Pure Intimacy: God's Design for Sex

Gray Matters: 5 Principles of Discernment

These biblical principles will radically affect the way you approach decisions about media and daily life.

by Eric Simmons

Gray matters. We all deal with them ... those places in our lives where the line between "right" and "wrong" gets fuzzy. Or even disappears.

Is it OK just to fast-forward the sex scene and watch the rest of the movie?

Should I smoke a cigar with my unbelieving father?

How tight is too tight?

Can a Christian play poker?

Can I have a beer with dinner?

I can't tell you which movies to watch or what music to listen to. I can't give you a list of Do's and Don'ts. But together we can go to Scripture to cultivate discernment in the gray matters.

Principled Discernment

Hebrews 5:14 (ESV) says, "Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil."

Notice something in this passage: There's no mention of gray. There's good, and there's evil. And how do you tell the difference? Discernment. Just because something is fuzzy or unclear to us doesn't mean it's fuzzy or unclear to God.

If we're honest we'll all admit we need to grow in discernment. But how? Should we work on some giant checklist of Do's and Don'ts?

A few years ago I had a series of conversations with people in the church I have the joy to help pastor. When I would talk about gray matters with them, and ask them why they did or didn't do something, their response was often the same: "That's just my conviction." When I would challenge them about how they came to that conviction they usually didn't know. They had a "conviction" or practice that often wasn't rooted in Scripture.

Does Scripture address R-Rated movies? Music styles? Not directly. But God has provided principles in His Word to help us discern how to live, what to choose, and what to reject. We need principles from Scripture to inform our practice of living.

So here are five principles for growing in discernment that have implications for our daily lives:

  • Imitate God
  • Distrust your heart
  • Think biblically
  • Involve others
  • Decide to worship

Principle 1: Imitate God

When you're faced with a decision in an area that seems gray, what standard do you use? People around you? Culture?

The Bible gives us a standard in Ephesians 5:1, "Be imitators of God, as beloved children." Our standard is nothing less than God himself. We are called to imitate him.

Scripture calls us "beloved children." Think about that for a second. You were once an enemy of God. But now, because of what Christ has done for you, your relationship with the Father has been restored. You who were once an enemy are called a beloved child.

When we're saved, Christ comes in and transforms everything. He creates in us a love for him that drives out a love for other things. Do's and Don'ts last for a little while, but a love for Christ is far more powerful. When discernment gets hard, when we're tired of the "constant practice" it takes, we have to remember that the goal of discernment is to make us more like the Father who saved us.

God has made my son, Carthy, to want to be like me in everything. Every morning when I sit down in my little couch to read God's Word, I hear his footsteps coming down the steps. He sees me reading God's Word:

"Oh Dadda, I gotta go get my Bible!"

So he runs back upstairs and gets his little red picture Bible.

I love to mark up my Bible with notes and underline stuff. Carthy sits right next to me looking at his picture Bible.

"Oh Dadda, dadda, let me have your pen! Can I have your pen?"


"Ah, I gotta make a check-line right here, little check-line right here."

Carthy sees what I'm doing and wants to imitate me. We want to be like those we love the most. If you love the Father you will desire to be like him in every area of your life. If you love the Father you will desire every part of your life to cry out to God that you love Him, no matter how great the personal sacrifice.

Now let me ask you a question: Is your imitation of the Father obvious? Is it obvious in small decisions, in big decisions, in preferences, in your speech, in your humor, in your thoughts, in your entertainment choices, in your free time, in your goals, in your dress? Whom do you resemble? Whom do you imitate?

Of course, this will look different in different communities and cultures. So use this principle of imitating the Father to pray, think and develop a personal practice.

Principle 2: Distrust Your Heart

The biggest challenge you're going to face in practicing discernment will not come from your culture or your community. The biggest problem is inside you. It's your heart.

Look at Jeremiah 17: 9-10:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

"I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways,

according to the fruit of his deeds."

The Bible tells us very clearly that that the number one thing we should distrust is our own hearts. If you want to cultivate discernment in gray matters and imitate God, you must distrust your heart.

This is completely different than the view of self our secular culture promotes. Here's a song that *NSYNC did years ago on "Sesame Street" (yeah, you read that right) that sums up our culture's view of self:

Believe in yourself

Just believe in yourself

You can go where you wanna go

Do what you wanna do

Believe in yourself

Just believe in yourself

Some folks try to tell you there are things you shouldn't do

But what seems right to them quite often might be wrong for you

Believe in yourself

Just believe in yourself

You can try what you need to try

No one should question why

But here's what the Bible says: "He who trusts in his own heart is a fool" (Proverbs 28:26). The enemy of discernment is trusting in your own heart. Our heart is deceitful because it is desperately sick with sin.

For the Christian, the power of sin has been broken and guilt of sin atoned for, but its influence still remains and God calls us to war against it. Sin is deceptive and brings confusion where God desires us to have clarity. So be suspicious of your own heart — especially when it comes to the gray matters of life.

Here are some ways your sinful heart can deceive you (drawn from my own mistakes):

You focus on issues instead of motives. You say, "There's nothing wrong with _____ (a movie, concert, video game)," instead of, "What is my motive in doing this?"

You justify yourself because of good intentions or perceived maturity. You think, "I'm mature enough. I can handle it. It doesn't affect me. I just need to relate to these people."

You question God's standard. You think, "God will just forgive me." "Did God really mean that?" "The Lord won't mind."

You're more comfortable with confusion than clarity. You think, "I'll just keep doing what I'm doing even if I'm not sure it's right — it's easier than stopping to think about it."

If you're tempted to feel condemned right now, let me remind you of a simple truth: Yes, we have hearts that deceive us, but we also have a Savior who has saved us and a Spirit who will lead us in the gray matters of our lives. God has given you the principles of Scripture, the Holy Spirit and the counsel of pastors and godly friends so that you can cultivate ever greater discernment, distinguishing good from evil and making daily choices that please and glorify our Father. He's given you literally everything you need.

Principle 3: Think Biblically

If decisions about gray matters are hard for you, the problem might be a simple one. Maybe you're just not familiar enough with God's word.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, "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 competent, equipped for every good work."

Sometimes I only want to apply the parts of God's Word that yell at me: "Don't have extramarital sex! Don't lie! Don't steal! Don't covet!" But what about the less obvious things? Things like watching a certain TV show or smoking cigarettes or wearing a certain piece of clothing. In those areas I don't think God yells the answer; I think He whispers it.

I learned this the hard way when I married Lisa. The more I get to know her the more I learn what she likes and dislikes. She doesn't like it when I scare her at 11:30 at night or dump cold water on her. But she loves it when I write her notes, and when I buy her flowers and gifts. And she really loves when I make dinner (even if it's horrible). My wife didn't come with a manual. I had to live with her, watch her, ask questions.

In these gray matters I think God wants to draw us into a relationship with Himself. He wants to whisper the answer through His Word by revealing His character and plan. He wants to tell us what He likes and doesn't like. God's Word is critical because it's where He reveals all this.

Ephesians 5:17 says, "Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is." Scripture shows us God's will — it's to redeem a people through the gospel of Jesus Christ to form a different and distinct community that reflects Him to a dying world. So when you're thinking about gray matters ask yourself, "Does this fit into God's will as revealed in His Word? Will this help me represent the gospel? Will this help me be part of Jesus' distinct community?"

The more biblical our thinking, the clearer things become, and the more we'll be able to practice godly discernment. Ground your thinking in God's Word.

Principle 4: Involve Others

Ever notice that a lot of times our brilliant ideas are really very, very bad ideas?

Once my friend Isaac was out hiking and saw a big sign that read: "Rattlesnakes. Beware. Do Not Go Down These Cliffs." But he wanted to get to the refreshing river below so he assumed the sign was just wrong. Brilliant, huh? As he left the group he was with and started down the cliffs, he began jumping from rock to rock. Then he saw them. Rattlesnakes. Three of them. On the rock he was just about to jump to.

Notice how Isaac didn't ask anyone about his great idea to go down those cliffs? This is what we do so often in gray matters. We break away, isolate ourselves, and just assume we know best. When Isaac nearly leaped onto a bunch of rattlesnakes it was an unusually vivid picture of the messes we can get ourselves into when we go our own way.

Proverbs 18:1-2 says, "Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire. He breaks out against all sound judgment. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion." Are you isolating yourself from God's community? Or are you involving others in your decisions, even when you think you know what is "right"?

If you distrust your heart — as explained in the second principle — you'll remember how easily it can warp your view of things. Again Proverbs says, "The way of the fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice" (Proverbs 12:15). You need God's Word and other believers to help you see straight.

Involving others means making them part of your life — living in community with them. You don't have to make it a formal process with daily check-ups or weekly meetings. You probably already have plenty of opportunities to interact with other believers, so just work at making the most of them. When you drive to a meeting with a friend or run into someone at Starbucks, seize the opportunity. Here are three ways to start:

Inform others. Let them know about your particular temptations and your current struggles with sin. Ask them, "In light of all this, what's wise?"

Get counsel. When making a decision — whether it's what house to buy or what movie to rent — involve others.

Ask questions. Don't just ask generally for counsel. Ask specific questions like, "What am I not seeing right now? Am I thinking right?"

Involving others in your life can be a huge way to receive God's help and will keep you from jumping into sin before you realize what you're doing.

Principle 5: Decide to Worship

Even after looking at and applying the principles of discernment I've explained to this point, you'll still come to a moment of decision in the gray matters. Let's get the fifth principle started by looking at Romans 12:1-2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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.

Here God is not just talking about your physical frame — your arms and legs — but every aspect of who you are. We are to use everything about ourselves to worship God.

What's our motivation? As Paul says, it is "by the mercies of God" we present our bodies as sacrifices, because Christ has bought and saved us. We say, "Lord, in light of what you've done for me, that you saved me from running headlong into hell, what a joy it is to not have to listen to the radio today, but just worship you through prayer." Christianity has a cost — every hobby, every interest, every part of your body. We're sacrificing everything about us to God's glory.

And here's one huge implication of this for our lives: Every moment of your day is a moment to worship the living God. Now, I often think "worship" is singing. But true worship is more than a song. It's a sacrifice. God calls us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices in an act of worship.

Deciding to worship God in every area changes our response in ... every area. Here are just a few.

Media: Your first question shouldn't be "Is this appropriate?" but "Who owns my eyes? Whom do they belong to? Who owns my ears?"

Clothing: Really, immodesty is saying "You know what Lord, I own my own body and I will do with it what I want and wear what I want." But modesty says "I know that physical attractiveness is given to me for your glory God and for my spouse."

Money: Our checkbook reveals what we worship, doesn't it? Who owns your checkbook? Tithing and otherwise spending with God's glory in view says, "My money is not my own."

Career: Are you desperate to live the American Dream with two cars in the garage and a white picket fence? Ask yourself, "Who owns my career?"

Decide to worship by giving yourself as a living sacrifice to God, holy and pleasing. Decide to worship God in every gray matter you encounter.


We've covered five biblical principles that inform godly discernment:

  • Imitate God
  • Distrust your heart
  • Think biblically
  • Involve others
  • Decide to worship

Get these biblical principles into your life and they'll radically affect the way you approach the gray matters in your life. God has provided us with the tools. With His help we can create a biblical practice of discernment.

About the author

Eric Simmons is a pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. He and his wife Lisa have three children.