My boys love to set up pretend shops for my wife and I to go to. These shops sell everything from pencils to hand-drawn pictures to “books” which consist of a cover page and a whole bunch of blank pages after it. But these fake shops require real money. My boys are neither fooled nor amused when I hand them a printed, black-and-white dollar bill that is smaller than usual and blank on the back. They can spot the fake immediately.
But some money is not so obviously fake. Counterfeit bills often look so much like the real thing that special tests are required. Special pens can sometimes determine if a bill is counterfeit, but even these are unreliable. According to the United States Federal Reserve, the best way to spot a fake is to familiarize yourself with the real thing.
The ability to tell the difference between something real and something fake is called discernment, and it’s something we’re called to have as Christians. Romans 12:2 calls us to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” Discernment means recognizing how to live in a way that pleases God, and to recognize when malicious (or even seemingly well-meaning) voices are calling us to disobey Him.
This has always been a need for Christians. In the Apostle John’s day, there were many false prophets roaming around. To a degree, they certainly looked like they were Christians. But they were saying that Jesus hadn’t actually taken on a human body, denying a core element of the Christian faith. So John cautions them to “not believe every spirit, but test [them] to see if they are from God” (1 John 4:1–3). In this case, prophets who denied Jesus’s incarnation were false; those who affirmed it were true.
Living in the digital age, the need for discernment is perhaps greater than it has ever been. Between the Google search bar and social media, there’s no shortage of voices ready to give us advice on whatever we may be going through. Some advice might be obviously bad for someone trying to follow Jesus. But other bad advice is less obvious. So how do we practice discernment in a digital world?
Two ways to practice discernment in the digital world
1. Spend time in Scripture
First, we spend time in Scripture. Just as people train to spot counterfeit bills by studying the real thing, we will grow in our ability to discern truth from error by regularly reading God’s Word. “Regularly” is important here. We often face situations in life that the Bible does not explicitly address. But as we spend time with the Lord by reading His Word, our hearts and desires will become aligned with His own, and we will be better equipped to approach such situations in ways that honor and please Him.
2. Involve other believers
Second, involve other believers. Simply put, it is far easier to practice discernment when you are surrounded by other people who also love Jesus and who care for you. That’s not to say that community is a fool-proof way to discern truth from error. But it is harder to distinguish between right and wrong on your own than it is within the context of the church.
Consider one example of how exercising discernment might look today. Suppose someone tells you, “God wants you to be happy.” Is this true? On one level, absolutely! Jesus came to give us joy and peace with God, and Scripture promises a future earth free of all tears. But as we familiarize ourselves with the Bible, we see that it is also clear that following Jesus involves self-denial (Mark 8:34–38). “Happiness” then cannot be reduced to instant gratification or freedom from responsibilities. Yes, God wants us to be happy, but in this life that might mean more hardship, not less.
As we grow in our knowledge of Scripture and surround ourselves with others who are doing the same, we will grow in our ability to know what does and does not please our God. Let us then approach God’s Word prayerfully, asking with the psalmist: “give me understanding so that I may know your decrees” (Psalm 119:125).