Learning to Discern
By T.A. McMahon
This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, 18 Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: 19 Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. 20 But ye have not so learned Christ; 21 If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: Ephesians:4:17-21
When meeting people for the first time, I'm often asked what I do. It's a question I love to answer. Whether the inquiring individual is a believer or not makes little difference; I relish the opportunity to explain my involvement in something I believe is tremendously important, especially in these days of increasing spiritual confusion and delusion.
The conversation with a non-Christian usually goes something like this:
I work for The Berean Call.
It's a Christian ministry which encourages readers to develop discernment. We caution them not to buy into every spiritual idea that's being promoted these days.
Interesting. Sounds like a consumer protection agency...a Consumer Reports sort of thing?
Well...in a way. Consumer Reports does extensive testing of products, and many people look to it as the authority of what's worthwhile and what isn't. We, on the other hand, exhort Christians to do their own personal "testing," and not to look to man or organization (ours included) as the authority.
Seems like a good idea, especially with all the religious hucksters on TV these days.
TV isn't the only problem. When you consider promoters of religious teachings on radio, in books, magazines, newspapers, even local churches, you have a mixed bag which contains some very good teachers, some false teachers, and a few out-and-out con men. We want Christians to be able to tell the difference.
I see...but don't you think theology is too complicated for most people? By the way, what's a Berean?
The Bereans, as cited in the Bible, are our inspiration for helping Christians learn to discern what's spiritually true and what's bogus. Here's the setting. A fellowship of Jews in a synagogue in the Grecian city of Berea were visited by the Apostle Paul, who tried to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah proclaimed in the Scriptures. The Bible gives them a terrific commendation. It says that they were willing to listen to what Paul had to say; that is, they were open-minded. But, more important, they checked out whether what he had to say was consistent with what the Scriptures actually taught (Acts:17:10-11).
So you're saying that the Bible is the "clearinghouse" for spiritual truth?
That's what it claims. It calls itself "the Word of God," and you'd certainly be hard pressed to find a higher authority.
Hmm....I never thought about that.
The above conversation is typical of those I've had. Unbelievers are particularly intrigued. And they should be. That there is a source of information readily available which can be used to determine the truthfulness of all of today's spiritual teachings is incredible!and the logic for such a resource is as compelling as it is simple. Since God created us, it follows that He would reveal Himself to us. While we could certainly get some general ideas about Him by surveying His creation, we should also expect specific information concerning what He wants us to know about Himself.
For instance, we may recognize that God is incredibly powerful and intelligent by observing His handiwork in nature, but that wouldn't help us fathom a host of His other personal attributes (love, mercy, longsuffering, lovingkindness, justice, etc), as well as His purpose for creation. The only way mankind can know such specifics about Him is for Him to spell them out--which He has, in the Bible.
I'm thrilled when an unbeliever responds positively to something about the Bible, though too often it's followed by an obvious and rather disturbing query: "Well, if the Bible is the final judge of spiritual truth, why do Christians seem just as confused as non-Christians?" A speaker at a conference I attended late last year had an answer to that question which was as insightful as it was blunt. His early years were spent in a denomination which claimed to be evangelical; nevertheless, his church taught some of the most unbiblical, even bizarre, doctrines one could imagine. When asked by a stunned member of the audience how those of a "Bible-believing church" could accept such teachings, he held up God's Word and replied, "Simple. No one had read this book." He explained that their congregations went along with whatever they were told was biblical, with no particular interest in checking it out for themselves. Questions raised from time to time were regarded as divisive and the questioners as bordering upon rebellion. That's a scary situation. Yet more alarming is the fact that such conditions are becoming prevalent among many who, regardless of their denomination, call themselves evangelicals.
Solomon's request for "an understanding heart" and the personal ability to "discern between good and bad" pleased God (1 Kings:3:9-10). Similarly, the Lord wants us to have a love for truth and to personally seek understanding. To that end, Jesus said to His disciples that after His departure He would send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who would teach them (and us) all things which pertain to life and godliness (Jn:14:26; 15:26; 2 Pt 1:3). Paul's prayer for the Ephesians underscores the importance and the personal nature of each believer's understanding: "That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power..." (Eph:1:17-19).
We "who believe" are equipped for spiritual discernment. When we became believers in Christ, He sealed us with the Spirit of truth who "guides us into all truth" (Jn:16:13). That same Spirit, who (through supernatural inspiration) has given us the Word of God, also equips us for discernment by giving us supernatural understanding (2 Tim:3:16; 1 Cor:2:10-12). Again, why aren't believers more discerning? Often, out of self-conscious fear, apathy or just plain laziness, too many are comfortably sitting in pews listening to persuasive messages without a heart to scripturally "prove all things" (1 Thes:5:21). A favorite preacher, teacher or Christian leader says so, and too often that settles it. Such an approach produces a faith by association which lacks the primary characteristic of true faith: personal conviction leading to application. If we believe even a biblical truth because an impressive individual says so, that aspect of our faith can become dependent upon another human being. If that person should become a reproach to Christ, what happens to our confidence in the doctrines we believed because he told us so?
Should we then give little heed to those who teach God's Word? No. The Scriptures tell us clearly that God has gifted teachers "For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph:4:12). So that calling is certainly an important one in the church. Even so, when teachers are functioning in conjunction with the Holy Spirit ( the requisite for being fruitful), they simply point us to, and communicate to us, what the Bible teaches. No matter how learned or godly the teacher, the work of understanding is a direct operation of the Spirit of God upon the heart and mind of the believer. The best scenario for faith that has a solid basis is for us to consider what's being taught, then search the Scriptures to verify the teaching, and allow the Holy Spirit to confirm and convince us regarding God's truth.
For those whom the Lord equips, He sets forth an essential for discernment: "...If ye continue in my word , then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jn:8:31-32). Athletes who have all the training equipment necessary for a particular sporting event, yet fail to use what is available or to perform the required exercises, are not athletes "indeed." They have no hope of developing in the sport. Likewise, for the sake of our growth in the faith and our development of discernment, we must "continue in [God's] word." The term "continue" as used here is loaded. It means to submit to Christ's teachings, to abide in them (i.e., to let our mental, physical and spiritual life be governed by them), and to remain in them, becoming steadfast in the faith. "If" we will do that, we will see in our lives the fruit of being His "disciples indeed"!
Discernment comes with knowledge, and that doesn't necessarily mean the stuff that fills the heads of intellectuals, apologists or scholars. Knowing Christ personally is the heartbeat of Christianity. In other words, knowledge gained through one's personal relationship with Jesus is the only means for truly understanding the Christian faith.
How do we acquire such knowledge? In the same way we develop a relationship with anyone else. We spend time with Him. We read what He has revealed about Himself in His Word. Just as it is with a friend or loved one, the more time we spend getting to know Jesus, the closer our relationship becomes. To those who call themselves His disciples Jesus says, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (Jn:14:15). Since nothing of what Jesus has said could be characterized as "suggestions," it is obvious that He is referring to all of His teachings. So, knowing the Lord Jesus Christ personally, growing in one's personal relationship with Him, learning more and more about Him, and doing what pleases Him produce a believer who is a discerner of the things of God.
Let me give you a personal illustration of simple discernment based upon relationship. Our seven-year-old son knows Jesus personally. A month ago he watched and listened intently as I was discussing Jesus with two Jehovah's Witnesses. I kept the conversation centered on Jesus and what it takes to be with Him forever (a hopeless situation, they reluctantly admitted, since their teachings give them no real chance of being included among the exclusive 144,000 who alone will spend eternity with Jesus). I remember thinking at the time that it would be interesting to let my son take over for me. Not that he would have (he's pretty shy), but I know that he certainly could have been very effective. My confidence stems from questioning him now and then and hearing him talk about Jesus and what Jesus did to save him. He understands, and can articulate his belief with assurance. Listening to what the JWs had to say about Jesus, it became obvious to him that they weren't describing the Jesus he knows. Even if they tried to make their Jesus convincingly biblical, my son (the youngest of our five, and very inquisitive) would have pressed them with very simple questions, innocently trying to make sure they were talking about the same Person.
Because of what my son knows about me from our seven-year relationship, he wouldn't fall for a fraudulent description of me. Neither would it be easy for these Jehovah's Witnesses to get him to accept their false Jesus (a created god), because of what he has learned in his three-year relationship with his Lord and Savior. He understands some very simple things about Jesus: that He is God, his Creator, that He fully paid for his sins through His death on the cross, and that He physically resurrected from the dead and is now alive in heaven with the Father. He also knows that he has the Spirit of Jesus in his heart. The content of my young son's faith is very simple. Even so, he is well equipped for discernment--and so is every true believer in Christ.
We are in the age of spiritual-information overload, and we know these times can be very intimidating for those who fear being misled. However, such fear is unwarranted for those who have a heart for the truth and who would be diligent in God's ways. The Lord's provision for His own is totally sufficient for discerning truth from error, and His means--the help of the Holy Spirit and the fellowship of His Son--couldn't be more reassuring. So let us be Bereans...abiding in God's Word, and encouraged in the Lord! TBC