Leading With Discernment

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"Effective leaders must be discerning. It’s important to look below the surface of people’s words and actions to see the deeper motives and character issues.

Exercising discernment is not about being critical or judgmental, but about looking beyond appearances. Leaders must be discerning if they are to know the strengths and weaknesses of those they lead or work closely with. Jesus was discerning. John 6:61-64 says, “When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, ‘Does this offend you? There are some of you who do not believe.’”

There is a great difference between being a cynic and being discerning. Leaders who have been hurt, experienced betrayal, or have been wounded by criticism and rejection, sometimes become wary of people. They perform their ministry duties—perhaps with great flair—but at the core, they carry an offended spirit. Such leaders sow seeds of mistrust and suspicion in their followers.

A discerning leader reads people’s hearts without withdrawing from them. Discernment and judgment come from the same root word in the Greek language, but are very different in practice. “To judge” comes from the Greek word krino, meaning to judge and separate (and in some cases, to condemn). “To discern” comes from diakrino, which means to distinguish, to hesitate, to investigate thoroughly. The prefix dia means into or through.
 To judge, then, is to pass sentence on a person, to label them, and potentially write them off. On the other hand, to discern means to see through a façade (beyond face value), to look deeper into something, to see what others may not readily see.

Discernment is a vital leadership quality because it creates depth in a leader. Discerning leaders foresee trouble before it arises and prepare for it. They see the difference between talent and character, between right actions and wrong motives. They spot frauds, false prophets/teachers, and those with secret sins before others do. Discerning leaders are not easily deceived. They appreciate good endeavors by others, but notice when actions are not aligned with genuine values. Paul warned the Galatians about the need for discernment: “But there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the Gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other Gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed...” - Gal. 1:7–9

My father was a Pentecostal pastor. Sadly, he came across many frauds and charlatans in his day. Because Pentecostals place a high value on personal experience, they tend to be more vulnerable to those who can imitate genuine spiritual experience but lack godly character.

Though my dad was a man of passionate spirituality, he was not fooled by superficial emotion. He was ardent for the things of the Spirit, but learned not to confuse spiritual passion with emotional hype. He placed great value on the fruit of the Spirit, which can be imitated for a time by the immature, but cannot be sustained under pressure.

To those who are discerning, people who wear a phony piety come across tinny, shallow, and are easy to spot. It can seem easier and less costly to wear spirituality like a coat, but true spirituality comes from deep within. It is developed through obedience to God’s Word, and through sacrifice and surrender to the work of the cross in one’s life.

The writer of Hebrews says mature Christians have so absorbed the Word of God that they can discern what is of God and what is not, and see the difference between what is great and what is good. They develop a sensitivity to what is true and what is false, to what may be good but is not the best in a situation. Here’s how Hebrews 5:13–14 describes this level of discernment: “For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the Word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”

What can we do when we discern weakness or things that need attention in the lives of others, including our spouses, close friends, co-workers, or spiritual leaders?

  • See the good. Look for their potential and their calling from God. Only when we appreciate their strengths can we properly evaluate their weaknesses.
  • Pray for them. Pray for God’s love to fill your heart for them.
  • Make sure there is no unhealthy dependence on that person in you.
  • Forgive them if they have offended you.
  • If you are unsure about something that seems wrong or troubles you, don’t ignore it. Ask kind, but probing, questions.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask help from godly counselors. They are there to help guide your responses.
  • If you feel uncomfortable or uneasy about someone, pay attention to those feelings until you understand why they are there. This could be God’s way of catching your attention. By paying heed to inner promptings, we grow in discernment and confidence in hearing the voice of God.
  • There are many wonderful ministries and movements in the Body of Christ, but not all share the same vision and values. 
 Discernment allows you to distinguish the difference between those you are called to appreciate, and those you are called to closely associate with.
  • Don’t gossip to others about your discernment of sin or character weakness in a person’s life. If it is causing disunity, division, deception, or damage to others around them, first pray for God’s love for the person, pray for their heart to be prepared, then go directly to the person and speak lovingly, but truthfully, about what you discern. Follow the steps of Matthew 18:15–20: “Go alone to the person, if they don’t repent go with someone, and if there is no change, then go to their church leaders about the situation.”

We develop spiritual discernment by paying attention to the inner “still small voice” of the Holy Spirit. We grow in discernment over time if we saturate our minds with God’s Word. According to Hebrews 5, the truth of God’s Word enables us to discern between right and wrong. If the Holy Spirit highlights something or someone that needs attention, avoid the temptation to judge, but do discern. Investigate and pay attention to what the Holy Spirit may want to teach you.

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