Posted in theology

What is discernment and how does it work? Like a pot of boiling water…

By Elizabeth Prata

Two days ago I published an update to the Ravi Zacharias situation here on this blog. I’d posted about the man other times, first in 2016, later that year here, and again in 2019. With the news that the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM) had engaged a private investigative company to look into certain allegations against the now-departed Ravi, and that the Ministry announced this week allegations seemed to have merit, I published those facts Saturday.

No one likes it when a tower falls. Ravi was globally well known, a Christian celebrity if you will. His many decades of apologist speeches all over the world had affected many. Of course we would all prefer that any man of faith stay above reproach, but sadly, many do not. The Bible is replete with these sad facts, and it addresses them forthrightly.


Discernment, or “distinguishing of spirits” is a gift given by the Holy Spirit to believers allowing them to discriminate between what is truly of God from or what is of demonic spirits or merely the human spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:10). The verb for “discerning” diakrino, means “to pass judgment” or “make a distinction.”

All believers possess the ability to make a judgment as to genuine teaching or moral behavior, and what is not. This ability grows as the Christian matures. In addition, the Spirit has given an extra dose of discernment as a gift to some believers, whereupon they employ not just their training but also their gift, for the edification of believers in their local body, and beyond.

GotQuestions explains

There are certain believers, however, who have the spiritual gift of discerning spirits—that is, the God-given ability to distinguish between the truth of the Word and the deceptive doctrines propagated by demons. We are all exhorted to be spiritually discerning (Acts 17:111 John 4:1), but some in the body of Christ have been given the unique ability to spot the doctrinal “forgeries” that have plagued the church since the first century. This discernment does not involve mystical, extra-biblical revelations or a voice from God. Rather, the spiritually discerning are so familiar with the Word of God that they instantly recognize what is contrary to it. They do not receive special messages from God; they use the Word of God to “test the spirits” to see which line up with God and which are in opposition to Him. The spiritually discerning are diligent to “rightly divide” (2 Timothy 2:15) the Word of God.

Just as a person gifted with mercy can spot someone who needs them to come alongside earlier than others notice, or just as someone gifted with administration gifts can spot trouble ahead in the budget earlier than others, a person with discernment can detect ‘something off’ and searches out the cause. It could be something off in the person’s life or their doctrine. They compare to scripture, and they announce there is trouble.

“Discernment bloggers” get a bad rap, oftentimes justifiably so. If discernment is all someone does in life, their perspective will become skewed. We need to be well trained and well rounded. We are part of a Body, not a body part doing its own thing.

In true discerning communication, there is always an attempt to point toward the good, not simply to highlight the bad. Throwing rhetorical hand grenades is pretty easy. Building a positive and convincing position is much harder.

Discernment bloggers, Truth, and Christian Witness

Discernment blogging, or rather for my point today, writers who occasionally write about discernment topics, is not new. The medium is new, but not the practice. It could be said that when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the Church at Wittenberg’s door, he was adhering to a normal medium of publication for his discernment questions.

Professor Andrew Pettegree, an expert on the Reformation from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. “The castle church door was the normal noticeboard of the university. This was not an act of defiance on Luther’s part, it was simply what you did to make a formal publication.”

In the 1950s John R. Rice’s publication The Sword of the Lord had a circulation of 100,000. Other heavy hitters in the Christian circular world were J. Frank Norris’ The Fundamentalist, and Carl McIntire’s The Christian Beacon. When it became apparent to Rice that Graham’s increasing liberalism and alliance with ecumenical parties wasn’t going to stop, there ensued a very public discernment conversation in Rice’s and the other newspapers. Rice eventually split from Graham, which caused The Sword of the Lord’s circulation to drop to 67,000.

William Vance Trollinger notes several trends in Protestant publications between
1880 and 1940 that correspond with increased diversity in the US population. By the end
of the nineteenth century, Protestant periodicals had evolved from general dailies
containing both religious and secular news to, typically, weekly or monthly publications
aimed at a particular denomination or sub-denomination. This segmentation continued to
sharpen into the twentieth century, with publications becoming “a critical locus of
identity for American Protestants.”

These public discussions are important, and sometimes those discussions include issues of discernment. That’s the way it was, the way it is, and the way it needs to be.

Nowadays there has been a shift away from print to online, with conversations centering on biblical interpretations, Christian celebrities, doctrine, denominational bylaws, cultural problems, and other matters of life in the church. We have organizations such as The Gospel Coalition, 9Marks, Wretched, SBC Voices, Challies, Chris Rosebrough (Pirate Christian) and also individual bloggers raising discernment issues all the time. Reviewing books is a discernment activity. Remarking on false teachers is a discernment activity. Reviewing movies is a discernment activity. So public discernment isn’t a new activity, but one that is rather old.

It would not be accurate to say that Wretched or 9Marks or Tim Challies or Chris Rosebrough etc. are “discernment bloggers” or “discernment podcasters,” because that is not all they do. They discern, sometimes very frequently, but as part of a larger ministry.


Andrew Spencer speaks of this in his Ethics & Culture blog. Discernment bloggers, Truth, and Christian Witness he writes,

In many cases, internet “discernment” has become nearly entirely about hurling abuse at the disfavored parties. Biblical discernment looks much different.

Discernment bloggers, Truth, and Christian Witness

As with any spiritual gift, the person can use it well or misuse it. The mercy-giver coming alongside over time could become an intrusive busybody. The person with a gift of Service can become territorial. A person who focuses solely on the negative parts of discernment, can become an abrasive rumormonger. But I don’t read of people decrying ‘those service people!’ or saying that ‘we don’t need those mercy folks!’ Those gifts of the Spirit aren’t thrown out with the bathwater. Any gift can ‘go bad’ in a person but it’s usually only the gift of discernment that’s disparaged. In fact, when a teacher teaches error, he or she is sometimes protected. When the discernment folks comment on them, it’s the discernment folks who get the outrage. Goes with the territory, sad to say.


If I may share a visual for how I see discernment working. Picture a pot of water set to boil on the stove. Initially, the water is placid and looks all the same.

As the pot heats up, bubbles form on the bottom of the pot. These are sins. They exist in all of us and we work to slay them. With false teachers, though, they indulge them. They stir their pot. They pet their bubbles. No one can see secret sins, but sins will always find you out, because either they will become noticeable on earth or the worst of all, laid bare at the throne of God.

At a certain point some bubbles rise to the surface. People with discernment notice these few bubbles on the surface, while others don’t. They’re still there, just not noticed by a majority of people. Discerners can detect them.

At this early stage, people or organizations that announce with evidence something is off with a teaching/person/organization are often seen as the lone voice in the wilderness, and unfortunately ignored or criticized.

As the pot heats up more bubbles surface. More discerners see the thing that is off about the person/teaching/organization, and say so. Now it’s not a lone voice, but a chorus.

Finally, all the water is boiling. A scandal has erupted. Undeniable facts are widely circulated. We want to avoid this because of the damage to lives, ministries, and the faith seen by outsiders. But scandals do happen, because unaddressed sin happens. People begin to say things like “Ohhh, NOW I see what you meant three years ago about social justice & CRT.” Or “NOW I see that Beth Moore is wildly heterodox.” “Now I see that Ravi wasn’t all he made himself out to be.” Critical Race theory was always bad, Ravi was sinning for years, Beth Moore was heterodox from the beginning. It was always there, but people clue in at different boiling points. But your discerners told you.


  1. Because the Holy Spirit gave people the gift, so it is meant to be used “for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:7),
  2. To warn, to help people guard against deception (Romans 12:2),
  3. To help people train their own discernment. (Hebrews 5:14),
  4. To chronicle heresy’s impact, for historical purposes and future generations. We know about heresy-bringers Sabellius, Arius, Pelagius, and others from the writings of church people past.
  5. To chronicle the impact of disgraced immoral leaders. In our time we know of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Tullian Tchividjian, Mark Driscoll, and in the 1800s Henry Ward Beecher, Minneapolis preacher Rev. Malchior Falk Gjertsen and so on, because their deeds, impact, and legacy were chronicled by writers.


Here are some resources about discernment. For those who say it isn’t necessary to have discernment bloggers, I agree. But there’s a difference between the abusive and abrasive person who proudly isn’t even a member of a local church screaming uncharitably about this or that person, and the people and organizations like 9Marks, Challies, Wretched, or individuals like me, who remark on issues, review, and discern (hopefully) for the betterment of the church, amid other activities too. I want to be balanced in my activity. I am not ONLY a discerner. I am a Christian, a believer, a child of God, with ALL that entails. My activities in real life and online should reflect that, as it should for all people or organizations who write on discernment topics.

Three Rules for Discernment by Todd Friel

This is an excellent article. Discernment bloggers, Truth, and Christian Witness

What is Biblical Discernment and Why is it Important? from Q&A at Grace to You

Tim Challies: Defining Discernment

What is Discernment? Sinclair Ferguson at Ligonier explains. Here’s an excerpt

We are on our guard against being led astray by false teachers. But there is more to discernment than this. True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

4 thoughts on “What is discernment and how does it work? Like a pot of boiling water…

  1. Really enjoyed your post today, Elizabeth. It’s very informative and explains a lot. Keep up the good work that you are doing. Keep listening to Spirit. Keep sharing what you are given to share. L-RD Bless, Keep, Shine upon you and through you and grant you continued Shalom even as a shadow is cast upon Earth…

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  2. I just learned that I have the gift of discernment and that my blog and book is about discernment. Thank you. And yes, I have prayerfully confronted pastors who spoke errant things from the pulpit that contradicts the Bible. I left a church because a new pastor took over who was a false prophet and would not repent. My husband still does not see it, he thinks I was making something out of nothing. I am happy to have found this post, it explains a lot of things about how I think. God Bless.


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