Exercising Discernment

By Amber

I have a confession.

I just finished reading Rachel Held Evan’s controversial book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”. Some of you may be scratching your heads wondering why I feel the need to “confess” such a thing, and others may be scratching their heads at why I would read such a thing.

The truth is, I don’t agree with a great many beliefs Evans has, and truthfully, I ordered the book simply to see what all the fuss was about, anticipating to disagree with most, if not all of it. However, I’m also guilty of browsing her blog pretty often, looking for tidbits of truth, or desperately seeking a much-needed laugh. So, there’s also a deeper reason, beyond a love for controversy, for knowingly reading the thoughts of those who starkly contrast my beliefs.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about. Why read a variety of authors? And how can we do so carefully?

Here’s the why:

To Learn Before I go on about how to be careful of other beliefs, I do want to make the point that we’ll find ourselves in just as much danger if we delude ourselves into thinking there is nothing we can learn from anyone else. Just as the Bereans “received the word with all eagerness“, we can have an open mind to the teachings others have to offer (more on the Bereans in the next point). Something I’ve tried to put on in place of focusing on what I have to offer or teach anyone else lately is truly listening, and trying to find something applicable in what they’re saying – even if it’s something I already know, because we all need reminders – and acknowledging and appreciating it, not marginalizing it. It keeps me humble and it keeps me alert, and more often than not, it keeps me learning.

“When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.” – Timothy Keller

To Exercise Sometimes I don’t know what I’m getting into when I start talking with someone, or reading a book. So, I really have to exercise my brain, “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things [are] so.” (like the Bereans, Acts 17:11 ;)). Just as we don’t want to take our preacher’s word for it when it comes to his preaching, we shouldn’t take anyone’s word for it that (their version of) whatever so-and-so believes is wrong – we should study, and we should hear from the mouths of those who actually hold these opposing beliefs so that no idea or person is misrepresented, and so that truth may be found. How many times have we wished the same grace would be extended to us when we meet someone who claims to be very well-acquainted with “people like us” or the church we attend or beliefs we hold, and therefore has only closed ears? Now, tackling the Bible is a daunting task, especially for a new Christian and the scriptures make a distinction between the “milk” and the “meat” of the word. At first, there’s going to be a lot of milk-drinking but through continuous study and teaching, we’ll develop an appetite for the more difficult passages. And ideally, through it all, we’ll strengthen our sense of discernment: “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” – Hebrews 5:14 Like it says, though, maturity and discernment can only come by ‘constant practice’ – constant practice of reading the word, constant practice of testing the teachings of others.

To Empathize (a)I feel alone in this one, but here’s the truth: I really just don’t have a lot of friends that I regularly talk to or hang out with that are of any sort of different belief – whether atheistic, from a different denomination, or different religion altogether. At first this was just the natural progression: I was converted and I thrived with the church and my new family. I needed that tight-knit support group to help guide me in this new path. But it became increasingly difficult to know how to communicate with, relate to or react to anyone outside of the church family, and that’s something that I really mourn now. On the rare occasion I do end up in a conversation with someone who holds foreign views, I’m awkward, reserved, sometimes even harsh and judgmental (whether verbally or internally). All I can see is our differences. I’m less than graceful or winsome, I’m unable to build friendships, to genuinely care. It’s a scary day when you realize that in your determination to mature spiritually and in knowledge, you’ve lost the very essence of Christ and the very heart that formed the reputation of the early church in the world: love, and not just for the church. So, this is truly the driving force for why I continually search out different voices. I want to see the people behind the beliefs. I want to appreciate and come to care for others despite our differences. I want to empathize and understand why people may come to certain worldviews so that I can communicate with them more effectively, out of caring, even validation, instead of detached condemnation.

(b) And there’s a second side to this empathy: being acquainted with actual beliefs in the world, being knowledgeable and understanding of how one might come to any such belief that you personally don’t hold is extremely helpful, especially when accompanied by empathy. Practically speaking, we just can’t be persuasive if we aren’t coming to others from their angle, in understanding. It isn’t enough to be aware of a different teaching from a biased point of view – we need to get our hands dirty and listen to real people with real opinions and understand the real reasons that led them to where they are. Only then, when we come to those people and are able to accurately relay what exactly they believe, with compassion and respect, will we have a chance of gaining their attention, in the case they do need to be taught or corrected.

But of course throwing ourselves into the tumultuous sea of thousands of clashing opinions and beliefs can be confusing and misleading, so there are steps we need to take to make sure we’re ultimately listening to God and His word.

Study Pretty obvious, but sometimes easy to neglect. Sometimes finding enough time in the day to get away and study the Bible or pray is hard enough. I’m not suggesting adding a list of 20+ religious books to read if that’s the case, especially if you get a healthy dose of interaction with the world and other kinds of believers every day, whether at work or school or mom groups or during coffee with your best friend. Reading the Bible comes first, and if you are taking on the hobby of reading various authors, it’s especially important to take breaks and stick your nose in the Scriptures. Take no one’s word for it! I don’t know how many times a chapter in a book has made a lot of sense, but then I reread the springboard verse and find myself scratching my head, wondering how they actually came to that conclusion, or at the very least, realizing they seemed to stretch their idea quite a bit. It’s very important to rely on the Bible above a well-put paragraph by your favorite author. Study, study, study.

Pray There will simply be times of confusion and times where we change our minds, even if all we’re reading is the Bible. This is natural and though it can be overwhelming, it’s part of being a Christian. So, I have to say diligent prayer is very important. Go to God for humility, clarity, wisdom. Rely on Him and open up your heart, allow Him to show you any motives that may be clouding your judgment. Just getting through the day as a “new man” is hard enough and requires constant communication with God, how much more so when you consider the added responsibility of learning His word, His will and discerning His teachings? Pray, pray, pray.

Accountability Among the many benefits of being welcomed into a spiritual family is the important role they’ll play in our growth. From teachers to preachers to elders to older Christians and younger Christians, each member of the body has something valuable to offer, and guidance from others isn’t something only new Christians need. No matter where we are in our faith, it’s important to stay close with our spiritual brothers and sisters so that we can confide in them, gain wisdom and also allow ourselves to be corrected or to hear something we maybe hadn’t considered before. New Christians need this about 500 times a day (at least that was my experience), but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking we’ve outgrown the need to be taught or advised or corrected. The way we can cultivate this effectively is by truly recognizing and treating our church family as just that: family. If there isn’t that bond of love that manifests in studies, in regular get-togethers outside of services, in double dates and late-night teary-eyed phone calls and cookouts and all the things you can imagine yourself doing with your mom and dad or grandparents or sisters and brothers, then guidance, even the gentlest of spiritual guidance, won’t come naturally, neither on the part of the receiver nor giver. The door won’t be open for humble confession or admittance of struggles – whether with sin or understanding. And the body, as a whole and individually,  cannot grow to its full potential in an environment like that. So maybe you need to start at the beginning and build those relationships, or maybe you need to take advantage of those relationships you already have and open up a healthy dialogue about what you’ve been studying or what you’re confused about. Maybe you’ll find others with the same questions, maybe you’ll find answers, maybe you’ll learn something new, maybe you’ll find more questions, and maybe you’ll find closer bonds.

There are probably many other benefits to exposing ourselves to and educating ourselves about other worldviews and perspectives, and probably many other ways to be careful while doing so, but these were the most prominent in my mind.

I truly can’t express enough how important it is to make a change if you find yourself unable to connect to those who are on the outside, to those who offend, to those who rub you the wrong way or teach things you adamantly disagree with. We live in an age that makes it very easy to just “hide” and “block “comments that don’t sit with us or “unfriend” and “unfollow” those we can’t tolerate, and as a result we forget how, or are unable to learn, to interact with others. As Christians, this is a very dangerous and devastating thing – for others and for ourselves. It can blind us to our own faults and misunderstandings and it can hinder the message of the gospel being heard when we lack the empathy and consequent wisdom to deliver it in such a way that it can be received. It stifles love, it imitates the world by fostering a natural love and care for those who we agree with while still allowing apathy and detachment from those outside of our “family.”

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:46, 47

And the thing that has happened to help me at this point in my life, with little real interaction, is to read blogs and books of all sorts. Far greater, however, would be the real interaction, real friendships, real conversations, real love.

 

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3 thoughts on “Exercising Discernment

  1. Thanks for a great and honest post. I’ve wrestled with many of the things you describe here, and have found allowing a symphony of voices into my life – and actually listening to them, carefully, charitably and critically – has been tremendously helpful. Even when I must, finally, disagree with an author, teacher or lecturer, I’ve usually learned a lot about myself, my theology and Scripture in coming to that disagreement.

    • Couldn’t agree more! There is something about just the process of listening and studying, even when it ends in disagreement, that really produces growth and a better understanding of Scripture and where you stand.

  2. Beautifully written post!! A few of these ideas are things I’ve been realizing myself the last several weeks; the rest is new, but ever so helpful in solidifying the conclusions I was coming to. Thank you for sharing this.

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