The Dangerous Gift of Discernment

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Discernment provokes a negative reaction for many Christians. Perhaps they are familiar with an overly suspicious, constantly negative church member who seems to delight in sniffing out scandals or taking on theological error. Some self-styled “discernment” ministries online establish guilt by association, make leaps in logic, and promote uncharitable assumptions.

When discernment goes wrong, it leads to a hyper-fundamentalism that smears people right and left while slowly but surely drawing the circle of fellowship more and more narrowly until only a tiny portion of Christian people are represented. In the end, even that group turns on each other and begins sniping at the first sign of suspicion.

We Need Discernment

It’s unfortunate that discernment gets a bad rap because, the truth is, we need it. Desperately. We need discernment when we come into contact with people who may be helpful in some areas and harmful in others. And one of the ways we grow in our ability to discern is by encountering people we may disagree with, not by automatically categorizing everyone into camps of “safe” and “dangerous” and then blasting likeminded individuals for stepping outside the lines.

Those who are truly discerning recognize truth and goodness wherever they find it. Properly understood, it’s one of God’s gifts to his people.

Discernment of Health and Harm

Hannah Anderson’s book All That’s Good cultivates a more robust understanding of discernment, where the goal is “not to simply avoid the evil in this life” but “to learn what is good so that we might embrace and enjoy it.” Hence the subtitle: “Recovering the lost art of discernment.” Anderson is promoting discernment that is connected to the good life, not discernment as an exposé.

One passage in All That’s Good is especially helpful for Christians whose discernment ability leads to a constant sense of frustration when others don’t see the same dangers they do. All Christians are commanded by God to discern between truth and falsehood, but in his grace the Lord has given “extra insight and clarity” to certain believers, who are to use this gift “the same way a healthy immune system protects the body by identifying and combating illness.” The gift of discernment is for the health of the community.

Discernment Temptations

Unfortunately, not all communities are open to voices of dissent. Sometimes the discerning person gets ostracized for pointing out error or for putting the brakes on a church’s movement in a particular direction. Anderson is wise to point out the dangers in a community that will not abide dissent, but she is also wise to point out the temptations a discerning person will face in this environment.

At the very least, [the community] won’t benefit from those with the gift of discernment, and because of the pressure to conform, those with the gift might be tempted to remain silent about the danger they see. But in the silence, the community risks coming under the control of false, manipulative leaders while those who have insight from God are ignored. Correspondingly, those with the gift of discernment might become so frustrated that they are tempted to use it to judge and divide the Body, rather than heal it.

People with discernment face the temptation of wielding their gift as a sword of condemnation rather than healing. Anderson admits she has faced this temptation in the past:

I find myself regularly tempted by this. I can remember distinct times of being frustrated with people who couldn’t see what was so obvious to me. Why can’t they understand what’s happening? Why can’t they see that she’s manipulating them with her smiles and niceties? What will it take for them to recognize that he’s teaching falsehood?

At one point, Nathan, tired of my angst, turned to me and said, “Hannah, if you actually have the gift of discernment, then you can’t expect other people to have it too. You can’t expect them to be who God has made you to be.”

Wisdom and Patience

Recognizing the gift of discernment as one we must steward, Anderson urges carefulness and patience:

Here’s the hard truth: If you are entrusted with a certain gift, most of the people around you won’t be similarly gifted. They won’t be able to see as clearly because God has not equipped them to. But being gifted with discernment does not give you permission to be spiteful, arrogant, or judgmental toward them. It is your responsibility to help the community by raising uncomfortable questions and then waiting patiently while it struggles with them. And more than likely, you’ll have to wait much longer than you want.

So what should a person do who has “gained clarity about a systemic sin or a cultural tendency that is harming the Body”? Anderson’s counsel is wise:

Because you can see the difference between good and evil so clearly, you’ll want to raise the alarm—which you must. But precisely because the sin has become so common, it will be hard for others to see it as quickly as you see it. Or maybe you can see how a system that was good fifty years ago isn’t necessarily good today. But because it’s been fifty years in the making, it will also take time for others to understand that it needs to change. In either case, you will have to remember that you are part of the Body, you are part of something bigger than yourself. You will have to remember that the clarity you enjoy is not for you alone. It is for the healing of the Body of Christ.

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