 10 things.

1. They live in right relationship to God.

The first thing that sets discerning people apart is that they’re humble. They know how much they don’t know. It’s tempting to rush into situations or decisions confident that we already know the answer. Maybe we think we’ve already learned the “right” answer. Or maybe we rely on our gut instinct. Either way, we don’t pause long enough to remember that our minds are limited, and our hearts are easily led astray. Scripture is clear: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). In other words, discerning people know that God—not their experience or instinct—is the source of wisdom and ultimately the source of safety. From this place of humility, discerning people seek help from the One who gives it freely and abundantly.

2. They focus on finding goodness in brokenness.

In a sin-cursed world, we can quickly become distracted by the brokenness and begin to believe it’s more powerful than God’s goodness. But when this happens, we also begin to make decisions from a mindset of fear and self-protection. Trapped by negativity, we’ll only have eyes for what’s wrong. We’ll shrink back from any kind of risk and hunker down in our safe places, seeing anyone who is different from us as a threat. Isolated and alone, we’re unable to enjoy what goodness the world offers.

Discerning people know that God made the world good and that he sustains it in goodness. Yes, the world is cursed by sin but through Christ, God is redeeming it and us. “I would have despaired,” David wrote, “unless I had believed I would see the goodness of God in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13). Discerning people have confidence in divine goodness.

3. They know the difference between the way things are and the way things should be.

As much as discerning people look for goodness in the brokenness, they don’t deny the brokenness or pretend it doesn’t exist. They’re not idealists. They know the “way the world works” isn’t always the way God intended it to work. So they evaluate everything by the authority of the Scripture and the person of Jesus, testing it to see whether it meets God’s standard of goodness. Sometimes this means rejecting the status quo or questioning their own long-held beliefs. But through it all, they know God is the ultimate standard of what is right, and they must submit all things—even their most deeply held customs and practices—to him.

4. They invest in things and relationships that will last.

Because the world isn’t yet what it should be, we all experience trouble and difficulty in this life. When we do, we can be tempted to comfort ourselves with fleeting pleasure: expensive gadgets, addictive substances, unhealthy relationships, and mindless entertainment. At first, these things may bring us a kind of relief. The new car or that third glass of wine will make you happy, at least temporarily, but you’ll quickly need another hit when the initial pleasure wears off. And you’ll be running in circles trying to find it.

Discerning people know that lasting happiness comes from eternal things. They aren’t immune to suffering in this life, but they invest in relationships and things that bring long-term stability instead of short-term relief.

5. They know the importance of truth.

In a world of #fakenews and #alternativefacts, it can seem like we live in competing realities. “Your truth” isn’t “my truth” and whatever we personally want to believe becomes truth for us. This makes for a fractured world where we’re isolated from even our friends and neighbors.

Discerning people know that truth isn’t a private matter and that we must have shared truth to flourish. They’re willing to submit themselves and their ideas to scrutiny, knowing that opinions and commentary do not replace facts. And when they encounter information they’ve never heard before, they test it, not by their own opinions or emotions, but by the larger body of shared truth. Ultimately they know we all must submit to the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” In this sense, discerning people are honest people. Honest with themselves, honest with the facts, and honest with others.

6. They listen to experts.

Not only do discerning people walk humbly before God, they also walk humbly before their fellow man, deferring to those who have more experience and knowledge than they do. In a world of search engines and social media, it can be tempting to believe everyone’s opinion on any given subject is equally valid. But access to information isn’t knowledge, and tips and trick aren’t skill and expertise. Discerning people know it takes years of study and life experience to become an expert, and they honor that.

They also know the difference between an expert and an elitist. An expert is someone who has expertise in a particular field of knowledge, while an elitist is someone who thinks they have expertise in every field of knowledge. In Romans 13, Paul tells us to give honor to those who deserve it. Discerning people know to honor those whose life experience or education give them particular insight—whether it’s a mother who knows her child better than anyone else or a doctor who knows her field. In both cases, a discerning person will honor the specific expertise of each.

7. They pay attention to words and actions.

One thing that makes the world so confusing is that people behave inconsistently. Politicians promise one thing but do another. Husbands and wives vow faithfulness only to cheat a few months or years down the road. It’s hard to know whom you can trust. At its root, this disconnect between our words and actions reveals a deeper disconnect in our hearts. The book of James describes this as being “double-minded” and says double-minded people are unstable in all their ways.

Discerning people know that people with mixed motives will be unstable, so they don’t trust them. They pay attention to the difference between a person’s words and actions and aren’t easily swayed by lip service.

8. They embrace goodness wherever they find it.

In the chaos of the world, we tend to cluster in like-minded groups, believing our tribe will give us a sense of safety and security. Sadly, this “us vs. them” approach can blind us to the weaknesses within our group. It can also make us miss the good things that happen outside it. Discerning people know that both good and bad exist in every space. That’s why Paul tells us to think on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and of good report” (Phil. 4:8).

Rather than toeing the party line, discerning people are committed to finding goodness wherever it may exist. “If there be any moral excellence,” the verse continues, “and if there is be anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.”

9. They pursue the best possible solution, knowing that no solution is perfect.

Because the world is broken, our decisions will be inadequate in many ways. We simply don’t have the ability or the options to find perfect solutions. But if we wait for the perfect, it’s likely we’ll miss the good. So discerning people know how to make pragmatic decisions. This doesn’t mean that the ends justify the means or that we can do whatever we what. It means learning the difference between “unprincipled pragmatism” and “principled pragmatism.” Unprincipled pragmatism takes advantage of the brokenness, using and manipulating it for self-serving purposes. Principled pragmatism, on the other hand, accepts the reality of brokenness and tries to make decisions that promote healing and wholeness, all with an eye to the day when God sets all things right.

10. They use their wisdom to help others.

Instead of seeing discernment as a source of superiority, discerning people use their insight to serve those around them. Whether it’s in their church, their family, or their neighborhood, they use knowledge to build up and unify—not tear down or create division. Sometimes this means having the patience to wait while others think through what you already know. Sometimes it means foregoing your preferences for the good of others. Sometimes it might even mean being misunderstood precisely because others can’t yet see what you do. But because discerning people know the difference between what’s good and what’s not, they also know to evaluate their own actions. They resist the temptation to flaunt knowledge or prove themselves right. They know that any wisdom they have is given to them for the common good.

God hasn’t left us alone in this world. Through the Spirit and the Scripture, he is renewing our minds so we can discern his holy and perfect will. But this process requires humility and a willingness to be changed. God isn’t interested in our being right so much as our being made right—right with him and right with each other. As we grow in wisdom and the knowledge of Christ, we’ll increasingly meet the challenges of a broken world. And little by little, we’ll experience all he’s planned for us. Little by little, we’ll be made good and discover all that’s good in the world around us.

Editors’ note: 

A version of this article appeared at Crosswalk.com. Hannah Anderson’s book All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment was a winner in our 2019 Book Awards.

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