Discernment in 2021: We Have Work to Do

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.

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There are 6 Comments

josh p's picture

This is a good one Aaron. I looked up most of the verse references too and this is an area I want to grow this year. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks, Josh.

I did an adult SS series on the topic beginning, ironically, just before the news broke about COVID19. So I was working through principles and applications in the midst of a really contentious clash of opinions among Christians. That was interesting.

But well before that, there was a lot of evidence -- in my experience -- that conservative Christians are, on the whole, very unskilled consumers of media and other information sources. So I wanted to see if I could help with that. I don't know if I succeeded. There were a few signs that maybe it helped some.

In any case, I've got a lot of material from that study and teaching series lying around, so I'll probably work some more of it into articles in the future. Some of it feels kind of too elementary for the SI audience, but I may do it anyway... I'm not so sure it is too elementary.

So, in the series, we talked about weighing sources of information and some practical ways to gauge the credibility and trustworthiness of a source, as well as ways to think about claims and the sort of process that leads to wise conclusions. I didn't really talk about specific conclusions on any of the hot issues--because I think part of the problem is leaping to the "what" and not paying attention to the "how" of thinking about these things. So it was all about the "how."  ... and the "why it matters."

As a teaching series, it a needs a few more rounds to mature. But I felt like it was a decent start.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Nord Zootman's picture

Aaron,

Thank you this. I feel this is an area that many struggle with. I am amazed at what some of our folks accept as fact without much consideration. With your encouragement in this article I am considering a Sunday evening series sometime early in the coming year. I look forward to more articles as well as any direction you could give for other resources.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Glad to hear it.

For other resources, I haven't read it, but I've heard good things about Tim Challies' book ... https://amzn.to/2WBlsPA  (affiliate link... purchases send a little change to SI)

I'm hoping to get to it soon.

I didn't do much outside reading on the topic for the SS series. Mostly Bible study + direct observation. So, if I was going to write a book or do an academic course on it, I'd have a lot more work to do! 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I did read The Death of Expertise (also an affiliate link: https://amzn.to/3aBJBh7) by Tom Nichols, and that was helpful. I would have to give the book a mixed review. He makes a lot of important points but it's not clear to me who is intended audience was. It seems to drift into a commiseration of the elites at times. But he has a lot of insight into the media.

I wanted to see him talk more about the problem egalitarianism and populism and how that has fed disdain toward expertise and toward excellence in general. And I wanted to see more development of solutions. Also wanted him to shape the whole thing toward the audience that needs it most: populists. But the tone is too superior to work well with that audience (even though he's probably 99% correct).

Where the book speaks to discernment in these times is twofold: (a) weighing the value of sources of information and (b) better recognizing how mass media gets the story wrong so much of the time (whether "mainstream" or not). He has plenty of examples from both left leaning and right leaning media, as well as social media.

On education he seems more committed to tradition than to an evidence-based assessment of how education may need to adapt to changing times. 

Well, I didn't mean to write a mini-review, but there it is. Hope it helps. The book is a stimulating read and worth the time, especially if you can do it as audio with the speed turned up a bit during otherwise idle time.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Nord Zootman's picture

Thank you for the suggestions. I am familiar with Challies' book, but haven't read it yet. I am not familiar with Tom Nichols but will check that out as well. 

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