01 May 2019

Discernment: Using your noggin.

I’ve written briefly on the supernatural kind of discernment—one of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us to minister to others, But today I get to the stuff we totally realize on our own. Good old-fashioned brain-powered discernment. The ability to judge stuff.

There are two kinds of discernment. There’s the supernatural stuff, one of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us so we can minister to others, which enables us to realize stuff we’d never realize on our own. And there’s the natural stuff, the ability to figure stuff out on our own. Today I’m writing about the natural stuff.

Unfortunately there are Christians who don’t realize there are two kinds. Either they think it’s all supernatural, and that every person with a knack for deductive reasoning must be some sort of prophet (and no they’re not); or they think none of it’s supernatural, including cases where the available evidence can’t possibly have shown you to your conclusions.

I get why people might think all discernment is supernatural: It’s because they themselves don’t know how to discern stuff. They leap to conclusions. They confuse their unthinking, knee-jerk prejudices with insight: When they’re not comfortable with a new thing, they presume it’s evil. (Same as those old-timers in the 1950s and ’60s who presumed rock ’n roll was evil; same as those folks in the present day who presume Harry Potter is evil. “It’s about magic? Must be evil.”) They apply connect-the-dots reasoning to things, come to wacky conclusions, and because others can’t follow their illogic, imagine God gave ’em the ability to see stuff others can’t. Nope; ’twasn’t God; that’s all them. And that’s not discernment either.

Actual, regular, non-supernatural discernment means we gotta think. We gotta figure things out. We gotta look at people’s motives. We gotta look for the things the scriptures instruct us to: Fruit of the Spirit, or works of the flesh. Good or bad character. Motives. Self-sacrificing or self-serving deeds. There’s a difference, and we gotta detect these differences.

Discernment is a form of wisdom, and the Old Testament frequently uses wisdom as a synonym for practicing discernment. Dt 32.29, 1Ki 3.12, Pr 16.21, Is 44.18 Wisdom is knowing what we oughta do, and doing it. Likewise knowing what we ought not do, and not doing that. We gotta recognize the difference between good and evil before we do what’s good. Otherwise we’ll get tricked into evil: We’ll do what looks wise, but it’s self-deception, the product of shallow thinking, or frauds invented by evil people.

Give you an example. Lots of people assume “natural” is always good, and “artificial” is always bad. In food, in fabric, in cleaning products, in building materials, in personality traits—doesn’t matter; what comes “natural” is good. If nature made it, eat plenty. If humans made it in a lab, avoid.

And here’s where that rationale falls apart: Tobacco is natural, but it’s awful for you. Pasteurized milk, processed in a lab, is way safer to drink than untreated raw milk. There are plenty of cases where “natural” is dangerous, and “artificial” is best. But you try telling that to some stay-at-home mom who read four websites and is now convinced vaccines are deadly.

Yep, most people don’t bother with any kind of discernment. Christians included.

It’s why we Christians are suckers for every “natural” fad. Why we spread Christian-sounding sayings around, yet never double-check ’em against the scriptures. Why we embrace interesting pop-culture wisdom, but never ask “Is that from God?” Whatever makes us feel good, affirmed, righteous, excited, inspired, clever, positive—if we’re happy and we know it, we shout Amen.

As if the devil doesn’t know how to manufacture happiness.

No, it won’t be lasting happiness. The devil can’t actually do joy. But the fake joy only has to last long enough to lead us astray, exploit us, or use us to mislead others. When we’re fools enough, we’ll get ensnared in other schemes long before we realize errors of that first scheme. So this is precisely why we gotta learn discernment: We gotta extricate ourselves from our current mess, and learn to stay out of future messes.

Start with doubt.

Part of the reason Christians don’t practice discernment, is ’cause the basis of discernment is doubt. We can’t assume everything which sounds good, is. We gotta know better than to accept just anything we hear. We need to test it—test everything.

1 Thessalonians 5.19-22 ESV
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

Problem is, too many Christians have been taught—wrongly—that doubt is evil. That we’re to embrace faith, not doubt. That we’re to follow our gut, not indulge our fears. If anyone bothers to teach us there’s such a thing as discernment, we’re encouraged to think there’s no thought involved: If you feel deep down there’s something wrong, it’s not prejudice; it’s discernment. Trust your feelings. Follow your heart.

Which is the worst advice we can follow. The heart lies. Jr 17.9 It only tells us what we want to hear. Not what’s true.

Humans are selfish. That’s what we find in our hearts. Not God; our own pleasures. Self-deception. We want something so bad, we’ll rationalize it every which way. We’ll play with logic, and invent really good-sounding reasons for it. It’s okay just this once. Or the reason we’re tempted is because God actually wants us to have it. There are plenty of rationalizations which seem right to people. But they kill. Pr 14.12, 16.25

So looking within? Unsafe. We have to look without. Gotta listen to God. Gotta read the scriptures. Gotta do the hard work of figuring out truth.

Which doesn’t mean polling our friends, to find out what they think. What do they know? Unless they’re properly practicing discernment too—unless they’re testing everything like we’re supposed to—they’re gonna commit the very same mistakes we would. Yeah, we might find other people with the very same flawed logic, so we can proclaim, “I’m not alone in this! There are dozens of us! Dozens!” Justifies nothing.

We gotta doubt ourselves. Doubt other Christians. Doubt everything but God. Look at what he says. Do the homework. Observe what’s really going on. Research the facts.

And accept the results, whether we like ’em or not. There are certain things I believe which I actually don’t like. But I did the homework, so I’m pretty sure they’re true. I’m open to correction (really open, ’cause like I said, I don’t like some of those beliefs!) but I’ve studied the scriptures, and looked hard for alternatives. Those who wish to correct me: Better find some stuff I overlooked. ’Cause again: Doubt everything but God.

A little knowledge of basic logic will come in handy. ’Cause the way people usually claim they can detect faulty thinking, is with another form of faulty thinking. Like so.

  • “Yeah, but [out-of-context verse] and [bible misquote] and [passage not even in the bible]. Or don’t you trust God’s word?”
  • “I hear what you’re saying. But [famous evil person] used to believe that too, and you don’t wanna be in his camp.”
  • “You realize the logical conclusion of everybody believing that? They’ll indulge in [the most extreme-case behavior imaginable] and society will collapse.”
  • “But [famous person] teaches otherwise.”
  • “Oh, the person who taught you that is a liar.” [Stated without any evidence this person actually is a liar. Turns out it’s wholly based on not liking them.]
  • “Oh, the person who taught you that committed [heinous sin].” [Again, stated without evidence.]
  • “But [unproven statistics]—and you can’t argue with the math.”
  • “I believe [flat untruth], and that settles it.”

There’s a lot of faulty thinking out there. It’s all over the internet. And of course news channels and talk radio; you knew that. It’s in coffeehouses and pubs, in books and sermons and podcasts and tweets. People don’t discern squat. They believe as they please, and “logical arguments” are marshaled to defend these pre-held beliefs. Nobody cares whether they’re really logical.

Start by doubting them. All we care about is truth. All truth is God’s truth. We’re gonna follow it wherever it leads, even if it takes us to uncomfortable places. Even when it exposes sin in our own lives—’cause it will.

The discerning Christian learns the difference between a true statement and a fallacy. Between info we can use, and a smokescreen which scares people away, or gets ’em to stop thinking and freak out. Between stuff which jibes with the scriptures, and stuff which wholly contradicts it. Ever read my articles about context? Ever notice how all the false interpretations flip those verses 180 degrees away from their true meaning?

We got a lot of stuff to weed through.

Stop trying to connect the dots.

Some years ago we had a guest speaker at my church who’s into the dark Christian practice of “discerning the times.” That means he reads the news, and tries to find things which fit in his End Times timeline. Lots of so-called “prophecy scholars” do this. Doesn’t matter that Jesus told us not to do this; that wars and rumors are part of ordinary life in our fallen world and aren’t signs of the End. Mk 13.7 They’re pretty sure they know better than our Lord.

He pointed to the terrorist group we call ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Did you know, he said, ISIS has the very same name as the ancient Egyptian mother-goddess Isis? The same name! It’s no coincidence, he insisted. The very same spirit behind that pagan god must be the spirit behind the terrorists.

What basis does he have for saying so? Investigative journalism? A word of knowledge? Nah; and he actually needs neither of those things. He simply connected the dots. Come on, sheeple, the dots are right there! There’s no such thing as coincidence (though the scriptures say otherwise Ec 9.11); nothing’s random. ISIS and Isis gotta be connected!

Okay. Like I said, start with doubt. Are they really connected? Let’s do some very basic fact-checking. These terrorists gave themselves the name ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi'l-Iraq w’ash-Sham/“Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant.” They, and other middle easterners, use the acronym DAISH. But the U.S. Department of State, the CIA, and the previous president, called them ISIL. (So where’d ISIS come from? The press. They find it catchier.) The terrorists don’t want to only conquer Iraq and Syria, but the whole Levant, the entirety of the eastern Mediterranean: Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, and Israel.

As for the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, that’s her name in English. In ancient Egyptian it’s Aset. (Kinda like how Jesus’s original Aramaic name is Yeshua—words tend to change a bit when they pass through Greek and Latin to get to English.)

Anyway. I learned all this stuff in five minutes with the the Encyclopedia Britannica. This preacher who taught this “coincidence”? He spent more time creating his slides than checking his facts. (And they were really simply-designed slides.) Basic fact-checking turns most “prophecy scholar” theories into mush.

But for too many people, facts don’t matter. The fact it makes ’em feel something—namely fear—is all that matters. That’s what makes their “coincidences” so profound. And fear should be our tip-off. If their “facts” are meant to provoke fear, start doubting! Fear makes people bypass the brains God gave ’em, and start reacting instinctively, emotionally, sinfully. We’ve got to use our heads. These “prophecy scholars” sure aren’t.

Test it against the scriptures.

Back in the olden days—before phones, email, texts, and instant messages—people waited a long time between communiques. They’d send a letter or telegram, and have to wait days—or weeks, or longer—before they’d hear back. What were they to do in the meanwhile? They could sit and wait, and go squirrelly… or they could get out their loved one’s old telegrams and letters, and read them.

Well, the bible is God’s old letters. And rather than sit around and imagine what God might say, it’s healthier and more realistic to look back on what God did say.

’Cause it’s way too easy to imagine God wrong. We’re not like God. Our sin and self-centeredness twists everything. When we try to imagine what God might say—when we speculate, “What would Jesus do?”—we invent a caricature. Sometimes as twisted as the freakish drawings in an editorial cartoon. Christians who think they know what God wants, yet never ask God himself, will go all sorts of wrong.

So read your bible! Know what God wants—’cause he said so himself in the scriptures. Get something solid to go from.

Yeah, people misread the bible. But plenty don’t. If you find one commentator who says something unique, double-check them against other commentators. If you find one preacher who claims one thing, bounce the idea off another preacher. Investigate. Make sure they’re getting God right.

Read Proverbs. It has a lot to say about discernment. For that matter, read all the wisdom books.

Keep watching for fruit of the Spirit. If God’s involved, fruit’s gonna be there. If he’s not, people will try to pass the fake stuff off as the real thing. Learn to recognize the real thing. (Hope you’re producing the real thing.)

And lastly, keep praying for God’s insight—for the supernatural discernment. ’Cause yes, our due diligence will catch frauds and phonies. But the supernatural stuff will catch them instantly—and catch ’em where we miss them. So it’s mighty valuable.