We live in the Information Age, a time in which the opportunities and avenues to learn are endless. I have taken advantage of many of these mediums myself: I read every day, listen to podcasts, read blogs, get my news from broadcast networks and Twitter alike, even getting alerts on my cell phone. I am saturated with information on a daily basis. And while we can certainly say that these are blessings of God’s common grace, sometimes being flooded with information is to our detriment.
Think of the last time you did that often-regrettable act of engaging in a lengthy Facebook debate. Or, perhaps you were just a witness to one. What do we see in those conversations? Two things. First, we see tons of information. People using reasonings to justify their positions. It is clear that many attempt to research and gather ammunition as they type their argument. Their 1500-word diatribes are chock-full of points and observations, and yet, we all know that very it is rare for such engagements to ever “move the ball forward.” How can a people who value information so much be so appalled at the amount of information we are tossing back and forth?
It’s not the full-stop answer, but I think a significant reason many of us find ourselves unsatisfied with the results of such information-heavy debate is that we are missing the practice of Christian discernment in these conversations. What if a commitment to discernment in our engagement with others, in how we both take in information and how we disseminate it, is the way forward?
Discernment, in short, is knowledge filtered. In one of Paul’s most winsome epistles, Paul prays for the church at Philippi that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil. 1:9). I hang on that word “discernment” every time I read that verse. What does Paul mean? It is a word only used a handful of times in Scripture, with a few of those occurrences from Paul’s pen. The words used to describe the Greek word epignosis are “precise, correct, divine, ethical” knowledge. Paul prays for an abundance of knowledge, but he further clarifies what he means in using epignosis.
Paul didn’t use this word much, but it is clear that he valued the concept of discernment in discipleship. He calls us to “test everything” (1 Thes. 5:21), taking “every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5), and “guarding the good deposit” of knowledge from falling into falsehood (1 Tim. 6:20). Despite this, discussion on the importance of discernment doesn’t make its way much to pulpits or small group lessons. We talk quite a bit about knowledge, but we often don’t make the leap, like Paul did, to epignosis. One way we mature as disciples is to continually practice discernment (Heb 5:14). And if we don’t take the time to do so, we fall into various traps that are difficult to get out of. Here are three particular pitfalls we face if we fail to prioritize discernment in the Christian life:
1. We Lose Our Output Filter
The first trap of the undiscerning heart is that we lose our “output filter.” A heart that does not recognize the benefit of precise or correct knowledge will be prone to jumping hastily into pointless conversations. The classic way we refer to this is “speaking without thinking.” Our social media patterns certainly don’t help in this regard. There is no, “Are you sure you want to tweet this?” warning. The undiscerning heart often has a foot-in-mouth tendency.
Training ourselves in discernment, however, will help us think more critically, weighing our words, and speak with conviction. Facebook tells us to react, but as Christians, we should be willing to let our speech “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). We need output filters.
2. We Lose Our Input Filter
Not only does the undiscerning heart lose its output filter, but it also loses its “input filter.” We should think about discernment in terms of what goes out, but we also must consider what comes in. You’ve heard this sometimes referenced as “what goes in must come out.”
Recently I watched a controversy unfold between two different theological camps over a certain doctrinal and methodological matter. The most intriguing and saddening part of the situation is the unflinching affirmations of the people involved that both camps have made. Instead of using discernment, we often blanket accept what trusted and respected pastors and teachers teach simply because their name is tied to it.
The Church has never produced a theologian or a preacher who has not erred in his doctrine to some degree. They must not become our gospel. Further, ascribing infallibility to any teacher, regardless of camp, diminishes the beauty of the Bible’s true infallibility. My faith is strengthened when I can admit that John Calvin was wrong at times. I need an input filter, just like I need an output filter.
3. We Diminish the Wisdom of God
Finally, lacking an output and input filter in our lives will cause us, if we’re not careful, to diminish the wisdom of God. The undiscerning heart trusts his own judgments, his own perceptions, and leaves no room for an omniscient God. They would disagree with men like J.I. Packer, who say that “[God] alone is naturally and entirely and invariably wise” (emphasis mine).
The act of discerning truth involves going back to the standard. When you go swimming in the lake and want to determine which direction you’ve drifted, you look back at a fixed object, like a light house or tree, for reference. In the same way, in order for us to find our bearings and be discerning with our knowledge, we must go back to the pure standard of the wisdom of God. Our wisdom is folly compared to his (1 Cor. 3:19). To be undiscerning disengages us from running back to the standard and asking him to try us and know our thoughts (Ps. 139:23).
Discernment is Discipleship
It is in the act of discernment that we grow in discipleship. To grow as a disciple of Christ means to depend on His Word as our ultimate source of truth and wisdom. When we are shaped by this Word, we are careful to guard our hearts from being tossed to and fro, and careful with how we choose to engage, rebuke, teach, and exhort. Who wouldn’t want a Christian life defined by such parameters? We only need to practice the long, tedious, but healthy act of knowledge filtered, of letting our information be accompanied by the discernment that Paul calls us to.