Chapter 8 – The Dangers of Discernment
by Danut Manastireanu, World Vision International
We can learn a few lessons on discerning what is false from what is genuine, from the process used in banks for identifying false banknotes. In principle, the process does not concentrate so much on studying the false ones, but on getting familiar, experientially, with the genuine article.
The author is laying then before us a serious problem of perception in terms of discernment:
‘It is sad to say that the word discernment has negative connotations in the minds of many Christians and non-Christians alike, for those who claim to exhibit discernment are often those who lack love. Somehow the desire to defend the truth seems to overshadow the ability to exhibit love. Truth and love are brought into conflict rather than being equally present.’
In light of this, the author discusses ten potential risks run by those involved in discernment. Here they are (some of the labels used are mine):
1. negativity – concentrating more on what is evil, than on what is good;
2. guilt by association – thinking that people who associate in a way or another are similar morally or spiritually; the author considers this to be the ‘most prevalent danger of discernment;
3. honour by association – the opposite of the above;
4. confusion about essentials – ‘ignoring the fact that some doctrine is of greater importance and greater urgency than other doctrine’
5. witch hunting – actively looking for error, rather than using discernment defensively, as appears to be the suggestion about it in Scripture;
6. discernment through proxies – ‘relying on other people’s discernment’, rather that viewing discernment as an ecclesial, community based exercise;
7. oversimplification – ignoring the fact that God can speak even through people we do not like or we disagree with;
8. spiritual pride – viewing oneself and their discernment abilities as above others;
9. withdrawal – isolating ourselves from fellowship with other Christians, often on the basis of our perceived spiritual superiority, which is, in fact, the proof of spiritual pride;
10. wrong motivation – basically, lack of love for other people, another great risk of discernment, according to Challies; the right motivation would be a great and genuine desire to please God and serve others.
In general, lots of good advice and fair warnings. Yet, it seems to be that, at least in this chapter, the author reduces the question of discernment to identifying the truth and distinguishing it from error. Or, discernment is much more that an epistemological exercise. It is not merely about truth and error, but about spiritual life as a whole – our need to grow in intimacy with God, and truth is only one aspect of that. And, from my perspective, not even the most important one. Yet, to understand that, one needs to move away from masters like John MacArthur and John Piper, and learn, rather, from masters like Henry Nouwen and Richard Rohr.