Killing houseplants runs in my family. My mom is the master plant murderer, at least when she’s indoors. Give her a garden outside and plants have a 99 percent better rate of survival. When we lived in British Columbia she had quite a thriving garden in our backyard. She even grew pumpkins one year. But put the lady in charge of a pot on the kitchen windowsill, and it’s planticide.
I recently discovered she’s passed along this evil power to me. Last month I dog-sat for my grandparents, and Grandpa left me a list of instructions for Kit, his puppy. “Oh yeah,” he added as an afterthought, “and maybe you could keep an eye on that plant while you’re here.” They came home three weeks later to a happy, healthy Kit. I had fed her full, kept her water bowl brimming, taken her on long walks, and provided heaps of treats and attention. The plant, on the other hand, was on death’s doorstep.
I tell you about this like it’s some sort of magical power Mom and I have. Like we do everything we can to keep a plant alive—give it sunlight, water it daily, mash in some Miracle-Gro, sing to it—and yet it somehow mysteriously still dies. But the truth is we don’t do all that. The plant dies because we’re inattentive. We just don’t care about its health and growth, and so we forget to put in the persistent hard work of tending it.
Caring for plants reminds me that growth takes a lot of work. But growth is also a necessary survival mechanism for all living things. If a flower grows, it’s alive. If it stops (or never starts), it withers and dies. That’s basic biology.
The same is true for Christians. When the gospel saved us, it made us alive in Christ, breathing life into our dead hearts (Col. 2:13). We became wide awake and hungry spiritual newborns, thirsty sprouts, with eyes freshly opened to the world. And immediately, we started growing.
But we cannot grow without discernment. The two are inextricably bound together.
And that’s why teenagers need discernment.
How to Explain Discernment to Teens
Discernment is simply the ability to define and act upon the difference between right and wrong, or, as Charles Spurgeon said, between “right and almost right.” It’s looking out over the landscape of your life; examining everything you encounter; and judging between good and bad, between biblical and false doctrine, between edifying and harmful entertainment, between holiness and sin. In 1 Thessalonians 5:21, we’re told to “test everything; hold fast what is good.” Growth and discernment are like a self-feeding cycle, a precious circle. Where there is spiritual growth, there will be spiritual discernment.
Yet discernment isn’t a sort of hyper-criticism that turns you into an embittered watchdog sniffing out others’ mistakes. Instead it’s a holy call to discern what is pleasing to God and what is not (Rom. 12:1–2). It frees you to relish what’s beautiful and true, and to reject what’s ugly and false. Discernment equals growth.
How to Help Teens Pursue Discernment
In Ephesians 4, Paul connects growth and discernment for the church in Ephesus. As Christians learn from godly teachers, we will “grow up” in Christ and become less and less like undiscerning children “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (v. 14). Instead, as we increase in maturity and wisdom, we will increase in discernment too. And as we do that, we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15).
So if discernment is needed to spiritually grow up, how do teens get it? Ultimately, like everything else good in our lives, God is the giver (Dan. 2:21). His Spirit works in our hearts to effect lasting change. But he’s also given us the responsibility to seek and find and teach discernment. As Paul exhorts, “Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10).
There are two big ways we do that—two things to teach your teens.
1. Teach them to go to God’s Word.
God is the rock solid foundation of discernment, so what better place to look for it than in his Word? Proverbs 2 says that if we receive and study and love God’s true words, he will give discernment. When we set our minds on the things of God, we immerse ourselves in what’s right and, in the process, we protect ourselves from deception (Matt. 16:23).
God has written down his truth in Scripture, and we have unlimited access to it. By studying it, we’re able to use it as an objective standard and measuring stick to evaluate the teaching we encounter. If you want more discernment, read the Bible. If you want your teens to grow, teach them to read it.
2. Teach them to ask God for discernment.
The second way to gain discernment seems both childishly simple and tiredly cliché—pray. But since God is the One who gives discernment, we should ask for it. That’s what Solomon did when he became Israel’s king. God appeared to him in a dream and said, “Ask what I shall give you” (1 Kings 3:5). It was an unqualified invitation.
Solomon replied with great humility:
O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people? (1 Kings 3:7–9)
He was a brand-new king. He could have asked for political power, victory in battle, popularity, fame, or unfailing success. Instead, he asked for the most valuable thing he knew of—discernment. Teach your teens to take a page out of Solomon’s playbook and humbly and earnestly ask the Lord to give them discernment. “If any of you lacks wisdom,” James writes, “let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).
God is the source of truth, so if your teens want to know what is right and best, send them to him. Encourage them to express their desire to obey him through discernment, and ask him to mature them in this area.
As Jesus followers, our entire lives are different because of what God says is true and what he says is false. Discernment and growth walk hand in hand. Like houseplants, we grow up and we live, or we don’t. There’s no in-between.
Discernment changes everything.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Jaquelle Crowe’s new book, This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years (Crossway, 2017).