Be Discerning! (Proverbs 14:8)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Proverbs 14:8
I. Discernment on Campus
This may sound strange, but one of the clearest memories I have about starting college at Arizona State University back in the early 90's was talking to a girl at a table outside of the Memorial Union, a table that was offering students credit cards.
I remember it fairly well because I was surprised that this company, maybe a bank, was allowed to be there and be signing up college students. Sure, what college student wouldn't like to have some more buying power (cue the image of the starving student)? But a credit card? Really? How many of those students really understood what it would mean to have a credit card; about annual percentage rates and what happens when you only make the minimum payment. For me, it felt like there was something we might call “predatory” about that table.
Therefore, as my daughter heads to ASU this August, I'm wondering what kinds of tables, what kinds of offers, she'll run into. The thought of it inspires me to tell her what every other caring and careful parent has said and will say to a student leaving 'the nest': “Be discerning!”
Discernment. What is discernment? Discernment is the ability to distinguish right from wrong, or good from bad, or healthy from unhealthy, profitable from unprofitable, even best from better, especially when the difference may not be obvious at first.
Discernment is bigger than starving students and credit card offers, isn't it? Discernment is something all of us desperately need, every day, in every aspect of our lives. God knows this. That's exactly why his word addresses that very topic. Turn with me to Proverbs 14.
II. The Passage: "To Discern His Way" (14:8)
As we return to the book of Proverbs, it might be good to do a tiny bit of review (especially since it's been almost two months since our last message from this book). Most of Proverbs was written and compiled 3000 years ago by King Solomon for his son. It's is a book about wisdom. Thus, in the first nine chapters of the book, we finding Solomon appealing to his son, that his son might prize and pursue wisdom.
Consequently, from chapter 10 on, there is an emphasis on pondering and practicing wisdom. You see, it's in chapters 10-31 that we discover this collection of collections; this collection of sayings, the short proverbial statements that most people identify with the book of Proverbs. As you may already know, each one of these saying is a gemstone of genuine wisdom.
What is wisdom? Wisdom is direction for daily life, especially in those circumstances where there is no clear rule or one-size-fits-all formula. Like lights along a path, these proverbs are simple, but insightful saying designed to train us in moral skillfulness.
For example, listen to the wisdom we're given in Proverbs 14, verse 8...
The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Did you notice the word “discern” in the first part of that verse? Yes, but clearly this verse is not about someone who has discerning tastes and therefore can find the best deals at a flea market. Similarly, this isn't about someone who has a discerning palate and therefore can choose the best wine pairing for your next dinner party. No, this is a verse about wisdom; about discerning between what is wise and what is unwise. As we read in 16:21, “The wise of heart is called discerning...”
To better understand this proverbs, let's break the verse up a bit and look together at...
1. The “Who” of Discernment (v. 8a)
Who is the man or woman practicing discernment in this verse? It is someone who is “prudent”. We read here that people who are prudent have a wisdom that flows from their prudence. Now, in Hebrew, this word translated “prudent” is a really interesting word. It's eleven time in the Old Testament, but eight of those instances are in this book.
What's interesting about the other three times this word appears, is that it's always used in a negative sense, translated in those passages as “crafty”. In fact, the very first time the word is used, its used to describe the serpent in Eden: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” [Genesis 3:1]
But in Proverbs, the word always has positive connotations. Therefore, to be prudent is to be, not crafty, but shrewd. To be prudent is to be sensible. To be prudent is to be careful and cautious. In 14:16 we find this same idea: One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil....
Why careful and cautious? Because the wise man or woman needs time to think through what is happening or will happen. And thinking through an issue requires knowledge. Therefore, it's not surprising to read this one chapter earlier in 13:16.... Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly; and in 14:18 we read the prudent are crowned with knowledge.
To posses discernment not only requires knowledge, but it requires patience and persistence in using that knowledge properly. In a culture that so often promotes living in the moment, and going with your gut, and doing what feels good or feels right, a culture that views spontaneity as passionate and authentic, but planning as boring and restrictive, in that kind of culture, we need to listen to what God is telling us about prudence. But that leads us to also consider...
2. The “How” of Discernment (v. 8b)
If the prudent person is discerning, how does he or she use that discernment? Well, look at 14:8 again: The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way... The careful and cautious person uses discernment to distinguish between right and wrong, between wise and unwise, between healthy and unhealthy in terms of the moral and relational waters that every single one of attempt to navigate every single day.
Every day, you and I are attempting to “discern [our] way”, aren't we? But is that discernment driven by a careful, cautious spirit, and informed by truth? Let me give you an example of discernment in daily life. We read in Proverbs 23:4...
Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist.
What does it look like to use discernment in when it comes to wealth? It means distinguishing between what is healthy and unhealthy when it comes to making money; between what is safe and dangerous in regard to your finances. Think about it: when an opportunity presents itself to make lots of money, or when a large sum is dropped in your lap, it's very tempting to jump at the chance or run out and spend, spend, spend.
What's harder is to be careful and cautious, remembering that money can wrap itself around our hearts in a unique and dangerous way. Making money can consume us, can't it; even to the neglect of our family, of our health, of our future. Discernment helps us distinguish between money mindsets and opportunities and choices that are wise and those that are unwise (like new college students having credit cards... in most cases, that is). But that leads us to a final point. We also need to think about...
3. The “Why” of Discernment (v. 8c)
Listen again to the entirety of Proverbs 14:8...
The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Notice the contrast. Solomon is, in essence, asking his son: “Which do you want to characterize your life: discernment or deception? Do you want to be discerning or do you want to be deceived?” And God is asking you the same question this morning.
Who are these “fools” mentioned in verse 8? Well, look down back at verse 16... One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.
And what exactly does he mean by “the folly of fools is deceiving”? I think he means that when a foolish person, someone who is “reckless and careless”, someone who is impulsive and self-assured, when that person lacks discernment, he or she is deceived into foolish living, because “folly is... deceiving”; it's what Hebrews 3:13 describes as “the deceitfulness of sin”.
How easily we are deceived into believing things like, “Oh, who cares about that steep interest rate. I'll figure out some way to pay off that balance.” “As long I don't drink and drive or get totally smashed, my drinking is really no big deal.” “If I just get in his or her face, if I just get loud enough, they'll straighten up and fly right” “I'm not really having sex. It's just a person on a computer screen.” “My spouse understands me working so many long hours since I do it all to provide for my family, to give them a nice life.” How easily we are deceived.
Sadly, there is a gullibility that characterizes a lack of genuine wisdom. We read in 14:15 that...
The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.
That is discernment. And that discernment should cause us to discern that we need even more!
Look at what Solomon tells us in Proverbs 17:24 about person with discernment...
The discerning sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.
The “why” of discernment is this: without it, we are blind; we are gullible; we are easily deceived; we are distracted by and desirous of distant things, but disinterested in the wisdom we need to navigate the here and now. Our foolishness proves how badly we need wisdom.
III. How Love and Knowledge Factor In
But beyond good credit and community standing, let me share with you an even better reason to be discerning; to deeply desire discernment. Turn and listen to Paul's prayer for the Philippians:
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,  so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (1:9-11)
Wow! Notice what Paul has given them here:
First, he's provided them with the goal of discernment: love, to the glory and praise of God. Jesus taught us that the greatest commands in Scripture are the commands to love God with your all, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Underneath this, we are specifically called to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul is praying for growth in that very thing, that their love would “abound more and more”. To be like Jesus is to be discerning, and to be discerning like Jesus is to constantly distinguish between what is loving and what is not loving. A truly discerning person is a truly loving person.
Second, Paul has provided the Philippians with the standards of discernment. How can someone ultimately tell if something is good or bad, right or wrong, wise or unwise, loving for unloving? He or she needs knowledge. We saw how Proverbs emphasized the importance of knowledge in terms of prudence and discernment. Like Solomon, Paul understood that such knowledge ultimately comes from God. Paul's prayer for the Philippians here echoes what he prayed for the Colossians: that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. [1:9] Do you want to be discerning? Immerse yourself in and be shaped by God's word. Grow as a student of the Bible. Discernment is guided by doctrine. It helps us distinguish between what is true and false. But be careful with knowledge. Yes, love your learning. But even more important, let your learning serve your loving. The goal!
Finally, third, Paul has provided this church with the source of discernment. Ultimately, discernment should lead to (v. 11) “fruit of righteousness”, and “that comes through Jesus Christ”. Apart from God's grace in Christ, we are all fools deceived by folly. We are all careless and reckless, even when we try to look careful and cautious. But wonderfully, through his death and resurrection, Jesus has purchased for us a new heart, empowered by God's own Spirit. And through God's word, that Spirit renews our minds, helping us grow in discernment (Romans 12:2). Therefore, in light of Jesus and his decisive work, ask God for discernment. Pray in light of both these gifts: the Spirit and the word.
Like this father sending his daughter into the world, the heavenly Father also cares deeply (even deeper!) about his children in light of the world's snares. Therefore, he speaks to you this morning: “Be discerning!” Let's pray in light of God's guidance and perfect provision!