Christians understand that they have a special relationship with truth. Our Savior described Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and declared that faithfulness to Him leads to soul-freeing truth (John 8:31-32). Both Old and New Testaments exalt insight into truth, as “wisdom” (e.g., Prov. 4:5-7, Matt. 10:16) and “discernment” (Phil. 1:9, Heb. 5:14). We worship the “God of truth” (Deut. 32:4, Psa. 31:5, Isa. 65:16), and are called to be lights of truth in the world (Phil. 2:15).
But we’re only human.
Though truth is central to our identity as Christians, we easily fail to see the practical implications of that. We forget who we are. We get confused. We get lazy. Soon, we’re tripping over the same obstacles unbelievers do and clinging to many of the same attractive lies.
In recent years, we face some special challenges.
The rise of “infotainment” means that, more than ever, our culture overvalues drama, emotion and visual dazzle over facts and reason. The most popular sources of information have a built in bias toward stimulating emotions and senses rather than provoking thought and sound judgment.
Identity politics, all across the spectrum from left to right (yes, also the right), means that our culture overvalues fighting for the claims and language of our group and undervalues listening, seeking points of agreement, and accurate disagreement.
As a society, we’re dominated by the attitudes of war. So far (thankfully!) it’s ideological war, but it’s war, nonetheless. So, we quickly triage every question and issue to align it with “our side” or “their side” and commence fighting.
Truth and reason are the first casualties.
What should Christians do?
There’s a temptation to think that as Christians (especially evangelical and conservative ones) we have to fix the cultural mess we’re in. “Our civilization is crumbling! … America as we know it is ending! … Our Christian heritage is being trampled to death!” All that may be true, but it doesn’t follow that we must be the ones to fix it—or even that we can fix it.
More than anything else, we need to think like Christians. If we get that right, we’ll be far more likely to act like Christians in response to the problems of our day.
More than ever, we need to recover the heart, skills, and habits of discernment.
Several terms could stand in for “thinking like a Christian,” but “discernment” is a word especially well-suited for our times. According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “discern” comes “from Latin discernere, from dis- ‘apart’ + cernere ‘to separate’” (Catherine Soans and Angus Stevenson, 2004).
The word assumes we’ve been presented with options—conflicting ideas, conflicting claims—and must separate apart the true from the false, the good from the bad, the most important from the less important.
As people who meet with a cacophony of clashing claims every single day, thinking like a Christian means discerning—separating the bogus from the merely unlikely, and separating both from “fact.”
It starts with the “heart.”
It’s easy to assume discernment is mostly a matter of using our brains well. I thought so, when I started studying the topic a year ago. The study showed me I was wrong.
Consider these biblical principles.
- Our desires make us want to believe lies (Jer. 17:9, Gen. 3:1-7, Prov. 14:12).
- Our desires make us refuse to believe obvious truths (Matt. 12:38-39, 13:14-15, Rom. 1:21, Eph. 4:17-18).
- Our desires lead us to make idols to support them (Rev. 9:20-21).
Scripture also reveals that the attitudes and affections that hinder discernment take many forms.
- Israel’s first king longs for the esteem of the people, believes the lie that he must indulge them (1 Sam. 15:14-15).
- Later, he is distressed and angry, believes the lie that David is out to get him and he must stop him (1 Sam. 18:10-11, 19:9-10).
- Elijah is discouraged, believes the lie that only he is still faithful (1 Kings 19:10).
- Jonah is arrogant, believes the lie that he and his plant are more deserving of God’s mercy than the Ninevites (Jonah 4:10-11).
- Jesus’ disciples are hard hearted, forget about Jesus’ displays of power, believe the lie that everything depends on them (Mark 8:16-19).
On the positive side, Scripture reveals that certain attitudes and affections strengthen our ability to sort truth from error, and right from wrong.
- Desiring wisdom leads to knowledge of truth (Prov. 2:2-6).
- Humility and a teachable spirit lead to learning (Prov. 15:31-33, 12:1).
- Longing for truth leads to growth and eventually skill in discernment (1 Pet. 2:2, Heb. 5:13-14).
- Sobermindedness leads to godly choices (1 Pet. 1:13-14, Titus 2:12).
It all boils down to this: people believe what they want to. If they don’t want truth enough, they’ll latch onto a lie every time in service of what they want more. But if we’re hungry enough for wisdom and truth, we’ll accept the uncertainty, attentiveness, and just hard work discernment often requires.
We’re called to a uniquely-Christian mind.
One of the things growing Christians discover is that when you find a deficiency in your affections, you can’t directly fix it. Someone, in frustration, said, “I want to want God more, but how do I want Him more?”
The answer is that you nurture it. You can’t stand on a pile of dirt in your back yard and will tomatoes to appear. Instead, you do lots of not very tomatoey things: plow soil, plant seeds, pour water, pull weeds.
Eventually there are tomatoes!
The attitudes and affections of discernment require similar nurturing, which includes meditating on our God’s relationship to truth and on the sort of mind He has called us to develop.
Four passages stand out in this regard, and they reveal four imperatives.
- Test everything. The Christian mind is not content with indulging confirmation bias or basking in groupthink (1 Thess. 5:21, Rom. 2:18, Phil. 1:10).
- Be innocent, but shrewd. The Christian mind is not a gullible mind, whether claims are coming from “Us” or “Them” (Matt. 10:15-16, 1 John 4:1).
- Think responsibly. The Christian mind is driven by loyalty to Christ to honor Him in both how and what we think (2 Cor. 10:5).
- Love God with the intellect (Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30). The Christian mind sees skilled use of the intellect as a vital part of devotion to Christ.
Every one of us has room to grow in discernment, and every one of us can take steps to nurture that.
Those of us who preach and teach have a special opportunity. Every church in America is facing discernment challenges. If you teach, I hope you’ll prayerfully consider offering your students a series on discernment in 2021. If you don’t teach, know this: we all have influence, but even if we didn’t, we all have minds God wants us to develop and sharpen in His service.
I’m praying that more Christians will decide to be part of the solution and not part of the problem in 2021.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.