I’m sure you’ve met people who like to consider themselves particularly discerning. But so often, there seems to be a fine line between discernment and just being critical. So, how can you tell the difference between a discerning person and a critical one?
Discernment is both the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong and – as Spurgeon famously put it – the difference between right and nearly right. However you cut it, discernment is about telling things apart. It is concerned about knowing the difference between what is right, good and true and what is veering off course.
Criticism is not so much concerned with the difference between right and wrong. Someone with a critical spirit is merely concerned with what is wrong. It is not about telling the difference between what is good, right and true and what is not. It is more interested in pointing out everything that it perceives to be wrong, inaccurate or not entirely on point.
Given these differences, how do you tell the difference between a discerning person and one with a critical spirit? Fundamentally, I think it is in this. The discerning person will also discern what is good, right and true because that is their primary concern. Whilst they may speak about what is less good and evidently not right, they will also have a good word to say about many godly people, good Bible teachers, people who are rightly dividing the Word of truth. The discerning person will have both good words and critical words to say.
By contrast, the critical person is not concerned with the difference between right and wrong. They are only concerned with what is wrong. So, the person with a critical spirit will be a perennial fault-finder. Nothing will be good enough. They will have a lot to say about those who do not measure up, they will have lots to say about things that they believe are sub-optimal, but they will rarely have anything to say about what is good, right and true. They may acknowledge such things are out there, but they won’t have much to say about them. Their concern is far more to do with criticising and finding fault.
All believers should seek to be discerning people. We ought to be looking to discern the difference between right and wrong, right and nearly right. If we have such a concern, we will have lots to say about those who handle the Word well, who teach well, who lead well. We may sometimes have things to say about those who do not do these things, but we will not be lop-sided. We will have both good and bad to say because we are discerning the difference between the two.
But we shouldn’t look to develop a critical spirit. If we can only find negative things to say, then we are not discerning at all (no matter how we like to think of ourselves). We aren’t discerning because we never seem able to discern the truth. We never seem able to discern when people are fulfilling their God-given roles well. We are more interested in looking for fault and finding things to criticise. This is not a godly attitude at all.
Let’s aim to be genuinely discerning – telling the difference between right and wrong – and seek to avoid a critical spirit that only focuses on what we perceive badly. The Bible warns us all to avoid those who would stir up dissention and start quarrels – those with a critical spirit tend to do such things, focusing only on what is negative. Let’s also discern when criticism stems, not from a desire to promote what is right and true, but from a critical spirit seeking to tear down and destroy.