Can You “Distinguish Both Right and Wrong”?

“Keep on making sure of what is acceptable to the Lord.”​—EPHESIANS 5:10.

1. In what way can life today be perplexing, and why?

“I WELL know, O Jehovah, that to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.” (Jeremiah 10:23) Jeremiah’s insightful observation applies to us today with added force. Why? It is because we are living in “critical times hard to deal with,” as the Bible foretold. (2 Timothy 3:1) Every day, we are confronted with perplexing situations that require that we make decisions. Large or small, these decisions can have a profound effect on our welfare​—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

2. What choices may be considered trivial, yet how do dedicated Christians view such?

2 Many choices we make in our daily life may be considered routine or trivial. Each day, for example, we go through the process of choosing the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the people we see, and so on. We make these choices almost automatically, with little thought. But are such matters really trivial? For dedicated Christians, it is a matter of deep concern that the choices we make in our attire and appearance, in our eating and drinking, and in our speech and conduct always reflect our role as servants of the Most High, Jehovah God. We are reminded of the apostle Paul’s words: “Whether you are eating or drinking or doing anything else, do all things for God’s glory.”​—1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 4:6; 1 Timothy 2:9, 10.

3. What choices are of genuinely serious concern?

3 Then there are choices that are of even more serious concern. The decision to marry or to remain single, for example, surely has a profound and lasting effect on one’s life. To be sure, choosing the right person to marry, to be one’s lifelong partner, is no small matter. * (Proverbs 18:22) Additionally, our choice in friends and associates, in education, in employment, and in entertainment and recreation plays an influential, even decisive, role in our spirituality​—hence, in our eternal welfare.​—Romans 13:13, 14; Ephesians 5:3, 4.

4. (a) What ability would be most desirable? (b) What questions need to be considered?

4 Faced with all of this, it is certainly desirable for us to have the ability to distinguish  between what is right and what is wrong or between what appears to be right and what is really right. “There exists a way that is upright before a man, but the ways of death are the end of it afterward,” warns the Bible. (Proverbs 14:12) Thus, we might ask: ‘How can we develop the ability to distinguish between right and wrong? Where can we turn in order to find the needed guidance in our decision making? What have people, past and present, done in this regard, and what has been the outcome?’

“The Philosophy and Empty Deception” of the World

5. What kind of world did the early Christians live in?

5 The first-century Christians lived in a world dominated by Greco-Roman values and ideals. On the one hand, there were the comforts and luxuries of the Roman way of life, regarded by many as something to be envied. On the other hand, the intellectual circle of the day was abuzz not only with the philosophical ideas of Plato and Aristotle but also with those of the newer schools, such as the Epicureans and the Stoics. When the apostle Paul came to Athens on his second missionary tour, he was confronted by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who felt that they were superior to “this chatterer,” Paul.​—Acts 17:18.

6. (a) What were some of the early Christians tempted to do? (b) What warning did Paul sound?

6 It is not hard, therefore, to understand why some among the early Christians were drawn to the pretentious ways and life-styles of the people around them. (2 Timothy 4:10) Those who were part and parcel of the system seemed to enjoy many benefits and advantages, and the choices they made appeared to be sound. The world seemed to have something valuable to offer that the dedicated Christian way of life did not. However, the apostle Paul warned: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) Why did Paul say that?

7. What does the wisdom of the world really amount to?

7 Paul sounded that warning because he sensed a real danger lurking behind the thinking of those attracted by the world. His use of the term “philosophy and empty deception” is especially significant. The word “philosophy” literally means “the love and pursuit of wisdom.” That in itself may be beneficial. In fact, the Bible, particularly in the book of Proverbs, encourages the pursuit of the right kind of knowledge and wisdom. (Proverbs 1:1-7; 3:13-18) Paul, however, coupled “philosophy” with “empty deception.” In other words, Paul viewed the wisdom that the world had to offer as empty and deceptive. Like an inflated balloon, it had the appearance of solidity, but there was no substance to it. It would certainly be futile, even disastrous, to base one’s choice of right and wrong on something as insubstantial as “the philosophy and empty deception” of the world.

Those Saying That “Good Is Bad and Bad Is Good”

8. (a) To whom do people turn for advice? (b) What kind of advice is dispensed?

8 Things are not very different today. In practically every field of human endeavor, there are experts galore. Marriage and family counselors, columnists, self-styled therapists, astrologers, psychics, and others are ready to offer advice​—for a fee. But what kind of advice is being offered? Often, Bible standards on morality are put aside to make room for the so-called new morality. For example, in speaking about the government’s refusal to register “same-sex marriages,” an editorial in Canada’s  mainstream newspaper The Globe and Mail declares: “In the year 2000, it is grotesque that a loving and committed couple should be denied their fondest wish because they happen to be of the same sex.” The trend today is to be tolerant, not judgmental. Everything is considered relative; there is no longer any absolute in right and wrong.​—Psalm 10:3, 4.

9. What do people considered respectable in society often do?

9 Others look to the socially and financially successful​—the rich and famous—​as models in their decision making. Although the rich and famous are considered respectable in today’s society, they often pay only lip service to virtues like honesty and trust. In the pursuit of power and profit, many feel no qualms about cutting corners and trampling on moral principles. To achieve fame and popularity, some casually discard established values and standards in preference to behavior that is bizarre and shocking. The result is a profit-motivated, permissive society in which the motto is, “Anything goes.” Is it any wonder that people are confused and lost when it comes to right and wrong?​—Luke 6:39.

10. How have Isaiah’s words about good and bad proved true?

10 The tragic consequences of bad decisions made on the basis of faulty guidance are all around us​—broken marriages and families, drug and alcohol abuse, violent youth gangs, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, to name but a few. Really, how can we expect things to be otherwise when people abandon all standards or points of reference when it comes to right and wrong? (Romans 1:28-32) It is just as the prophet Isaiah declared: “Woe to those who are saying that good is bad and bad is good, those who are putting darkness for light and light for darkness, those who are putting bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those wise in their own eyes and discreet even in front of their own faces!”​—Isaiah 5:20, 21.

11. Why is it unsound thinking to rely on oneself when determining right and wrong?

11 The fact that God called to account those ancient Jews who became “wise in their own eyes” makes it all the more important for us to avoid relying on ourselves in determining right and wrong. Many people today subscribe to the notion of “just listen to your heart,” or “do what you feel is right.” Is such an approach sound? Not according to the Bible, which plainly says: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Would you rely on a treacherous and desperate person to guide you in your decision making? Hardly. If anything, you would probably do just the opposite of what such a person tells you. That is why the Bible reminds us: “He that is trusting in his own heart is stupid, but he that is walking in  wisdom is the one that will escape.”​—Proverbs 3:5-7; 28:26.

Learning What Is Acceptable to God

12. Why do we need to prove to ourselves the “will of God”?

12 Since we should rely neither on the wisdom of the world nor on ourselves when it comes to right and wrong, what should we do? Note this clear and unambiguous counsel from the apostle Paul: “Quit being fashioned after this system of things, but be transformed by making your mind over, that you may prove to yourselves the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2) Why do we need to prove to ourselves the will of God? In the Bible, Jehovah gives a straightforward but powerful reason, saying: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) Thus, rather than relying on so-called common sense or good feelings, we are admonished: “Keep on making sure of what is acceptable to the Lord.”​—Ephesians 5:10.

13. How do Jesus’ words recorded at John 17:3 emphasize the need to know what is acceptable to God?

13 Jesus Christ emphasized this need when he said: “This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3) The expression “taking in knowledge” has a far deeper meaning than simply “knowing.” According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary, it “indicates a relation between the person knowing and the object known; in this respect, what is known is of value or importance to the one who knows, and hence the establishment of the relationship.” To have a relationship with someone means more than just knowing who that person is or what his name is. It also involves knowing the likes and dislikes of that person, knowing his values, his standards​—and honoring them.​—1 John 2:3; 4:8.

Training Our Perceptive Powers

14. What did Paul say is the chief distinction between spiritual babes and mature people?

14 How, then, can we acquire the ability to distinguish between right and wrong? Paul’s words to the first-century Hebrew Christians provide the answer. He wrote: “Everyone that partakes of milk is unacquainted with the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to mature people, to those who through use have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.” Here Paul contrasted “milk,” which he described in the preceding verse as “the elementary things of the sacred pronouncements of God,” with “solid food,” which belongs to “mature people,” who “have their  perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.”​—Hebrews 5:12-14.

15. Why is hard work needed to gain an accurate knowledge of God?

15 This means that, first of all, we must work hard to gain an accurate understanding of God’s standards as contained in his Word, the Bible. We are not looking for a list of dos and don’ts to tell us what we may or may not do. The Bible is not such a book. Rather, Paul explained: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17) To benefit from that teaching, reproving, and disciplining, we must put our mind and thinking ability to use. This takes effort, but the result​—being “fully competent, completely equipped for every good work”—​is well worth it.​—Proverbs 2:3-6.

16. What does it mean to have one’s perceptive powers trained?

16 Then, as Paul indicated, mature people “have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.” Here we come to the crux of the matter. The expression “have their perceptive powers trained” literally means “the sense organs having been trained (like gymnast).” (Kingdom Interlinear Translation) A seasoned gymnast on a chosen apparatus, such as rings or a balance beam, can perform split-second maneuvers that seem to defy gravity or other natural laws. He has full control of his body members at all times, and he senses almost instinctively what moves he must make so that he can complete his routine successfully. All of this is the result of rigorous training and incessant practice.

17. In what sense should we be like gymnasts?

17 We too must be trained like a gymnast, spiritually speaking, if we want to be sure that the decisions and choices we make are always sound. We must at all times have full control of our senses and body members. (Matthew 5:29, 30; Colossians 3:5-10) For example, do you discipline your eyes not to look at immoral material or your ears not to listen to degrading music or speech? It is true that such unwholesome material is all around us. However, it is still up to us whether we let it take root in our heart and mind. We can imitate the psalmist who said: “I shall not set in front of my eyes any good-for-nothing thing. The doing of those who fall away I have hated; it does not cling to me. . . . As for anyone speaking falsehoods, he will not be firmly established in front of my eyes.”​—Psalm 101:3, 7.

Train Your Perceptive Powers Through Use

18. What is suggested by the expression “through use” in Paul’s explanation about training one’s perceptive powers?

18 Bear in mind that it is “through use” that we can have our perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong. In other words, every time we are faced with a decision, we should learn to use our mental powers to discern what Bible principles are involved and how they can be applied. Develop the habit of doing research in Bible  publications provided through “the faithful and discreet slave.” (Matthew 24:45) We can, of course, seek the help of mature Christians. Nonetheless, the personal effort we put forth to study God’s Word, coupled with prayer to Jehovah for his guidance and spirit, will pay rich dividends in the long run.​—Ephesians 3:14-19.

19. What blessings can be ours if we progressively train our perceptive powers?

19 As we progressively train our perceptive powers, the objective is that “we should no longer be babes, tossed about as by waves and carried hither and thither by every wind of teaching by means of the trickery of men, by means of cunning in contriving error.” (Ephesians 4:14) Rather, based on our knowledge and understanding of what is acceptable to God, we can make wise decisions, big and small, that are beneficial to us, upbuilding to our fellow worshipers, and above all pleasing to our heavenly Father. (Proverbs 27:11) What a blessing and protection that is in these critical times!


^ par. 3 In a list of over 40 of the most stressful experiences in people’s life, compiled by Drs. Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, death of a spouse, divorce, and separation occupy the top three spots. Getting married ranks seventh.

Can You Explain?

• What ability is needed to make sound decisions?

• Why is it unwise to look to prominent people or to rely on our own feelings when deciding right and wrong?

• Why should we be sure of what is acceptable to God when making decisions, and how can we do so?

• What does it mean ‘to have our perceptive powers trained’?

[Study Questions]

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Looking to the rich and famous for guidance is futile

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Like a gymnast, we must have full control of all our senses and body members