There is a certain discipline that people of maturity have practiced so that their senses and abilities are trained to discern good and evil. This discernment does not come naturally; it must be intentionally developed. Paul taught in his first letter to the church in Corinth that this training is similar to the discipline an athlete needs if he is to compete well. He gave examples of the kind of voluntary self-denial, preparation, and discipline an apostle must go through for the sake of his mission.
Don’t become sluggish.
The author of Hebrews used similar language. He reprimanded his audience in chapter 5,
Concerning Him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. (Hebrews 5:11)
This translation uses the word “dull,” but “sluggish” is more accurate. It’s a mixed metaphor, actually—how can hearing become sluggish? But when we see the word “sluggish” here, we’re supposed to think of a journey or pilgrimage. We’re aliens and sojourners. This earth is not our home, and it is easy to become lax—to drag our feet, to stop trying.
The word is used only twice in the New Testament, and both uses appear within just a few verses of each other. Hebrews 6:11-12 says,
And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (emphasis mine)
The author uses that word again. Here it could refer to a competition, or simply to a pilgrimage—like the children of Israel marching toward the Promised Land. Either way, he says, don’t become sluggish.
Train so that you can discern good and evil.
Hebrews 5:13-14 gives the alternative to sluggishness:
For everyone who partakes only of milk, is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
“Who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” It’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it?
Take a look at these two texts with their athletic metaphors together: “run in such a way that you may win” (1 Corinthians 9:24) and “train so that you can discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
The writer of Hebrews wanted his readers to be able to discern between good and evil. The simplest meanings of good and evil here are moral right and wrong, and that interpretation is clearly implied. In this context, though, it’s probable that the readers were threatened by theological misinformation. Wrong teaching was drawing them away from the solid foundation of the Christian faith, and the author wanted them to be discerning enough to know when something was thoughtfully right and when something was deceptively or misleadingly wrong.
You may also be interested in “Don’t be distracted by false teachers.”
Are you training your heart and mind to be discerning?
Are you ready to take your game to another level? You can prepare, train, and practice the disciplines that will allow you to become a mature, discerning person. Don’t expect to know how to do the right things all of a sudden. Don’t expect to be in game condition when you haven’t gone to practice.
In the “game day” moments of your life, when you’re in a potentially morally compromised situation, will you have trained your heart and your mind so that you will be ready to respond appropriately? Have you trained and disciplined yourself in moral and spiritual decision making?
We often hear about the academic life, the spiritual life, the social life, and the emotional life, as if these are separate things. But really, these are all mixed in together. I’m absolutely persuaded that in the reading of great books, in the writing of research papers, or in the running of wind sprints, you’re learning things that touch the total person. You’re learning discipline, and your moral sensibilities are being trained.
Your spiritual sensibilities, your intellectual sensibilities, and all the rest of you is working out so that at the right moment you’ll be able to do the right thing and make the right decision. You must prepare so that you can win the prize of doing the right thing at the right moment. Your senses must be trained by practice so that you won’t become sluggish and lazy. You must train to be able to discern what’s good and bad, what’s beautiful and ugly, what’s right and wrong, and what’s moral and immoral.
Your own commitment to discipline makes a difference. Will you run in such a way as to win? Will you allow your senses to be disciplined, educated, and trained to know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, ugly and beautiful?
Read more about the intersection of academic, spiritual, social, and emotional life in my HBU Faith & College Series.
The previous was adapted by Rachel Motte from a convocation address Dr. Robert Sloan delivered to the students of Houston Baptist University.