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Gray Matters: Five Principles of Discernment, Part 1

They may seem like gray areas. But to God, they're black and white.

Gray matters. We all deal with them … those places in our lives where the line between “right” and “wrong” gets fuzzy. Or even disappears.

  • Is it OK just to fast-forward the sex scene and watch the rest of the movie?
  • Should I smoke a cigar with my unbelieving father?
  • How tight is too tight?
  • Can a Christian play poker?
  • Can I have a beer with dinner?

I can’t tell you which movies to watch or what music to listen to. I can’t give you a list of Do’s and Don’ts. But together we can go to Scripture to cultivate discernment in the gray matters.

Principled Discernment

Hebrews 5:14 says, “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

Notice something in this passage: There’s no mention of gray. There’s good, and there’s evil. And how do you tell the difference? Discernment. Just because something is fuzzy or unclear to us doesn’t mean it’s fuzzy or unclear to God.

If we’re honest we’ll all admit we need to grow in discernment. But how? Should we work on some giant checklist of Do’s and Don’ts?

A few years ago I had a series of conversations with people in the church I have the joy to help pastor. When I would talk about gray matters with them, and ask them why they did or didn’t do something, their response was often the same: “That’s just my conviction.” When I would challenge them about how they came to that conviction they usually didn’t know. They had a “conviction” or practice that often wasn’t rooted in Scripture.

Does Scripture address R-Rated movies? Music styles? Not directly. But God has provided principles in his Word to help us discern how to live, what to choose, and what to reject. We need principles from Scripture to inform how our practice of living.

So here are five principles for growing in discernment that have implications for our daily lives:

  • Imitate God
  • Distrust your heart
  • Think biblically
  • Involve others
  • Decide to worship

Let’s look at the first two.

Imitate God

When you’re faced with a decision in an area that seems gray, what standard do you use? People around you? Culture?

The Bible gives us a standard in Ephesians 5:1, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Our standard is nothing less than God himself. We are called to imitate him.

Scripture calls us “beloved children.” Think about that for a second. You were once an enemy of God. But now, because of what Christ has done for you, your relationship with the Father has been restored. You who were once an enemy are called a beloved child.

When we’re saved, Christ comes in and transforms everything. He creates in us a love for him that drives out a love for other things. Do’s and Don’ts last for a little while, but a love for Christ is far more powerful. When discernment gets hard, when we’re tired of the “constant practice” it takes, we have to remember that the goal of discernment is to make us more like the Father who saved us.

God has made my son to want to be like me in everything. Every morning when I sit down in my little couch to read God’s Word, I hear his footsteps coming down the steps. He sees me reading God’s Word,

“Oh Dadda, I gotta go get my Bible!”

So he runs back upstairs and gets his little red picture Bible.

I love to mark up my Bible with notes and underline stuff. Carthy sits right next to me looking at his picture Bible.

“Oh Dadda, dadda, let me have your pen! Can I have your pen?”


“Ah, I gotta make a check-line right here, little check-line right here.”

Carthy sees what I’m doing and wants to imitate me. We want to be like those we love the most. If you love the Father you will desire to be like him in every area of your life. If you love the father you will desire every part of your life to cry out to God that you love him, no matter how great the personal sacrifice.

Now let me ask you a question: Is your imitation of the Father obvious? Is it obvious in small decisions, in big decisions, in preferences, in your speech, in your humor, in your thoughts, in your entertainment choices, in your free time, in your goals, in your dress? Whom do you resemble? Whom do you imitate?

Of course, this will look different in different communities and cultures. So use this principle of imitating the Father to pray, think, and develop a personal practice.

Distrust Your Heart

The biggest challenge you’re going to face in practicing discernment will not come from your culture or your community. The biggest problem is inside you. It’s your heart.

Look at Jeremiah 17: 9-10:

The heart is deceitful above all things,

and desperately sick;

who can understand it?

“I the LORD search the heart

and test the mind,

to give every man according to his ways,

according to the fruit of his deeds.”

The Bible tells us very clearly that that the number one thing we should distrust is our own hearts. If you want to cultivate discernment in gray matters and imitate God, you must distrust your heart.

This is completely different than the view of self our secular culture promotes. Here’s a song that N’SYNC did years ago on Sesame Street (yeah, you read that right) that sums up our culture’s view of self:

Believe in yourself/Just believe in yourself/You can go where you wanna go/Do what you wanna do/Believe in yourself/Just believe in yourself/Some folks try to tell you there are things you shouldn’t do/But what seems right to them quite often might be wrong for you/ Believe in yourself/Just believe in yourself/You can try what you need to try/No one should question why

But here’s what the Bible says: “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26). The enemy of discernment is trusting in your own heart. Our heart is deceitful because it is desperately sick with sin.

For the Christian, the power of sin has been broken and guilt of sin atoned for, but its influence still remains and God calls us to war against it. Sin is deceptive and brings confusion where God desires us to have clarity. So be suspicious of your own heart — especially when it comes to the gray matters of life.

Here are some ways your sinful heart can deceive you (drawn from my own mistakes):

  • You focus on issues instead of motives. You say, “There’s nothing wrong with _____ (a concert, drink, movie),” instead of, “What is my motive in doing this?”
  • You justify yourself because of good intentions or perceived maturity. You think, “I’m mature enough. I can handle it. It doesn’t affect me. I just need to relate to these people.”
  • You question God’s standard. You think, “God will just forgive me.” “Did God really mean that?” “The Lord won’t mind.”
  • You’re more comfortable with confusion than clarity. You think, “I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing even if I’m not sure it’s right — it’s easier than stopping to think about it.”

If you’re tempted to feel condemned right now, let me remind you of a simple truth: Yes, we have hearts that deceive us, but we also have a Savior who has saved us and a Spirit who will lead us in the gray matters of our lives.

Growing in discernment

Of course, we all fall short of God’s perfect standard. We all struggle with our sinful hearts. But God has provided us with a remedy. Mark 2:17 says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

These are the sweet words of Jesus the Savior. The Physician has saved you from your wickedness and your sinfulness and has created in you a new desire to please him. He’s given you the principles of Scripture and the Holy Spirit and the counsel of pastors and godly friends, so that you can cultivate ever greater discernment, distinguishing good from evil and making daily choices that please and glorify our Father. He’s given you literally everything you need.

PART 2: Gray Matters: Five Principles of Discernment »

Copyright 2007 Sovereign Grace Ministries. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Eric Simmons

Eric Simmons leads One, the singles ministry at Covenant Life Church. In 2006 Eric took over the leadership of New Attitude and helped introduce the concept of humble orthodoxy. Eric lives in Gaithersburg, Md., with his four kids, his wife, Lisa, and two of his favorite mountain bikes.

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