And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Rom 5:3-6)
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel. (Psalm 69:6)
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Discernment: Gateway to Excellence in the Christian Life
Discernment: Gateway to Excellence in the Christian Life
For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Every year it seems there comes a flood of pseudo-Christian books to bookstores everywhere. Recently I had been asked my opinion and review on one of these tomes, The Shack by William P Young. In all good candor I must share that when it comes to The Shack most of my opinion has been influenced by friends who have read it, and by reading book reviews from reliable sources. I find reading a spectrum of books to be good for growth, we all need to read books. But what alarms me is how often people read without discernment. Several have used the term “Have an open mind”. But according to scripture we are to be quite wary of the influences upon us. God often said to flee sin. He destroyed Israel for their intermingling with the other nations, all based on failing to discern. Their open-mindedness led them to accepting and intermingling, and thus led to sin and alienation from God. Because of this, as a shepherd, I must sound this type of alarm.
Some books must be read, some should not, others should be feared, and still some need to be read with the understanding that they require greater discernment. The only alleviating factor in reading some of the “bad” books suggested to me may be that many read and instantly forget what they have read. The alarm remains though, that although we may not remember what we have read, we are subtly influenced by everything. That being said, I again emphasize, we must read with discernment.
Think of these books, The Shack, The Purpose Driven Life, Your Best Life Now, Christless Christianity, 90 Minutes in Heaven, 28 Minutes in Hell, Experiencing God, The Prayer of Jabez, Desiring God, Knowing God, The Left Behind Series, and The Pursuit of Holiness. Now, which ones are overtly Christian? Which have Heresy? Which ones do you question? Which are man centered and which are God centered? All of them have sold thousands if not millions. Which ones give you a sense that something is just not right? Which ones are using scripture? Which ones use scripture correctly and not in the authors bent of context?
As a sidebar, we are talking of books here, but the same rules apply to advisors, television, and other forms of entertainment. I an shocked at the reviews that Christian friends are giving the latest Iron Man II movie. A quick review of it at pluggedin.com reveals it is full of cursing and sexual innuendo. How much blasphemy can we tolerate before it becomes offensive to God?
Discernment should run the same course as common sense and intersect at many points with pure wisdom. The problem that I am responding to is that many do not consider these needs before reading or being influenced somehow. They read based on suggestion, opinion, and top ten lists. I find this to be in itself a lack of discernment. Paul in writing to the Philippians (1:8-11) Prayed that the church would have two things, Love and discernment. Discernment is key to holding fast and not being swayed by pop culture pseudo-Christianity. We must be like the Berean brethren who held even Paul accountable. We need to see if something is excellent, not just good. We need sincerity and be without blame, that is being pure and without fault. We are at fault if we believe lies that we should have known better, just ask Eve.
That being said, I am still going to peruse The Shack. But rather than a full fledged book review, I believe it is more prudent that we take time to discuss and explore spiritual discernment. At the end of this article I will note some great websites for reviews of The Shack and other books, as well as giving a short bibliography on qualified books regarding discernment.
How to Read a Book While Being on Guard
When we are instructed we should ask ourselves “Is a teaching good, bad, a faithful use of our limited time”? Why are there Christian books that come out annually that become the rage? Pundits and friends alike tell us “you have to read it”, and they are even supported by the secularists. That alone should be caution one according to these verses:
Secular bookstores seem to promote “Christian” books at a surprising rate. I have seen displays in Borders that would make you think that revival had broken out. However, based on the scriptures, if a non-Christian falls in love with a book that purposes a Christian theme, it is most likely either for money, for a false teaching, or both. Two scriptures support this 2 Timothy 4:3-4 and John 15:18-19.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 2 Timothy 4:3-4
"If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. "If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. John 15:18-19
Let us further consider what was written by the writer to the Hebrews and what Paul wrote to the Romans on spiritual growth.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. Hebrews 5:12-14
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Romans 12:1-3
My fear is that too many settle for milk. The church today is at a loss for lack of discernment. We are given over to fads, trends, schemes, marketing, and kitsch. The book of Acts had none of this. So why are we trying to do things with man’s methods? I think the answer lies in the lack of discernment. We fail to pray (Which is a form of seeking discernment) and to wait upon God. Thus I believe than many pastors, professors, and parishioners have settled for whatever means work for Coke a Cola must work for the church. The worlds methods creeping into the worship of God is what plagued the Hebrews of the Old Testament, can we not see it happening to us today?
Renewing your mind in Romans 12 and the text of Philippians 4:8 do not give room for The Shack. These verses were given for our sanctification. They are given for us to look to the glory of God in Spirit and in truth rather than the syncretism we find now.
Questions To Consider
Here are a few questions we ought to ask ourselves about the things we are taught by pastors, books, TV Preachers (and radio for that matter), teachers, websites, and well meaning persons. And as an aside, what do we discern of the hymns and praise choruses we sing with at church or on the radio?
* What is the author saying?
In The Shack, the author is trying to deal with God and grief. In his artistic license is he really portraying God in a way that is in the image of God or in a man made image of God? This is crucial. The 3rd commandment is that we not make any graven image. But the context is that we not make God out to be of our own design and limitations. This robs God of His glory. I believe that this is only part of what William Young has done.
* In the authors methods portraying God in Spirit and in truth? (John 4)
Remember, God is jealous for His name. He commands that we fear Him. To play fast and loose with the reverence we ought to have for God is serious ground to tread.
* Do not ask “Not what is wrong with it, but does it glorify God”?
Had Eve asked this question, she might not find herself in the trap of sin. I also remember Jesus’ warning that “a little leaven (yeast) leavens the whole batch of dough”.
* Are there any prohibitive commandments pertaining to the teaching at hand?
We need to know our Bible. People who have brought me such books like The Shack are often legitimately looking for answers, but fiction is a shortcut. I love the Chronicles of Narnia series, and Pilgrims Progress. Their allegorical tales help us to remember to be God focuses. But even these are not a substitute for scripture, especially when it comes to doctrine.
* Are there any endorsements in the scriptures to this matter?
Again we need to know our bibles, and their contextual settings. If we do not know our bible, why should we look for meaning in other things? If a child can not do multiplication why set her about the work of calculus? Eve was tempted by Satan as he twisted what God had said. When Satan tempted Christ he again used scripture, but scripture in the wrong context. We must be aware of this pattern and flee.
* What are the implications if you continue to follow this trail of reasoning?
When you read Why Bad Things Happen To Good People you get the idea that God can not do everything due to limitations. The implications then run further that He is weak, therefore His promises are simply allegories, and thus they are not a true help or hope, thus we are really on our own, and therefore have no need of God. It further implies that God is not God by the fact that He can not keep what He has promised, it compromises holiness and righteousness. The whole of Christianity then falls.
So when we read, what the author says has greater impact than just the topic that may be at hand. A good book bases itself on the supremacy of God.
* Are there any secondary or implied teachings in scripture as to this thought or teaching?
This can find a good example in the next question I ask. But let us also recon to understand this question but looking at Why would God kill Achan in the Old Testament, or Annanias and Saphariah in the New? The implication is that their situation taught much about interfering with the work of God. We do not have a direct black and white or red letter explanation of the text, but enough is there around the story to settle the issue. When a teacher teaches something that is not directly addressed, they must have a clear support for what they are stating. I once heard a sermon where the speaker said the storm against the disciples on the Sea of Galilee was caused by Satan. I questioned him on what scripture supports that, and all he could remark was that “If I knew as much as him about Satan I would understand”. The argument here fails not just on proof texts but on shifting blame. We must be aware of this same response or support in teachings that are not clearly proved.
* Is there any scriptural precedent at all to this?
For example, I have been asked about the book 90 Minutes in Heaven. Here we have Don Piper giving us a revelation or interpretation of what he says he saw in Heaven. Now scripturally we find two persons who saw heaven, Paul and John. As you read the bible, you will see their not being allowed to speak of what they saw. Thus I ask the question, why should Don Piper be any different?
* Does it properly identify God in spirit and in truth? Or is it man’s interpersonalization, making God in man’s image as described in the second commandment?
* Is this a new teaching? Is it an old teaching that has been controversial or rebutted?
If it is it must be approached with caution. Two thousand years of church history has a precedent for anything “New”. For that matter, if we hear a new teaching it behooves us to research similar teachings in the past and how it was treated doctrinally. This is precisely why we have things such as the Apostles Creed and the Westminster Catechism.
* Is the teaching man centered or God centered?
To answer this we should ask “Who gets the glory”? Is God and man seen more equally or in greater contrast? Is man sharing God’s glory? Herein we may be able to save ourselves a lot of time and research on a teaching. If it is man centered we should disregard it, for it will never be gospel driven.
* Does God seem limited or more humanistic? Or Is it fiction that takes an artistic license to stress an author’s point while negating others?
Here is my biggest problem with the shack. Mr. Young, tries to give his viewpoint while negating all precedent of God as represented in the scriptures. He tries to illustrate a point, but in his taking artistic license to the points as he does he fails miserably at upholding the redemptive nature of God. The very tenants of the Christian faith are held in question, God is presented and a doting mother rather than the Almighty Holy Holy Holy God. I found Michael Youseff’s article, as noted in the appendix, to answer this question with great justice.
* Does the author have any other teachings that are controversial or biblical?
We should always consider the source. It also must be noted that many good authors will have a bad book, but they will overarchingly have good books the give them credibility above a bad one.
* If you go back to the early church fathers and their teachings, is this an issue that is in contrast to the things they themselves taught?
As stated above, new teachings have already been handled, there is no new teaching. Take time to enrich yourself in church history before accepting anything new. Consider the teachings of Athanasius and Pelagius, their stories give a great background as to how the church ought to handle heresy.
* Is there a “comfort” to just be human or a stark contrasting teaching that we need the cross of Christ?
We should wonder, how is God’s person treated? What about His holiness and sovereignty, his justice and wrath, His grace and at what cost?
Once the above questions are asked and answered, we can simply ask these more simplistic ones before making a final decision:
* Does this teaching require us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him?
* If the world accepts it, should we? If the sages of the world are not offended by it does it then fit with scripture that the world will oppose the things of Christ?
* If a teaching or book passes these tests, is there still a better book or teaching that has gone on before that better glorifies God thus nullifying the use of this book?
* How does this promote sanctification, and is it like eating meat that has been offered before idols?
A Practical Question of Discernment
As a pastor I regularly get all sorts of e-mail forwards. These range from stories, jokes, and heart rending photos. But if you have email you have almost certainly have received a forward that tells a long story only to be concluded with “Email this forward if you truly love Jesus, otherwise you don’t”. It has all the love of a snail mail chain letter. Folks, let me say that our salvation is based on faith through the grace of the cross. Sending that e-mail amounts to a works righteousness, and that itself is wrong. You will not lose your salvation for deleting it.
Now, I say all this as an example of the use of discernment. Some will fear and pass it along. It will only serve to accomplish a work of entrapment for the person sending it, and also give the world fodder for calling us fools. The world mocks us when we fall prey to such easily discerned snares. With that in mind, I want to address how easily we fall into accepting new teachings. Let us not be so quick to accept a teaching that “We have never heard before”. Often a good speaker can dazzle us. Good speakers should. But in a country that is always moving on to the next best thing we must be mindful. Often you could equate what comes from books and pulpits with what comes on infomercials and slick presentations. This is especially true when it comes from a source that has yet to gain credibility. To gain our trust a false teacher or even a wayward good one may utilize marketing and appealing to our selfish core.
Consider what Paul wrote to the Galatians in their trial of discernment:
You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. Galatians 5:7-9
It is my hope that you do not perceive this as an over reaction to a simple question. Again, as a shepherd of a congregation I am only following suit with what the apostle Paul did when he discipled a church that lacked discernment. When you think about it, many of the epistles were written with a correction of false doctrine in mind, and in encouragement not to give in to poor discernment.
Paul was urgently writing to the Galatians. They were falling into a false doctrine regarding circumcision. They had begun very well, but now a “new teaching” came along and ensnared them. In verse nine we have a clear understanding; a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Christ Himself gave warning to beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees. So I now must ask, not on my authority, but upon that of the bible, the word of God, be discerning.
What are the results of failure to be discerning? It seems that as we continue to read Galatians five we find them, it is a falling captive to the works of the flesh. Discernment follows the Holy Spirit and leads to spiritual fruit, evidence of God in you. Otherwise we walk in the flesh, can not please God, and remain in our sin.
What is Going on in Churches Today? The Problem and the Solution Surmised
For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: "Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken." Isaiah 8:11-15
And when they say to you, "Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter," should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. Isaiah 8:19-22
These verses bring to mind what we see happening in the church today. The church (and I use the term loosely here) has rejected the fear and word of God and has become like the world. They listen to Oprah, Phil, and others. The distressed and hungry and enraged can often be a description of the church. Their ears are dull of hearing; they can not perceive the word of God. We are not to fear what the world fears. (Reading 1 Peter when it comes to fear and politics can give God’s assurance) God is to be our sanctuary.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Let us return to the word of God. It is here we gain competence. Competence comes however with the experience of using the word of God, by applying it in all types of situations. God again calls us to listen to His wisdom and search the word of God for answers. True the Bible may not help you with Algebra II. But, He is the maker of Algebra II and when we study this mathematical discipline in awe of God it give us a greater appreciation for Him and therefore becomes an act of glorifying worship. The essence is this, God’s word does pertain to every aspect of life, He seeks to give us the right fitting desires of our heart, when we acknowledge Him, even abilities in Algebra II.
So what makes a good book or teacher?
A good book is one that upholds the sovereignty and holiness of God and in the end brings me a sense of awe in His majesty.
Websites for book reviews and The Shack
Books on Discernment
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee
The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, Tim Challies
A Call For Discernment, Jay Adams
Christianity and Liberalism, J Gresham Machen.