Sean McDowell | May 6, 2024

4 Steps for Discerning the Times

One of the most powerful lessons I learned from my father is how to discern the times in which we live. He taught me how to look beneath issues of the day and understand the larger cultural moment.

There is biblical precedent for the importance of discerning the times. Some of King David’s men were trained and skilled in understanding the times “to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Mordecai correctly spoke these words to his cousin, queen Esther, in her efforts to save the Jewish people, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Jesus consistently criticized the Pharisees and other religious leaders for failing to discern the times, and for not recognizing him as the Messiah: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3).

Failing to discern the times can be disastrous. Yet correctly discerning the times can lead to influence and freedom. So, how do we discern the times? In his excellent book Carpe Diem Redeemed, Os Guinness offers three keys.

First, begin with fear of the Lord. Scripture repeatedly says that fearing God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (Prov. 9:10; Ps. 111:10). Paul says that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). We must begin our pursuit of understanding with the recognition that God is the all-powerful, all-good Creator of the universe and that truth is found in Him.

Second, grow in the fruits of the Spirit, in order to correct the biases and corruptions of our own hearts (Gal. 5:22-24). It is only when we cultivate love, joy, peace, and so on, through spiritual disciplines, that we can develop the openness to correction and the fortitude to follow truth wherever it leads.

Third, be led by the Spirit. Guinness writes, “It is essential that we are led by the direct prompting of God’s spirit, for only the Spirit of God knows the truth of the situation, and he alone can cleanse our muddied lenses and open our eyes to see what is really happening and what God is really doing in our time” (p. 85).

I would (humbly) add one more key for discerning the times: Fourth, study and research. If we want to discern the times, we need to tirelessly read (or watch or listen to) the news, blogs, books, and other sources of information. In particular, read people who are good at discerning the times (this is one reason I read Os Guinness!). You may find our Think Biblically Podcast weekly cultural update helpful as well.

Discerning the times is a skill that is developed like any other. It takes time and commitment. Yet those who take the time to develop it, put themselves in the best position to make a significant contribution in the time in which God has appointed them to live (Acts 17:26).

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If you want to discern the times of student culture, and both equip and reach this generation, check out my latest book with J. Warner Wallace:

So the Next Generation Will Know

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: