Discernment in 2021: It's Probably Harder Than You Think

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It seems to be everywhere these days: Christians expressing uncritical belief in random claims and conspiracy theories they’ve heard on social media, mainstream media, and right wing media. This external evidence tells us discernment is a desperate need in our churches and ministries in these times. The internal evidence of Scripture tells us that discernment is always needed—and always hard to develop.

In the context of future dangers and pressures, Jesus told His disciples they would need to be like snakes and doves at the same time (Matt. 10:16). They would need to be phronismos—prudent, shrewd, savvy. At the same time, they would need to be akeraios—pure, untainted. Here’s what He said (my translation).

Note this—I’m sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves. Be savvy like snakes and pure like doves.

It was a call to discernment. It was also a revelation of some of what we’re up against in our efforts to help others, and ourselves, grow in this area.

Why Discernment Takes Work: 3 Reasons

The reasons discernment isn’t automatic, even for mature Christians, are many. Here, we’ll consider three.

1. Discernment is against our nature.

When Jesus warned His disciples that they would need to be like snakes and doves, He wasn’t preaching to the choir. He offered these words because we needed to hear them. It isn’t like us as humans, or even as committed disciples of Christ, to embody this combination of wisdom and purity.

What we’re good at is the opposite: being as savvy as doves and as pure as snakes! That seems to be about the average these days, but even at our best, we tend to get it about half right. We’re pure and naïve, or savvy and unprincipled.

Jesus’ reference to doves harks back to God’s description of the northern tribes (“Ephraim”) through the prophet Hosea. After emphasizing their cluelessness and weakness (Hosea 7:8-9), God compares them to doves in 7:11.

Ephraim is like a dove, silly and without sense, calling to Egypt, going to Assyria. (ESV, Hosea 7:11)

These events are recorded for our learning (Rom 15:4), and what we should learn includes facing two facts: (1) humans tend to be undiscerning, and (2) a result is misplaced trust: “calling to Egypt, going to Assyria.”

Paul warned the Ephesians about thinking like unbelievers (“the Gentiles”). The warning was necessary because the Christianness of their thinking was truly at risk. It always is. The pull toward unchristian thinking is integral to being human, and new birth through Christ doesn’t neutralize that pull (emphasis added).

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ! (Eph 4:17–20)

2. We live in a truth-hostile environment.

Before Jesus told His followers to be like snakes and doves, He warned them about the environment they were heading into: “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” But who exactly are these wolves? Are they as obvious as we think they are?

There’s a clue in the details of Jesus’ warning. Sheep aren’t usually outnumbered by wolves, but that’s the picture Jesus paints. The disciples would have many enemies and the danger of failure would be high. There would be physical danger (Matt 10:17), but even the physical threat was going to be due to their message. It was, and is, a battle of ideas, a battle for minds (see also John 8:44-45, 2 Cor. 4:4).

The wolves are those who try to hinder Christian ways of thinking and acting. But they may do this officially or unofficially, as open enemies or as supposed friends.

As Paul was bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders, he drew on the language of Jesus’ warning, but he shifted the focus from them to us.

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29–30)

The apostle was speaking of enemies of truth arising, by all appearances, from within the church. How much more likely are we to find enemies of truth—“wolves”—among our supposed friends on the political right, who’s relationship to the faith is dubious, at best? (See also 2 Cor 11:13–15, 1 John 4:1, Gal 1:8, Rom 16:18.)

The enemies of our enemies just might be the most damaging enemies of all.

The battle we’re in is a battle for hearts and minds—as opposed to a battle for political power. It’s a battle between Christian thinking and non-Christian thinking—as opposed to a battle between “the right” and “the left.”

It might be impossible to emphasize this point too much in our times: Christians should expect to find incompatible attitudes and ideas at all points on the spectrum of social and political news and opinion. In recent years, it’s evident that though the errors of the social/political right are different from those on the social/political left, they’re just as serious and probably just as numerous.

3. Error masquerades as truth.

In Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” Portia’s recently-deceased father has devised a test for would-be husbands. Per his will, both Portia and her fortune will go to the man who chooses the correct box out of three—the one containing Portia’s image.

There’s a gold box, a silver box, and a lead box. The first suitor chooses the gold. What he finds inside is not an image of Portia but a skull with a scroll in one eye socket. The scroll reads,

All that glisters is not gold—
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled.
Fare you well. Your suit is cold—
Cold, indeed, and labor lost.

It’s obvious, but we fall for it all the time: we’re fooled into thinking what appeals to us must be good. To put it another way, when we encounter stories or solutions that are attractive to us in some way, we dial down the critical thinking. The result is that we’re not “as wise as bold … in judgment old.” We are deceived.

It’s Eve and the serpent over, and over, and over.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate … (Gen 3:6)

In these situations, it’s our own desires that blind us. The job of the deceiver is half done already, because we’re actively deceiving ourselves (cf. James 1:14).

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jer 17:9)

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Prov 18:17)

Many discernment failures arise from excessive confidence in our own instincts. Our gut tells us an idea is true, then we look for authorities to confirm it, or we look for arguments to retroactively rationalize it.

Because error often wraps itself in attractive, true-sounding disguises, our attitude needs to major less on “We’re right and they’re wrong,” and more on “Lord … test my heart and my mind” (Psalm 26:2).

The heart, skills, and habits of discernment don’t grow automatically in Christians. That’s because, among other reasons, discernment isn’t in our nature, we live in a truth hostile environment, and much that’s most attractive to us is lies.

Photo: Andrew Liu on Unsplash.

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