Am I Being Discerning or Critical?

About six years ago someone I know–one of my seminary professors–shared with me a concern he had regarding my critical spirit. The conversation went like this: “You know Kyle, if there was a seminary degree on being a critical person, you’d be at the top of the class.” Okay, it wasn’t much of a conversation as I simply sat there and received his honest assessment of my character. It hurt. I don’t want to be a critical person. But he said it because he saw in me the same critical spirit he’d known to be true of himself. All I could do is say, “Yes, I’m a critical person.” And I am. I’m critical of other people. I’m critical of their personalities. I’m critical of their weaknesses. I’m critical of their views. I’m critical of their opinions. I’m critical of their way of doing things. I’m critical of their theological convictions. I’m a critical person. And that experience had a profound effect on me. It caused me to consider my own heart which has a natural bent toward being disagreeable and argumentative with others–and it made me realize that my critical spirit isn’t a spiritual gift to be embraced, it’s a sin to be repented of.

But, I can hear the objector saying, “Are you saying I shouldn’t be discerning?” No, not at all! We’re called to be discerning. But too often, at least in my own heart, I’ve excused my inner-critic under the guise of discernment. I’m not convinced, however, that being critical and being discerning are the same thing. Without descending into boring semantics, a critical spirit seems, to me, to be that severe or uncharitable judgmentalism and fault finding that manifests itself in the devouring and biting of another person–in enmity, strife, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions that Paul warns us are a part of the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20). Discernment, on the other hand, is “good knowledge and judgment” (Psalm 119:66). Interestingly, the word here for “knowledge” is the same as “discern” or “taste.” Discernment goes beyond mere perception and tastes the reality of something as it takes into account intentions, motivations, and results. As Sinclair Ferguson defined it, “It is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of different situations and courses of action. It includes the ability to ‘weigh up’ and assess the moral and spiritual status of individuals, groups, and even movements.” May God give us less of a critical and more of a discerning spirit!

My guess is I’m not the only person on planet earth to struggle with a critical spirit. At least, I hope not! So how do I know if I’m just being critical of another person, or if I’m exercising biblical discernment? Personally I’ve used the following seven things to help me:

1. Discernment is an expression of love: True discernment will have all the marks of the fruits of the Spirit, but especially that of love. Paul says in Philippians 1:9, “And it is my prayer that you love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment.” It expresses itself in true love–that same love that is kind, does not envy or boast, is not arrogant or rude. The love that doesn’t insist on its own way, isn’t irritable and resentful. The love that does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. The love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all the thing. That same love that covers a multitude of sins.

2. Discernment is informed by the Word: The Bible alone is the measure of what is right and what is wrong. That means true discernment will be like those faithful Bereans who received Paul’s teaching with all eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if it was so (Acts 17:11). It will draw from the depths of Scripture and seek to speak its eternal truth into a particular situation or circumstance. That means discernment isn’t clouded by my preferences, my opinions, or my arbitrary standard of what is right or wrong. It appeals to the Bible.

3. Discernment is guided by prayer: A component part of discernment is wisdom. In the Song of Moses we read, “If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end!” (Deuteronomy 32:29). And this wisdom is something that “comes from heaven” (James 3:17). That’s why James tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (1:5). Since discernment requires wisdom and wisdom is to be obtained through prayer, then discernment isn’t merely some knee-jerk reaction, but it is guided by prayer.

4. Discernment is careful to distinguish: King Solomon prayed, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). Discernment is able to carefully distinguish good and evil; right and wrong; preference and precept; wisdom and foolishness; confusion and error; sheep and wolves and, if I can write it, it knows when to speak and when to be silent.

5. Discernment takes an account of self: Jesus taught us, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). By that Jesus didn’t mean what so many people want him to mean expressed in that common mantra “Don’t judge me.” We can judge others according to the Bible–and discernment does! But, before discernment points out the error, sin, or shortcoming of another it will judge itself, “The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way” (Proverbs 14:8).

6. Discernment is a spiritual gift: In listing the various gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to those in the church, Paul says some have been given the gift “to distinguish between spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10). That means discernment never comes naturally and it certainly doesn’t come easily! Your “natural” response to things–thoughtless criticalness, grumbling and complaining, shoot-from-the-hip responses–are generally not an exercise in Spirit-given discernment. And it also means that discernment is given for the service, edification, and building up of the whole body of Jesus Christ.

7. Discernment aims at sanctification: Discernment isn’t “in it to win it.” Nor is discernment content to merely fault-find, grumble and complain, or vent. Discernment intends the other person’s sanctification and growth in the grace of God. Discernment wants sin forsaken because it is sin, it wants Christ embraced as he is freely offered in the gospel, it wants Spirit-fueled obedience to the will of God, it wants error rejected, the church protected, and relationships reconciled. That is to say, the heartbeat of discernment is the heartbeat of God for his people, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

I know many critical people. I say that because I know myself to be a critical person. But the church is in desperate need of men and women who will practice true biblical discernment. So before you hit “Enter” on your next Facebook post, before you write an email venting your frustrations, before you sit down to give advice to a friend, or before you’re tempted to grumble and complain, know the difference between being critical and being discerning.

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