What is truth? 9 Principles of Discernment for Leaders 

 September 30, 2020

By  Evan

About 2,000 years ago a Roman governor named Pilate sat in a room with Jesus, trying to decide what to do with him. The people outside his headquarters screamed for blood, but Pilate wasn’t sure this carpenter had actually done anything wrong. As he pondered the situation, he asked Jesus a question that has plagued humanity since we got kicked out of the garden of Eden:

What is truth?
Pilate, John 18:38

While some would like to say we’re in the information age because of the internet, you could just as easily say we are in the disinformation age. Countless voices attempt to get their message across to us everyday. Advertisers, politicians, the media, religious leaders, teachers, co-workers, story tellers, and that family member who has wild opinions about everything.

And so, we must ask ourselves, “what is truth?”

We need discernment in every aspect of our lives. What do you do when you hear a pastor you respect get called a cultural marxist? How do you respond when one co-worker tells you about another co-worker’s misdeeds? How do you find news sources that are actually reliable? Which political advertisement should you believe?

Truth matters, and as leaders we must make every effort to identify and understand the truth. In this article, we will explore why the truth matters and look at some practical ways to help discern what is true. Books have been written about each of the principles below, but I’ll do my best to summarize.

Why truth matters

Jesus is the truth

I’ve argued many times that the foundation for effective spiritual leadership is one thing. We must know Jesus and sit at his feet. If we want to know Jesus, then we should consistently seek to know the truth. Why? Because Jesus himself is the truth.

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 14:6

If Jesus is the truth, then false things can only pull us away or distract us from him. I don’t want that, so I will seek to know the truth.

The truth shall set you free

Not only does Jesus identify with the truth, he claims that the truth shall set you free!

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8:31-32

Lies cannot set us free. In fact, believing lies consistently puts us into bondage. Adam and Eve first sinned because they believed the lie of the serpent in Genesis 3. Even if a lie makes us feel better than the truth, it will ultimately hurt us and take away our freedom.

what is truth?

The truth leads to peace

Paul knew great turmoil in life and dealt with many challenges. He encouraged the Philippians to focus on the truth, however, because he knew it would lead to peace. Here are his words,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9

Paul calls us to think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and so on. When you practice doing the things he has taught us to do, then the God of peace will be with you. The truth may be hard at times, but the peace of God is worth it.

You don’t want to break the 8th commandment

When we learn something new and interesting, we typically want to share the news. This can be a great thing (sharing the Gospel!) or it can be a very bad thing (sharing the gossip!).

So before you share something and proclaim it to be true, it’s important to remember the 8th commandment:

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Exodus 20:16

If you share ideas and theories about other people that are not true, then you are bearing false witness. This does not mean we should never hold people accountable for doing something wrong, because pretending someone is morally right when they are in sin is also bearing false witness.

Rather, it simply means that in every situation we should take great care to investigate and identify the truth.

whispered secrets - what is truth?

The truth glorifies God

Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center, points out the way embracing false stories can hurt our witness in this article. We are called to share the gospel with others. For many, the good news is hard to believe. How much harder does it become when you share the gospel and also share things that are false?

Not only that, but knowing the truth allows us to better represent Christ, to be pure and blameless, and to glorify God. Paul’s words to the Philippians ring true:

“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.”
Philippians 1:9-11

Living in a way where our love, knowledge, and discernment are all growing is important to our own sanctification and to the way we represent God to the world. If we don’t care about the truth, it’s going to be hard to grow in knowledge and discernment, and even hard to grow in love as well.

What is truth? 9 Principles for Discernment

For all these reasons and more, the truth matters. But now the real question, how do we discern the truth? In a world filled with contradicting messages, how do we decipher fact from fiction?

Or as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:11, how do we avoid being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Let’s explore a few helpful principles for discerning the truth:

Examine Scripture to see if it is true

Scripture provides us with the most reliable source of truth we have today. This means if you hear something that goes against scripture, then you can trust that it is false. Paul explains the benefits of scripture and why we can trust it in 2 Timothy:

“from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:15-17

If we want to know truth, we must be acquainted with the truth. The words are breathed out by God – what better source of information? How does this look practically? I love the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
Acts 17:10-11

When Paul preached to the Bereans, they didn’t just accept what he taught. Instead, they examined the Scriptures to confirm that which he was teaching! The Bible does not treat them as naysayers or skeptics for this, but rather celebrates them and calls them “noble.”

Examine scripture to determine what is truth

Like the Bereans, we should listen with eagerness, but consistently be examining Scripture to confirm that which we’re being taught. By doing so, we will be better “equipped for every good work.”

Tune your ear to God’s Word

It’s easier (although not always easy) to distinguish between the truth and the lies of society when Scripture speaks directly to a specific topic. If someone tells you it’s good to steal, then you know it’s false because it goes against the 10 commandments.

But what if someone says you must vote for a particular politician? What if you hear a news story that seems hard to believe? What if you must decide which job is best for your family?

I’m not a great musician (I’m not a musician at all), but I do like to listen to music. Have you ever listened to a new song and thought, “isn’t this that band I really like?” The more familiar you become with a particular artist, the easier it becomes to identify their music – even when it is a song you have never heard before.

Tune your ears to the truth

In the same way, Scripture has a way of tuning our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of God. The more you read and study His Word, the easier it becomes to identify his voice in the world. Romans refers to this as “renewing your mind,”

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

When we begin to think like God, we become better equipped to discern His will and to do what is right. Two different passages in Hebrews demonstrate how our thinking can be transformed:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Hebrews 4:12

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Hebrews 5:11-14

Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that Scripture is living and active, in other words, it is extremely relevant today and capable of changing us. It holds a mirror to our own hearts and helps us discern our thoughts and intentions.

Hebrews 5 shows that we must constantly practice discernment by studying Scripture. If we fall out of practice, then we start to lose the ability to “distinguish good from evil.” In other words, tuning your ears to God’s voice is a lifetime calling – we can fall out of step quickly when we stop seeking to study Scripture.

And so, as leaders we are called to study the Word and to submit ourselves to good teaching. It helps us to identify the problems and biases in our own heart, and it can help renew our minds and transform our thinking to be more like God’s. When we begin to think like God, we are better equipped to recognize truth in the world.

Pray for discernment

One simple way to improve your discernment abilities is to pray for God to help you identify what is truth. He is an expert at this, better than anyone ever has been or will be.

Praying for discernment is not really a one-time thing either, it’s something we should do frequently. Starting your day? Pray for discernment. Got a big decision to make? Pray for discernment. Reading the news? Pray for discernment. Tough conversation at work? Pray for discernment.

You get the idea.

King Solomon is famous for praying for discernment when he became King. The story goes like this:

“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.”
1 Kings 3:9-12

Asking God for the ability to identify the truth and to discern between good and evil actually pleases God. It makes us better leaders and helps us put the focus on caring and leading others, rather than focusing on our own personal gain.

So pray for wisdom, pray for discernment, and pray for the ability to differentiate between the truth and the lies in all things.

Seek wisdom from spiritual mentors

If you find yourself considering information that is new or different, consider seeking wisdom from your spiritual mentors.

This is tricky, because unlike scripture, your spiritual mentors will be flawed and may be wrong. That being said, if you know and trust their hearts then it is worth seeking their perspective. If they disagree with your belief, then it will give you a chance to consider things in a different way.

mentor photo

We would also be wise to seek out spiritual mentors who can help offset the teachings of the world. We need discipleship and good preaching, but too often I see christians embracing the teachings of politicians, members of the media, or youtubers who don’t actually know, understand, or believe in Scripture.

Paul explains the importance of effective spiritual leaders in Ephesians:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:11-16

Good leaders who speak the truth equip us for the work of ministry and hekp us to unify in our faith. They give us strength and knowledge so that we are not “tossed to and fro” by the latest theories, news stories, or pieces of gossip.

This means we must also consider how our beliefs and actions also affect the people we are mentoring. If I embrace a lie, will they too? If I am led astray, then who will follow? Instead, we should speak the truth in love to help others grow the same way we ourselves are growing.

In all things, we should be encouraged to test our ideas and beliefs with wise counsel, listening and learning from their experience. At the same time, we should also continue to measure the teachings of mentors (or pastors or teachers) against the Word of God and pray for discernment.

Check Multiple (Reliable) Sources

Sometimes discerning the truth takes some effort. People love to twist the truth and lies can sound really convincing. If you read or hear something that surprises you or scares you, then you should look for other sources.

I found a great example of this recently. There is an online blogger (who I won’t link to because I believe he is bearing false witness) who argues that Tim Keller is heavily influenced by Marxism. To defend this argument, he pulled quotes from Keller’s book, The Reason for God:

“In college he was ‘heavily influenced by the neo-Marxist critical theory of the Frankfurt School’. He writes: ‘In 1968, this was heady stuff. The social activism was particularly attractive, and the critique of American bourgeoisie society was compelling…’”

This definitely makes it sound like Keller appreciates Marxism, but the quote is both misattributed and completely out of context. Look at what Keller’s passage in the book actually said:

Keller was not the one who was heavily influenced by Neo-Marxism, but rather the history and philosophy departments were. Furthermore, the quote goes on to explain that Keller believed there was something radically wrong with Neo-Marxism.

If you only read the original article, you could have easily embraced the false narrative. This is why it is so important to check your sources. Online articles will often link to other sources, but you should look at those in their proper context and check on other sources as well.

Deuteronomy 19 speaks to the importance of having multiple “witnesses” when an accusation is made.

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
Deuteronomy 19:15-19

We live in a time when accusations are flying through the air all around us. When you hear an accusation made, the temptation will be to immediately jump on the accusation bandwagon and “seek justice.”

And while justice should be swift, we should also take great care to seek out other sources and to “inquire diligently” to determine the truth. The Bible calls false accusations evil, and so there is no justice in bearing false witness or sharing the words of those who make false accusations as fact.

This is not to let evildoers off the hook, either. If you discover someone has done something wrong, justice should be brought to them. Speak out, seek other witnesses or sources, and trust in God’s ultimate justice.

What is the fruit?

A litmus test is a simple way to determine if a liquid is acidic or basic. It has been around for hundreds of years and is very reliable.

You take litmus paper and dip it into the liquid you want to test, and then the paper will turn a specific color. Red color means it is acidic, purple means it is neutral, and blue means it is basic (not-acidic).

Jesus knew there would be false teachers and that they would be dangerous, and so he provided us with a simple litmus test for identifying the truth.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Matthew 7:15-20

In my mind, there are two implications here for us.

First, if a teacher demonstrates consistently bad fruit then we should wary of trusting them. If their beliefs and their ideas are not leading to God-honoring outcomes then those beliefs and ideas will likely not lead us to honor God.

False teachers are particularly dangerous, because they may seem like innocent and kind sheep, but they are actually wolves in sheep clothing.

What is the fruit? How to determine what is truth

Second, we should look to our own fruit. Does embracing a certain belief or story enable you to glorify God? Or does it lead you to sin?

What, practically, are some of the negative fruits of believing false teachings? How can you determine if your beliefs are leading to positive fruit or negative fruit? Here are a few basic questions you can ask:

  • Does this belief make you more anxious? Or does it help you trust in God?
  • Does this belief lead you to mock others? Or does it lead you to love them more?
  • Are you demonizing or dehumanizing people who are made in God’s image?
  • Are your beliefs hurting the innocent or distracting you from true justice?
  • Do you desire to worship God? Or embrace modern idols?

Fruit matters, so seek to embrace teachings that produce good fruit. Seek the Lord in all things. Meditate on His Word day and night, so that as Psalms 1 says, you may be “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.”

Does it actually come to pass?

Fear is a powerful motivator. People in power (or people seeking power) will use fear to get you to take action (win your vote, purchase their product, call a supposed threat guilty, etc).

There are times when fear should drive you to action. If you see a wild wolf, fear will tell you to stay away and take action to protect yourself.

What if someone screams at you to run because there is a wolf on the loose and it’s heading this way? What if it turns out they were joking? Or the wolf was actually a kitten? Or they just imagined the whole thing?

wolf photo

Odds are, you would trust this person less the next time they started screaming about something dangerous.

This is an election year in the United States, which means I receive 2-3 pieces of mail everyday with dark and sinister warnings. Does this sound familiar?

“If [insert name of politician you don’t want me to vote for] gets elected, it will be a total disaster because [insert apocalyptic reasons of doom].”

Here’s the deal – I’m not saying leaders cannot lead a country to destruction. They can and they have many times over. But should you listen to every voice who predicts doom?

And these are not the only predictions you find in the news. I see stories every day about the stock market’s impending “collapse” or the currency “revolution” or the “microchip mark of the beast” that will surely arrive in the coming weeks or months or years.

If you want to know if these messengers are reliable or speak on behalf of the Lord, then there is a simple test. God explains it in Deuteronomy:

And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
Deuteronomy 18:21-22

In other words, if someone predicts things that do not come true, we do not need to be afraid of their predictions.

I would argue that there are two tiers of this principle: first, for people who claim they speak for God, and second for people who are making general predictions about the future (just not in God’s name).

If someone claims to speak in God’s name, then they should be correct 100% of the time. Anything short of that proves that they do not speak on behalf of God and should therefore not be trusted.

Today we also have a wide variety of experts. Economists can predict the stock market and housing prices, for instance. Sports analysts have made an industry out of predicting who makes the playoffs and wins.

In these instances, people are really making educated guesses. They won’t get it right all of the time, but we should still look at their track record and take that into consideration.

If an expert has repeatedly claimed that the government will return us to a gold standard, but this has never happened, we would be wise to take his predictions with a massive grain of salt.

Before you embrace the words of an “expert” or a “prophet,” look at their track record. Do they have a history of being right? Or do they have a history of explaining why they weren’t technically wrong (even though they were)? And if they have been proven false before, then be careful to consider everything they say.

Recognize that you are, in fact, biased

Have you ever wondered why people can believe things that seem so obviously false to you?

As people we love to think that we are rational and capable of thinking clearly. Although others may struggle with bias, we ourselves have embraced truths that are self-evident.

Unfortunately, countless studies have proven this wrong. Two studies out of Stanford in the 1970s, for instance, arrived at this conclusion: “Even after the evidence ‘for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,’ the researchers noted.”

In other words, learning facts that contradict our existing beliefs will rarely actually change our existing beliefs.

The Atlantic outlined the role of this phenomenon, called Cognitive Dissonance, in our interpretation of modern events. We always want to believe we are right, and so when we learn new information we make it fit with our pre-existing beliefs instead of admitting that we were wrong.

The Atlantic article provides a great example of this with a story about the Heaven’s Gate cult. They believed that when the “Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard.”

comet photo - what is truth? Cognitive Dissonance

They spent a ton of money on a really nice telescope so they could see the spaceship coming. When no spaceship was seen traveling behind the comet, they did not realize the error of their beliefs. Instead, they attempted to return the telescope because it was clearly defective.

This example is extreme, but it should serve as a reminder about our ability to interpret truth in a way that aligns with what we already believe. Most of us find it really easy to identify the biases of others, but fail to recognize that we ourselves our biased. As Jesus put it,

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?
Matthew 7:3-4

If we hope to discern truth and see clearly, then we must take our existing biases into account. You are more likely to trust politicians you have voted for. You are more likely to support co-workers you like. You are more likely to agree with news sources that align with your pre-existing view of events.

This is human nature, but it can make it more difficult to discern the truth. How do you overcome your own biases? It is a challenge, but you can start by

  • Recognizing that you might have biases you don’t even know
  • Praying for discernment
  • Remembering that your worth does not come from being right, but from the work of Christ
  • Separating facts or events from the source (if you are biased for our against a source)
  • Get comfortable with taking more time to determine what is truth

Consider the Motivations of the Speaker

This principle for determining what is truth is tricky – people’s motivations can be really hard to identify. We have to be careful not to make assumptions because you rarely get to know why someone does something.

That being said, there are some motivations that are more obvious than others. As an example, I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the media and what motivates them to share the news stories they share.

There are, of course, countless motivations. Some journalists really just want to get the truth out there. Others are motivated by politics. Some want to win a Pulitzer.

And yet, in order to stay in business, the media needs to make money. The more eyeballs their news story gets, the more revenue they can make from advertisers.

This has been the case for hundreds of years. Newspaper headlines have always been written in a way to grab your attention and grab your coins. But 100 years ago, there were only a few newspapers available.

newspaper photo

Now, we have tens of thousands of “news” sources available to us through the internet. Every single one of them wants you to click on their article, and they know they’re competing with countless other media sites.

The old saying is, “if it bleeds, it leads.” For some reason, people love outrage and bad news. Studies have demonstrated our preference for bad news, with “war, weather, disaster, money and crime” being our top interests.

In a competitive media market place, you have to go extremely outrageous to go viral. And so, news stories consistently push provocative stories, and some that are simply not true, in order to grab attention and get your click.

In his book, Trust Me I’m Lying, Ryan Holliday explains how easy it is to manipulate the media. He was responsible for marketing a clothing brand called American Apparel. He would intentionally “leak” ads to the media that were explicit and “had not been approved.” News websites around the country would post news stories about these “secretly leaked and offensive ads from American Apparel” from a trusted source and the stories would go viral.

By doing this, Holliday got millions of dollars worth of exposure for the brand and only spent $1500.

Outrage sells, and so most media sources will push stories that sound outrageous our way, even if the truth is actually not that outrageous.

There are countless voices out there today, and so we must do our best to consider the messenger and their motivations. Appearances can be deceiving, and we don’t usually have the ability to know someone’s heart, but God does.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7

Most news sources may appear to want to unveil the truth for people like you, but ultimately, the majority just want your eyeballs so they can make more money from advertising.

There are, undoubtedly, a few crusaders seeking to maintain as much journalistic integrity as possible. But at the end of the day, each media outlet knows their market and is going to cater their stories and their spin to their listeners/viewers/readers.

When seeking to discern the truth, we should consider the heart behind the message as best we can. As always, praying for discernment and tuning your ears to God’s truth will only help.

Conclusion and Summary

Discerning truth is not easy, especially in a time where we are surrounded by so many voices shouting to be heard.

Ultimately, it comes down to one simple thing: staying at the feet of Jesus.

The closer we are to him, the easier it will become to discern the truth. He knows the truth, his Spirit provides discernment, he renews our minds, he knows our hearts and the hearts of others.

If you’re listening to the news or co-workers or classmates more than you listen to the Lord, you will struggle with the truth.

Spend time in His Word or in prayer before you check the news. Mix in sermons or the Bible Project podcast before listening to the news. Learn from spiritual leaders and mentors who seek the Lord everyday.

Discovering the truth can take some effort, but the truth will set you free.

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