What is really important? What things do you consider to be a big deal? Have you ever considered these questions? We all have principles that we believe are worth fighting for. We all have people in our lives we stand up for. But when do I cross the line from being principled to being someone who is just plain difficult to deal with? In other words, do I have the wisdom to know the difference between principle and preference? Am I standing on what I know to be vital truth or have I elevated something dear to me higher than it deserves? Knowing when to fight and knowing when to yield requires discernment, and having discernment is critical to healthy relationships.
Learning discernment starts early. Most of us can probably remember instances from our childhood where one of our parents or a teacher told us, “You can’t always have things your way.” Not only is this teaching discernment, but, more importantly, it is teaching the child that they are not the boss of anyone else. As I grew I had those experiences where I demanded my own way simply because that is what I wanted. Those experiences never ended well. More discernment learned.
As a husband I’ve found that knowing the difference between principle and preference removes a lot of stress from our marriage. I was raised to turn off lights when you leave a room and close whatever you open (door, drawer, etc.). Evidently my wife was not brought up with those things emphasized. Early in our marriage seeing a light on in an empty room or an open drawer in the kitchen would cause my blood pressure to climb. Eventually, though, I had to ask myself, “What exactly is the big deal?” In other words, what is the principle that is at stake here? I could not find a principle. All those things were simply my preference. Now, I can argue some practical reasons why lights should be off and drawers and doors closed, but are those reasons principles? I found that it is best in our marriage to consider it my wife’s job to turn on lights and open things, and it is my job to turn off lights and close things. So much stress eliminated. I am not saying that I could not remind her to turn off the light when leaving a room. What I am saying is I needed to remind her gently and not stress over it.
The same thing applies to parenting. You begin to discern when a child’s behavior is disobedience or childishness. You learn you have to pick your battles. We found our principle of parenting to be more concerned with our children’s character than with their feelings. So if a particular behavior or attitude does not reflect good character (that is, it is direct disobedience), it is good for our children to feel bad. Also, this meant we were not concerned with building self-esteem, but we were concerned that they might not think more highly of themselves than they should (Romans 12:3) or be wise in their own eyes (Proverbs 3:7). Is a spilled drink childishness or disobedience? It could be either. Is hairstyle a principle? Rarely. Some of the battles you pick with one child may be different from the battles you pick with another child. Again, it requires discernment.
We need to be able to distinguish between principle and preference when we are in our workplace or the supermarket. We need to do this anytime we interact with others. This especially applies to the body of Christ. In Romans 14:1 Paul says not to quarrel over opinions. What he shows in this chapter is I may have a principle that others in the body do not have. I can hold tightly to my principle, and I can defend my principle, but I cannot force others to adopt my principle. Let me be clear, I am not saying the truth of God’s Word is up for debate. Remember Paul said in Ephesians 4:5 there is one faith, and Jude tells us to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). What I am saying is there are matters over which one member of the body will deem important and another member of the body will not. We need discernment to know which matters are vital and which are not vital. (See Article IV – Core Versus Secondary Beliefs of the Constitution of Reformation Christian Fellowship for a more in-depth discussion.)
All discernment must be based on the truth of God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. In the second chapter of 1 Kings, King David dies and his son Solomon is eventually established as king over the nation of Israel. In verse 5 of the next chapter God appears to Solomon in a dream and commands Solomon, “Ask what I shall give you.” Solomon asks for wisdom so that he may be able to discern good and evil. This request pleased the Lord.
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 3:10-12 ESV)
Also, Proverbs 14:8 (ESV) says, “The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.” The NIV translates the first part of that verse in this way, “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways.” In other words, what makes one prudent is the wisdom to discern what is right and live by what is right. The way of a fool may seem right at first but it winds up being a lie (see Proverbs 14:12). In the New Testament Paul says to renew your mind so you can discern what pleases the Lord.
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 ESV)
Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8b-10 ESV)
We must immerse ourselves in the Word of God. As the writer of Hebrews said in Hebrews Chapter 5
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 ESV)
As we grow in the Word may we not only grow in the ability to distinguish between good and evil, but also grow in the ability to distinguish principle from preference.