And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ (Philippians 1:9-10).
If there is one thing people today do not lack, it is exposure to information and knowledge: we have thousands upon thousands of books, articles, weblogs, and other sources of information which we can easily access through the Internet and in libraries. And yet not all information is created equal: much of it is contradictory, distorted, incomplete, or otherwise misdirected. With so much bad information going around, what shall we do?
While God in Scripture does encourage us to increase in our knowledge, it is not just for the sake of knowing. He also expects us to use proper discernment, or judgment, when it comes to such knowledge. If we love as we should, and we seek to obtain knowledge with proper discernment, we will be able to approve that which is excellent, as we can see in Philippians 1:9-10.
But how do we use proper discernment? Discernment involves how we process the information we receive. Proper discernment demands the ability to think critically.
Critical thinking demands that we put information we read or hear to the test: is it accurate? How can we tell? What assumptions and biases underlie the information? What evidence exists for it? What evidence could be marshaled against it? If we are honest with ourselves, we will seek to use such discernment not only when we disagree with others and in terms of their assumptions or biases but also when considering the very things we accept as true and our own biases and assumptions. Truth is never damaged by exposure to light or examination; only falsehood seeks to hide in the shadows (cf. Ephesians 5:10-14).
The Bible itself invites such consideration: the New Testament provides evidence by which people may believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:30-31). We are to test all spirits and prove all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 1 John 4:1).
Once we have established the Bible as the authority in all spiritual matters (2 Timothy 3:16-17), we are then able to put all other philosophies, theories, doctrines, and viewpoints to the test of this standard. Where are they in agreement with Jesus? Where is there disagreement? What is truly consistent with understanding all things through Christ, and what is of the world and based in human distortion and misunderstanding (cf. Colossians 2:1-10)?
Learning with discernment in order to approve what is excellent provides many benefits. By thinking critically about our own beliefs as well as others’, we will do better at maintaining our own faith and will not find ourselves easily unsettled by the criticisms or arguments of others (Habakkuk 2:4, Ephesians 4:14). When we make the defense for the hope that is in us, it will be more effectively presented if it has been put to the test of critical examination (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). But all such knowledge and discernment must be rooted in love, or else all is in vain (1 Corinthians 13:1-4). Let us use proper discernment, accepting what is true, and rejecting what is false!
Ethan R. Longhenry