Ask ten different Christians to define discernment and you’ll likely get ten different answers.
For some, discernment is the ability to uncover scandal or spot doctrinal error, the stuff of church members who stand ready with a critique of the pastor’s sermon. For others, discernment is a kind of sixth sense, a gut instinct that kicks in when you need to make an important decision. If you are a discerning person, you’ll “just know” what to do. Still others see discernment as the ability to decode the hidden agenda and secret meaning behind seemingly innocent things — things like the design of a coffee cup or a holiday colloquialism.
Outside the Christian subculture, however, discernment carries a much simpler, and more positive, meaning. We say that a museum curator has a discerning eye or that an award-winning chef has a discerning palate. What we mean is that a person has skill in a certain field or has developed a refined taste through education and experience. A discerning person is someone who has an appreciation for goodness.
Interestingly enough, Scripture affirms a similar understanding of discernment in Philippians 1:9–10, where Paul prays that the believers’ love “may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent.” While a discerning person will be able to identify what is not good, he can do so only if he has developed a taste for what is good. He can spot a fake Renoir because he knows what a real one looks like.
How to Become Discerning
So how can we grow in our understanding of goodness? How can we become discerning people?
If you ask a museum curator how he developed his eye for quality, he’ll likely tell you about his formal education. He’ll also tell you about how experience and contact with masterworks cultivated his sensibility. A chef might tell you about attending culinary school or working under an award-winning mentor. But she’ll also tell you about her years working in the kitchen and the countless dishes she’s tasted. While discernment may eventually come to feel like a sixth sense, discernment develops through education, experience, and quite simply, exposure to goodness.
When we consider how we develop spiritual discernment — the kind that Paul talks about in Philippians 1 — the process is similar. In order to grow in our appreciation for goodness, we must be transformed “by the renewal of [our] mind[s], that by testing [we] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Just as a chef’s palate grows through both schooling and experience, we grow in discernment both by educating ourselves in goodness and by encountering it firsthand.
This need for firsthand experience is something of what Paul is getting at in Philippians 4:8:
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.
Having opened his letter to the Philippians with a prayer for discernment, Paul now closes it with practical advice. Do you want to be able to approve what’s excellent? Seek whatever is true. Do you want to be able to navigate the world with wisdom? Seek whatever is honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. Do you want to become a discerning person? Seek whatever is good.
Good Gifts from a Good God
But even as we begin to understand discernment as a thirst for goodness, even as we begin to desire discernment for ourselves, we might remain wary of Paul’s instruction. For some of us, it might feel dangerous to give ourselves to actively seeking good things. After all, even good things have the potential to distract us from what really matters. If we give ourselves to whatever is good, won’t our eyes become focused on this life and miss heaven’s priorities?
While it’s true that our hearts quickly go astray, the problem is not with God’s good gifts, but our own lack of goodness. And while it may seem counterintuitive, God actually intends for his good gifts to be a means of changing our hearts to love him as we should.
After praying that believers would learn to approve what is excellent, Paul continues by explaining that this process will lead to our being made “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:10–11). In other words, something about seeking whatever is true, honorable, just, lovely, pure, and commendable leads to our good and God’s glory.
To understand Paul’s logic, we must remember that God himself defines what is good. Goodness is not an abstract or culturally defined category. It is not simply what we like or what we deem to be valuable. Instead, something is good if it aligns with God’s character. So when we seek whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable, we are not seeking whatever we want. We’re seeking things, people, and experiences that reflect his glory and show us what he is like. And in seeking him, we will be transformed.
Settling for Something Less
The genius of Paul’s instruction in Philippians 4:8 is that focusing our hearts and minds on goodness focuses our hearts and minds on God. Just as encountering a masterpiece shapes and cultivates a curator’s eye, encountering God’s nature can shape and cultivate our own taste for goodness. But seeking virtue does something else: it confronts our own lack of goodness.
We commonly read Philippians 4:8 as a filter for choosing what to take into our lives. Learning to seek whatever is true means evaluating messages to determine whether they are both factually and ethically accurate. If an article comes across my social-media feed, for example, seeking whatever is true forces me to test it before I accept it. Is it accurate? Does it portray the facts honestly, or does it bend the truth to fit a certain bias or narrative?
But seeking whatever is true also means testing my own honesty as a reader. Am I reading this article with integrity? How are my presuppositions or group loyalties blinding me to what the author says? Suddenly my own motives, biases, and emotional responses are laid bare, measured against the standard of God’s own truthfulness. And in that moment, I have the opportunity to align my heart with God’s character or to settle for something less than truth.
The problem, of course, is that too often we settle. We convince ourselves that we are seeking truth when we really just want to use facts as weapons against our ideological opponents.
Instead of seeking truth, we settle for winning arguments.
Instead of seeking honor, we settle for fame.
Instead of seeking justice, we settle for being right.
Instead of seeking purity, we settle for legalistic boundaries.
Instead of seeking beauty, we settle for sentimentality.
Instead of seeking what is commendable, we settle for hot takes.
Like C.S. Lewis noted in “The Weight of Glory,” we are half-hearted creatures whose desire for goodness is not too strong but too weak. Instead of becoming discerning, we remain ignorant children, content to “go on making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (26). And in missing the sea, we miss the God who made it.
The God Who Makes Us Good
But even here, a good God has made a way. The good news of the gospel is that even poor, ignorant children can be made wise. The good news of the gospel is that a good God sent his good Son to make us good once again.
When the Scripture invites us to seek whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable, it is inviting us to discover a God who himself is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. And when we encounter this God, we will be changed. Like a refiner’s fire burning away the dross, he will purify us to make us like himself. And out of his abundant goodness, he will teach us to love all that’s good.