How To Be Discerning in the Books We Read

How To Be Discerning in the Books We Read

This post was originally written for Literary Cafe as a guest post. For those of you who haven’t read it, enjoy!

I’ve been passionate about books for as long as I can remember. There’s something about falling into a world created by an author that’s simply magical – the feeling of sinking deeply into characters’ heads, of exploring realms, of reading words that seem like liquid gold.


And yet something that’s equally important to me is this idea of discernment; of being intentional regarding what I read, and knowing that the views presented, whether upfront or not, will influence me in some way.

Literature has power – and good writing has the innate ability to impact us, whether we believe that it does or not. Well-written books have the capacity to lead us to believe that the worldview presented is the right one.


How? Good books are subtle. When I pick up a book, and it seems as though there’s an agenda, the author preaching at me through the mask of dialogue and characters’ actions and the way things run, I’ll put it down. However, when it seems to me that the story is just that – a good story – it engages me, and I will read it for sheer pleasure.


Even still, every book has a message of some sort. It could be anything; perhaps the most prevalent message in a book is that avocados are worth eating, or it could be something deeper. Perhaps the underlying message of a book is that there is no right or wrong, that every decision we make must be situational. That nothing’s black and white and therefore, we must look at underlying motives to determine the guilt or innocence of a person, and not actions themselves.


This is where things become complicated. We need to identify the message of the book, whether obvious or not, and decide whether or not we agree – and if the book is one to continue reading.


In the above example, the message of the hypothetical book is that right and wrong are relative – and as Christians, we must know that this is utterly false, regardless of how sweet or correct it sounds.


What Exactly is Discernment?


The dictionary definition of the verb “to discern” is to perceive, to distinguish, or to consciously recognize something as distinct or different.


For us as Christians, using discernment is important in the books we read and media we consume, because without it, we will we tossed from idea to idea, naïvely believing whatever is presented to us because we just don’t know any better.


That’s scary.


It’s not okay to let ourselves believe just anything, because we have the source of Truth itself right before us, and we can’t ignore it.


Discernment is having the ability to see what’s right and what’s wrong, and holding different viewpoints up against our own in order to decide what’s smart and what’s not to fill our minds with.


Why is Discernment Important?


A common counterpoint to the argument for discernment is “Oh, reading books with things I don’t agree with or believe in doesn’t affect me.”


Perhaps reading about murder and witchcraft being “fine” doesn’t make us want to do either of them, but it’s so incredibly easy to become desensitized and justify characters’ actions as “alright for the situation.”


Or, “It’s just a book; it doesn’t matter, because it’s not real.”


Perhaps reading books loaded with profanity doesn’t make us curse – but slowly, slowly, we become “okay” with it, or think, “It doesn’t bother me,” or even find ourselves laughing at vulgarity.


One passage of the Bible I like to remember as I make my standards is Proverbs 4:23-27.


Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”


Discernment is important because without it, we can easily let our consciences become dull to the things that we once knew were wrong. We can let ourselves be swayed from our once-clear thinking. The things we fill our minds with will ultimately flow out of our hearts – meaning, what we dwell on in our minds will eventually influence our actions.


As Philippians 4:8 says,

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”


But how can we know these things? By getting into the Word of God. By seeking His Truth from the Bible; written by the Author of goodness and purity and holiness Himself.
And in delving into His Word, and filling our minds with His Truth, that Truth and goodness will be what flows from our hearts.


How Can I Practically Be Discerning?


Discernment isn’t just saying no to the bad, but also saying yes to the good. What do I mean by that? A major part of discernment is filling our minds with good things, and not just avoiding the bad.


For instance, when trying to eat healthily, we wouldn’t just cut out junk food, but we would also put good, healthy things in our diet, such as vegetables and nourishing, protein-filled foods.


While a cheesy example, it’s the same way for us regarding our own spiritual health. Instead of simply cutting out the “bad” – the immoral, the vulgar, and the inappropriately gory – let us fill our minds with Truth and goodness – consuming media that inspires us to live purely, to walk wisely, and to understand God. Above all, that means immersing ourselves in the Bible.


That’s not to say all secular books and other media is all bad. However, the important thing is that we are aware of what we’re reading, identifying messages and ideologies and asking ourselves, is this pleasing to God?


And instead of seeing discernment as an excuse for legalism, trying our hardest to follow rules to a T, let us look at it from a standpoint of, “What’s healthy for me?” “How can I wisely spend my time and mind reading?” And, “How can I best bring glory to God in this?”


Reading is pleasurable, and it’s meant to be that way. It’s something I positively adore. So, instead of mindlessly letting it influence us, let us be intentional about the things we read and messages we consume.


Let us walk in wisdom, and choose to fill our minds with wholesome, good things.


Philippians 1:9-11

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”




16 Replies to “How To Be Discerning in the Books We Read”

  1. Very true. I know I’m affected by what I read and also that the books I love the most are the ones that effectively taught me something without preaching. I do know there are some people, though, who would take things like those verses to mean we shouldn’t read stuff with anything bad in it at all. However, I don’t think that’s true. After all, the Bible itself has bad stuff in it. What we need to look for is if evil is portrayed as evil and good is portrayed as good. Not to say characters shouldn’t make mistakes–they should–but mistakes should have consequences because that’s how it works. And there IS evil in the world, so a book where nothing bad ever happens is, I think, more harmful than one where bad things do.


    1. Wow, I like that thought, Morgan! I’ve never thought of that before..

      And thanks for this post, Amanda. I enjoyed it when I read it over at ‘Literary Cafe’ – it’s thought provoking. 🙂


    2. I completely agree with you there. I wanted to say something along those lines, though the post got too long. 😛 But I totally agree. Good is good, evil is evil, and we get in trouble when we confuse the two. A book with evil inside of it is oftentimes more wholesome than a book that blurs lines but has no “bad content.” Thanks for your input, Morgan!


  2. Good article. One thing I’ll add is that I think different people have different tolerance levels for certain things, as well as weaknesses, so people shouldn’t be harshly judged for gray areas, such as reading Harry Potter. (I’ll admit, I do consider 50 Shades of Grey to be bad enough it’s beyond a gray area.)
    I myself have found that I only find magic a problem if it feels like something that could happen in the real world. For example, most of Brandon Sanderson’s “magic” in Mistborn is so out of this world the worst that will happen if someone tries it is they’ll eat metal.
    In another book I read, it involved calling up the dead, which I really didn’t like, but when I read the second book, it turned out there were some pretty nasty ramifications for the character who messed around with that stuff, so I guess it wasn’t a positive portrayal.


  3. Yes, so many people nowadays try to justify what they read when it in truth it can be really harmful to them spiritually. I enjoyed reading your post! Keep up the good work. 😉


  4. Lovely points! 🙂 I agree… I’ve always been pretty careful about what I read, but look back on a few books- I was so young, I was totally blind to the really sinful acts that were accepted as OK! And sooo often anymore, it doesn’t matter if what teenagers are putting before their eyes is Good. So much of the ‘crowd’ is pretty bad…
    Thanks for this post, Amanda! 🙂 YHVH bless.
    -Angela |


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