Over the past several months, many of you have messaged our team here at Authentic Intimacy asking for my opinion on a recent book or controversy within the Christian community. Most recently, people want my opinion on the new film adaptation of Redeeming Love. You may have noticed that I’m not quick to write reviews of Christian books or media. Yes, I have opinions, but often they are nothing more than that… my opinions.
I can remember the days when Christians argued about the evils of Harry Potter and whether or not The Shack was heretical. Today, it’s Jesus and John Wayne, "The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill," and The Making of Biblical Womanhood. Next year, there will assuredly be another round of books and podcasts that stir conversation and debate.
Rather than share my opinions, I am far more passionate about helping you develop a God-honoring framework through which you can evaluate and understand what’s happening around us.
When I consider how God wants us to approach whatever new debate pops into our social media feed, I think of two qualities: discernment and grace. These are absolutely essential character traits to be growing in as we mature in the Christian faith. Grace without discernment leaves us vulnerable to becoming rudderless Christians, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14 NIV). Discernment without grace will turn us into the “clanging gong” Paul described in I Corinthians 13—an annoying sound no one wants to listen to.
Discernment and grace are not qualities we are born with or that magically appear when we become Christians. They are meant to be cultivated on the journey of becoming like Jesus. Paul prayed for the Philippians, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best…” (Philippians 1:9-10 NIV).
Growing in Discernment
I had a college professor who was a professional orange juice taster. I always think of him whenever I hear the word “discernment.” His palette was so discerning that he literally got paid to sip orange juice.
When we read a book, listen to a podcast, or watch a film, we want to be like that: to have such a discerning spiritual palette that we can taste the difference between pure truth and a message that is just a little bit off.
Everything you hear or read from a human being (including me) will fail the test of “pure truth.” Even with the best intentions, we are still imperfect with a limited perspective of the world. My experiences, personality, and worldview flavor everything I say, write, or read. That means that you can’t just sit back and consume without engaging and asking good questions. You will never read an author or listen to a teacher who is always one hundred percent spot on.
Discernment is crucial, so how do you get it?
1. Listen more than you speak.
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV). Just as my professor swished orange juice around in his mouth to fully taste it, we need to be quiet and thoughtful about what we consume.
We live in a soundbite culture. We are prone to take one sentence or one episode in a person’s life and rush to judgment. If you want to be discerning, do your homework. Don’t react to one paragraph someone posts from a book. Consider the larger work and then pause.
You will never meet a discerning person who is impulsive or always in a hurry. Nor do we become more discerning while we are talking. Discernment requires the time and stillness to listen.
2. Study the Bible.
The author of Hebrews wrote, “You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14 NIV).
Let’s unpack this metaphor. Milk is predigested food. A mother eats food and then her body digests the nutrients and transforms the food into milk, a substance a baby’s digestive system can handle. When you are a new Christian, you often need God’s Word digested for you. An author or teacher wrestles with the Scripture and puts it in a framework you can understand. As you grow in your faith, you too need to learn to do the reading and wrestling. This is how you grow in discernment.
As helpful as you may find devotionals and podcasts, never let them become a substitute for reading the Bible for yourself.
3. Pray for discernment.
Sometimes, we reject the truth because it doesn't feel right and we embrace wrong ideas because they align with what we want to believe. Only the Holy Spirit gives us discernment to see truth beyond what we feel. This discernment is the wisdom God promises to give us when we ask for it.
Before checking in with your favorite teacher or podcaster on a particular topic, do you ask God to guide you and give you wisdom? Honestly, I often fail to do this. I become more interested in a person’s opinion than I am in hearing from the Lord.
I need to always pray, Lord, search my heart. Guide me in truth. Teach me wisdom in the innermost parts of my heart.
Growing in Grace
Who is the most gracious person you know? What actions communicate grace? I think of a person who is grateful for any kind gesture. Give her a Dollar Store mug for a Christmas gift—a gracious person is moved by the fact that you thought of her at all. Gracious people are unassuming and always looking for the good in others.
The trait of discernment can sometimes make us critical. We walk away from every book and sermon with a glaring awareness of what was lacking. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things” (Philippians 4:8). My mentor Linda Dillow once pointed out to me that this verse says if anything, not if everything.
A gracious heart comes alongside discernment, tempering our response to what is lacking. Here are a few ways you can grow in grace.
1. Assign the best motives.
I am blessed to know a lot of people in ministry. I know authors, speakers, and high-profile Christian leaders. While none of them are perfect, they minister with a sincere heart to honor God and help people.
I often read books by fellow Christians and find things I don’t agree with. Discernment helps me press into these questions and debates, but grace reminds me that these are my brothers and sisters. “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). Paul wrote this in the context of the early church, in which there was disagreement about a lot of things.
2. Remember human frailty.
It encourages me deeply to read about Moses’ insecurity, Elijah’s fearful flight from Jezebel, and John the Baptist’s doubts about Jesus. Why? Because I’m reminded that there is no such thing as a spiritual superhero.
Studying church history will readily reveal the flaws of Martin Luther, Augustine, and Billy Graham. Jesus said, “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi’ (or teacher), for you have one Teacher” (Matthew 23:8 NLT). Even very devoted and godly people are going to get some things wrong. Don’t put them on pedestals. God has given us a body of teachers, evangelists, counselors, and shepherds across the world who together help us grow. Be wary of becoming overly reliant on one person’s opinion. This will help you approach leaders with grace rather than unrealistic expectations.
3. Confront with love and humility.
Paul, who wrote so much about Christian unity, also reminded us that there are times to confront. Paul modeled this in his letters to the Corinthians as well as in his disagreement with Peter about the Jewish Christians.
Part of Christian love is calling out bad teaching and ungodly behavior, sometimes with strong words of rebuke when warranted. When we do this, we are reminded by Jesus to first prayerfully examine our own hearts. Only when God has humbled us can we confront someone else with the right spirit.
“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently (emphasis mine). But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted”(Galatians 6:1 NIV).
Regrettably, much Christian confrontation in 2022 is far from prayerful and gracious. We publicly spew opinions about people we’ve never met and judge from a heart of arrogance. While calling out sin or bad teaching, we ourselves fall into the sins of slander and self-righteousness.
Imagine how the world would be different if God’s people were known for their discernment and grace. Revival of that sort can actually happen, and it could begin with you.
I’m so glad that you trust Authentic Intimacy to help you grow in your Christian walk. May we grow in discernment and grace together!