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Discerning in Doctrine But Not Discerning in Character

Discerning in Doctrine But Not Discerning in Character

I believe that discernment matters. I believe that spiritual discernment is a necessary mark of spiritual maturity while a lack of spiritual discernment is a concerning mark of spiritual immaturity. As the book of Hebrews tells us, “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). There it is, the connection between maturity and discernment.

There are many reasons I find myself at home among those who hold to Reformed theology, but one key reason is that the tradition places high value on discernment. Many of those who come to appreciate Reformed doctrine do so after finding a critical lack of judgment in their previous traditions. Disturbed by a blend of good teaching and bad, sound doctrine and unsound, they look for churches that care about diligently separating truth from error and right from wrong. They soon find themselves in a Reformed church.

Yet as I have reflected on discernment over the past 20 years, I continue to find myself perplexed by a strange conundrum: Sometimes the people who most value discernment in doctrine are the people most prone to neglect discernment in character. They can display a kind of credulity that makes them especially susceptible to listening to and believing untrustworthy sources. Ironically, their emphasis on discernment leaves them vulnerable to lies.

We all need to understand a hard truth: there are people out there who make stuff up. It may seem hard to believe, but it’s reality. There are people who fabricate facts, who create accounts of events that did not happen, and who write up conversations that never took place. There are people who act as if they have exhaustive knowledge of other people’s inner motives and desires when they do not and cannot. And even if some do not go that far, they may deliberately exaggerate matters and spread as truth what is no more than rumor or hearsay.

Aside: If you ever get the chance to spend time with the popular Christian you most admire, ask that person and I expect they will tell you that someone has publicly told lies about them. No matter who they are or how they line up on the major issues, ask them and I expect they will be able to tell of a time that someone, in the name of discernment, spread information that was absolutely false.

Those who value spiritual discernment need to account for doctrine, of course—they need to distinguish between doctrines that are true and doctrines that are false. But they also need to account for human nature, and this is where so many prove themselves easy prey. They assume that anyone who emphasizes sound doctrine has a sound life or that anyone who defends truth necessarily speaks truth. Somehow their discernment extends as far as distinguishing between good theology and bad theology, but it ends before it distinguishes people of upright character from people of dishonorable character. That’s especially true when the people who lack character are within the bounds of the same theological tradition.

The devil seeds liars, thieves, and deceivers into every tradition, including our own. 

We would like to think that the people who tell lies exist outside the bounds of Reformed theology. We would like to think that once we have crossed the border between other traditions and our own, we have entered into a kind safe space in which everyone is on the side of truth and light. But sadly, that’s simply not the case. That’s not the way the world works. That’s not the way the flesh works. That’s not the way the devil works. The devil seeds liars, thieves, and deceivers into every tradition, including our own.

My encouragement, then, is to press on in spiritual discernment—to be deliberate in separating truth from error and right from wrong. There is never a time to relax your guard when it comes to this critical discipline. At the same time, it’s also to avoid the kind of naiveté that assumes everyone who lays claim to sound doctrine is truly concerned about defending and living out the Christian faith, not to mention concerned about the kind of unity Christ calls us to pursue. For if we are truly discerning, we will know that Satan is a master of disguise. That being the case, “it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:15). Servants of righteousness, that is, and experts in discernment.

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