By Thomas R. Schreiner
One of the spiritual gifts God gives the Church is discernment (1 Corinthians 12:10). The Church needs people who are able to discern error since we’re called upon to “test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Churches are helped by those who have the ability to detect error, who are bold and courageous, and who can clearly explain where error was present. However, every good gift God gives us can easily be abused.
Too often, people think they have the gift of discernment when in fact they have a critical, fault-finding, cynical, and negative spirit. They think they have the gift of discernment when they’re actually sinning!
Our Motivation and Goal
We need to remember what Paul teaches us in Ephesians 4:29 when he says, “No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.”
This verse can assist us in determining if we really have the gift of discernment. Is our motivation to grant grace to those who hear us? Are we building others up or tearing them down?
One question we can ask ourselves is, “Are we truly loving those whom we’re correcting, or do we just want to express our opinion because we’re certain we’re correct?” By God’s grace, we should want to speak healing words that strengthen others.
Proverbs 10:21 says, “The lips of the righteous feed many.” When we think another person is incorrect, our first desire should be to build them up and encourage them, even if that means they need some correction along the way.
The Danger of Being Critical
Because we all need evaluation from others, saying a hard thing to someone else can be an act of love.
Proverbs tells us flattery isn’t love and that the wounds of a friend are faithful (Proverbs 27:26). Friends speak to us face to face about our sins and don’t flatter us. However, that is different from being critical, cynical, and negative.
Have you been around people who regularly tell you all the faults of those they were with that day? I knew some people like that when I was growing up, and they were deeply unhappy and had very few friends. They had a penchant for criticism but not a heart of love.
In our current day, we have to be aware of how we communicate, especially on social media. It’s extraordinarily easy to resort to social media to criticize and speak against those we think are mistaken.
Certainly, there are times where correction is necessary. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that the quality of discourse in our culture has been degraded. Comments that are harsh, rude, and unloving are made on social media. People who have no business or expertise on an issue feel free to air their opinions.
What’s most troubling is the tone of so many remarks, and yes, I’m including those made by Christians. I’m reminded of the words of the great pastor Charles Bridges when he said, “We indulge in sarcasm as if we would rather lose a friend than miss scoring a point in the argument.”
Speaking with the Right Spirit
Those who are armed with truth detectors—and we always need to be devoted to the truth—must remember that “a gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).
We can start hurling darts at others in the name of truth when we’re actually responding because of own unrighteous anger, because we’ve been hurt, or to protect our own reputations. We may bring out the heavy artillery in our words when the Lord wants us to be gentle.
Being gentle doesn’t mean that we’re weak. There are times to contend for the faith once-for-all handed down to the saints (Jude 3). But we need to ask ourselves if we’re really defending the faith our just ourselves.
We find the same message in Proverbs 15:4: “The tongue that heals is a tree of life, but a devious tongue breaks the spirit.” Our words can bring life to others when they’re spoken gently and with love, but our words can also break someone’s spirit when that speech is crooked and evil.
We find a similar truth in Proverbs 12:18: “There is one who speaks rashly, like a piercing sword; but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” The motive we should have in speaking and writing is also communicated well in Proverbs 17:9: “Whoever conceals an offense promotes love, but whoever gossips about it separates friends.”
We should not call someone out unless it’s truly edifying and helpful. We need to remember that the people we’re dialoguing with on social media are real people with feelings—not just impersonal objects with whom we can debate.
And some offenses are not even worthy of comment. We can cover over many faults by saying nothing. Relentless criticism shrinks our souls, but praising God expands our souls for we were made to be full of joy.
Pondering Before We Speak or Write
Before we speak or write something, we should pray and think about whether it should be uttered. Proverbs 15:28 says, “The mind of the righteous person thinks before answering, but the mouth of the wicked blurts out evil things.” In the same way, James 1:19 says, “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
The words of Proverbs 29:20 also strike home: “Do you see someone who speaks too soon? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Fools rush to speak and are rash, but those who are wise keep themselves restrained.
We are to be restrained in what we write and say. Save the hot and angry email or tweet for two to three days before posting it. Send it after you’ve had time to cool down. You will probably find after several days, it’s better not to send it at all. That’s true discernment.
We read in Proverbs 29:11 that “a fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise person holds it in check.” The Holy Spirit nudges us and makes it clear when we shouldn’t speak.
Silence is often golden. Many times, we are truly discerning when we say nothing at all.
Thomas R. Schreiner
Thomas is a professor of New Testament Interpretation and Biblical Theology and serves as an associate dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the author of Spiritual Gifts: What Are They & Why They Matter.