The friend’s counsel haunted me all day. I was broken for this stranger’s plight. But I was more devastated by how her friend used God’s name to validate her poor counsel. As I considered this conversation, I was reminded of something Charles Spurgeon once said: “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”
The majority of the messages from social media, popular books, and podcasts fall into this gray gap between “right and almost right.” Many of these messages come from Christians, applying a thin veneer of Bible to current social issues to justify a half-truth. This is a scary prospect, especially when we realize that this is how Satan uses Scripture: presenting a truth out of context and slightly altered, resulting in a lie (Matthew 4). The Bible categorizes false teaching as anything that is contrary to the Word of God or that does not conform to the character of Jesus. More often than not, false teachings confuse Christian blessings with secular self-fulfillment.
The Bible tells us to beware of those who selectively obey Scripture, who take the promises of God out of context, and who make earthly blessings more ultimate than the Giver of blessings. The Bible exhorts us to grow in the ability to discern almost-truths. The Holy Spirit is our Helper, the driving force to help navigate the often-difficult road of “right and almost right.”
Let’s look at a few often-heard messages:
God wants you to be happy.
Most confusing of this message is that both Christians and non-Christians use it to their benefit. Discerning between what is right and what is almost right in the realm of happiness is tricky business.
• Does God want us to be happy? Yes.
• Does God want us to be happy at the cost of holiness? No.
• Does God use earthly gifts to make us happy? Yes.
• Is happiness found in earthly gifts? No.
Culture tells us that true happiness is found in
self-fulfillment. It sets us on a track to do whatever we
think will make us happy. The entitlement to happiness through self-fulfillment normalizes absolute selfishness
and self-indulgence. “If it feels good, do it,” becomes an anti-Christ mantra. This is why we hear stories of people abandoning families for the sake of happiness or who deny all forms of self-control or self-discipline for the sake of pursuing complete satisfaction.
The Bible tells us that true happiness is found in God alone. God has created us with an insatiable appetite for happiness. He has created our souls with the capacity to dream as big as eternity (Eccl 3:11). God has not made us with small souls or small desires. We can chase after things to make us happy, but the reality is they will never satisfy. We were made for infinite joy. The Holy Spirit will never lead you to do something in the name of “happiness” that is contrary to what God has already said.
God wants you to be successful.
The answer to the question “Does God want me to be successful?” is an unsettling and often unwelcome “maybe.” The follow-up question to discern between what is a right and almost-right answer to this question is “Who or what is determining the definition of success?”
Culture defines success as having achieved status, wealth, power, education and/or fame. Or perhaps success is measured in the amount of weight you’ve lost. This definition of success correlates with the idiom keeping up with the Joneses—or today’s rendition—keeping up with the Kardashians.
The Bible defines success very differently: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.” (Proverbs 3:3–4)
If we examine our hearts honestly, we might find that we have taken the promise of “good success in the sight of man,” but rewritten the path that God laid out for us to attain this promise. Rather than meditate on the words of God, we are surrounded with mantras of “you can do it” and pictures of what we want—all to motivate us to persevere through hard days of work. We take God out of our work, yet ask him to bless our work and give us favor. We use Him as a sort of cosmic self-help guru.
Success is not found in our list of achievements. Success is when we are men and women marked and shaped by the truth of God’s word. The Holy Spirit always guides us toward God’s glory, not our own.
God wants you to be free.
The magnificence of this statement is that it is fully, absolutely, unequivocally true. God is the designer, source, and guarantor of true freedom. The half-truth resides in how freedom is defined and obtained.
To the world, freedom is found only in absolute autonomy, defined as being the master of your own life through striving for complete self-reliance.
The Bible tells us that true freedom is found and experienced when we belong to Christ. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever, the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” John 8:34–36. The beauty of the gospel is that freedom has already been purchased for us. When we put our faith in Christ, the sin that used to enslave us no longer has power over us. We don’t have to rely on ourselves to strive and work for freedom, we get to rely on the mercy and grace of Christ who purchased freedom for us.
The question remains: How do we discern between what is right and almost right? How do we protect ourselves from believing a half-truth?
Hold fast to the Word of God.
The Bible is our plumb line to discern what is true and what is not. We must hold tightly to the truth of the gospel. Paul said, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” 2 Timothy 4:3–4.
Our grip on the gospel is not loosened by things we despise, or things we think to be small and inconsequential. Instead, our grasp is weakened when we hear a message that “itches our ears.” For us to know when something untrue is itching our ears or for us to give good counsel to others who are struggling to know what is true, we must first become people who endure and delight in sound teaching of the Word of God.
Examine your heart.
The Bible says that idolatry exists when we exchange the truth of God for a lie, when we worship created things rather than worship the Creator God, when we serve ourselves rather than God and others (Romans 1:21-25). In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller shares his definition idolatry: “An idol is anything more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, or identity. Idols are not bad things, they’re really good things turned into ultimate things.”
We must be willing to ask and answer honestly:
• What are my idols?
• What feels more fundamental to my happiness than God?
• What is that one thing that if I couldn’t have, life wouldn’t feel worth living?
When we lay these honest answers before God, we create space for repentance, and for God to begin re-ordering our values to align with Scripture.
Surround yourself with Biblical community.
God never intended for us to be alone in Christianity. When God calls us to Himself, He calls us to belong to the family of God. Being part of a family is to bear one another’s burdens, to celebrate God’s work in the lives of others, and to help one another grow to be more like Jesus. Hebrews 3:12–13 says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
The call is to proactively encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ every single day, so sin doesn’t deceive us, causing our hearts to grow hard toward God. This is who we are called to be for others. We are called to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” Hebrews 10:24.
The Bible is full of promises and warnings. We love and need the promises of God. We need to be reminded, and reminded often, that God is for us, that He cares about us and our dreams, and that He will be with us through every good and bad moment of our lives. We also need warnings. We need our loving Father to do whatever is necessary to protect us from drifting away from Him, from detaching from the promises of Scripture, and latching onto the empty promises of the world. We must open our Bibles, cling tightly to the truth that God “has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises” 2 Peter 1:3–4. And we must surround ourselves with community who helps us “fight the good fight of faith,” discern false teaching through the Holy Spirit and encourages us to grow in Godliness.
How do I find community?
God made us to need each other. The Christian life is not intended to be lived in isolation. Community consists of people sharing meals together, having the honorable role to exhort one another to fight the good fight of faith, to bear one another’s burdens, to know each other so intimately as to stir one another up to love and good works.
In a world of individualism and isolation, how do we find community?
• Be the person you would want to be in community with. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” John 15:12–13. Rather than wait for someone to be this for you, be this person for others and community will naturally follow.
• Be patient in building community. Experiencing deep and life-giving community takes time to develop. Rarely does friendship grow overnight. It takes time to get to know people. Commit yourself to patiently praying for true friendship to root.
• Be vulnerable. To engage in life-transformative community, throw your cards on the table. Community is meant to be a place for people to belong to one another and to stir one another on to be more like Jesus. We must fight for confession and repentance to be a continual part of our community.
• Be part of a local church. God works in us through the universal Church and the local church. Belonging to a local church teaches us what it looks like to belong to the family of God. We need pastors and elders, accountability, opportunity to serve others, and to unite with like-minded believers to share the message of reconciliation with the world.
• Keep Jesus at the center. If Jesus is not at the center of our gatherings, our community is no different from any other social club. Paul described a believer’s fellowship as those who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” Acts 2:42.
How do I grow in discernment?
When the FBI trains the counterfeit detection agency to discern fake monies, agents study real money. The same principle applies to us: To grow to discern what is true and what is not, we must first study and know the truth. The more discernment matures, the better we clearly see what is true and what is false.
Study the Bible. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Bible is our plumb line for truth, helping to create a framework for what is true so we are able to decipher what is not.
Pray for wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” James 1:5. Wisdom originates with God. To grow in wisdom, we must humbly pray and ask God for wisdom. Ask God to help you know how to make decisions, how to discern what is wisdom and what is folly, and to grow in discernment.
Practice discernment. Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” It takes constant practice to grow in distinguishing between good and evil, between what is right and almost right. Spiritual maturity takes time. Every decision you make through life, from mundane to life-altering, you practice the art of discernment. Such is the role of the Holy Spirit, reminding us of the words of Jesus and of His character.
Learn from those more mature in the faith. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, saying, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” 1 Corinthians 11:1. There is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom from those who have followed Christ longer than we have. When trying to discern between what is true and what is false or when trying to make a decision that will honor God, seek counsel from those who have practiced discernment much longer than you have. Ask them to teach you how and why they counsel you as they do.