When Discernment Blocks Devotion

Discernment Cross

The apostle John, in the book of Revelation, begins with letters from the Lord to seven churches in Asia Minor. He addressed the church in Ephesus first.  As someone interested in discernment ministry, I believe this particular letter especially challenges me, so I decided to blog about it in hopes of benefiting any of you who share my interest in this field.

I’ll quote the whole letter in order to provide proper context.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ ~~Revelation 2:1-7 (ESV)

At first glance, this church sounds like a discernment blogger’s dream! They definitely didn’t tolerate false teachers, and bore persecution with an enviable steadfastness. They cared passionately about truth and devoted themselves to contending for the faith. Surely such zeal for God’s truth deserves abundant praise and admiration!

And the Lord indeed did praise them for their commitment to His truth. Yet He also called them to repentance, threatening to shutdown their church unless they did so.

In their zeal for truth, the Ephesians had forgotten to love Him.

Discernment ministry had become an idol, distracting them from Him. Oh sure, they worked tirelessly to uphold His name, but they focused so intently on defending truth and refuting false doctrine that they inadvertently lost their sense of awe and wonder over Christ Himself.  They forgot Him!

Of course, that pitfall could happen with any ministry. I’ve gotten so busy with various church activities that I’ve neglected to delight myself in the Lord for His own sake. Perhaps most Christians have. This sin isn’t unique to discernment ministry.

That said, John did write this letter to the Ephesians in the specific context of standing against false teachers, indicating that those of us who engage in discernment ministry need to exercise greater vigilance. We can assure ourselves that we contend for His faith precisely because we love Jesus, and in many cases that’s quite true. In many other cases, however, we’ve fallen in love with discernment ministry for its own sake, just as the Ephesians did.

Reading Revelation 2:1-7 has caused me to examine my heart on this matter. Frankly, I squirmed more than a little as I read it. I pray for God’s grace to keep my heart fixed exclusively on Him. That way, whatever discernment He graciously gives me will cause me to love Him all the more.

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The Unsafe Space Of “Christian” Psychology

UnliberatedIn this past Saturday’s edition of Saturday Sampler, I linked to Michelle Lesley’s insightful blog post examining the hypersensitivity that permeates our culture and has seeped into evangelical churches. I agree with her that the root of the problem is plain old self-centerdness. The more we turn away from glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, worshiping Him as the centerpiece of His creation, the more we fixate on ourselves. And that fixation naturally encourages us to elevate the importance of our feelings.

The apostle Paul accurately predicted that, as history draws near to Christ’s return, people would manifest a variety of characteristics in opposition to the fruit of the Spirit.

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. ~~2 Timothy 3:1-5 (ESV)

Notice, if you please, that Paul listed “lovers of self” at the top of this description. In one sense, all the other characteristics flow out of self-love, but I believe Paul intended to name it as merely one of these characteristics. Consequently, I maintain that the sin of self-love has shown itself in the current hypersensitivity that we see in 21st Century Western society.

Obviously, the sin of self-love has always plagued humanity. Think of Haman in the book of Esther and Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel as glaring examples. But I believe the advent of modern psychology has greatly exacerbated the problem — both in secular society and in the visible church.

Psychology tells us that we can’t love others properly unless we first love ourselves.  In Christian circles, we superimpose that premise onto Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Mark 12:28-31). Even as an unregenerate child in Sunday School, I understood that Jesus meant we should love others the way we already love ourselves, but “Christian” psychology confuses this straightforward command, transforming it into evidence that God calls us to self-love.

“Christian” psychology invites us to demand that people validate our feelings. Never mind the many Scriptures that command us to lay aside our own wants and needs to esteem others above ourselves, and ignore Scriptures that rightly portray us as vile wretches dependent wholly on God’s grace and mercy. Forget that, without Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, we deserve only eternity in hell. “Christian” psychology would have us nurture the same sense of entitlement that dominates today’s world.

Think about all the personality tests that circulate among churches. Utilizing psychological models, they encourage us to focus on ourselves. I’ve participated in a six-week “discipleship” program that employed psychological principles to help me analyze myself. And don’t get me started on all those women’s retreats urging me to expose my dysfunctional childhood so that Jesus could heal my brokenness.

Yes, Western society enjoys a preoccupation with self, enhanced by a nearly universal embrace of modern psychology. Regrettably, professing Christians (some of whom may be legitimate converts) have fallen for this drivel and, as a result, compromised sound theology in order to inflate their self-love. In so doing, they exhibit the same hypersensitivity that characterizes their non-Christian counterparts.

Ladies, the Lord wants His people to be markedly different from the world. Where they insist that we not offend them, we must forgive those who offend us. We must stop promoting ourselves in order to promote the Lord and seek the best for those around us, even when doing so requires self-sacrifice.

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Saturday Sampler: April 8 — April 14

rose-sampler-silkUsing 1 Corinthians 12, Kristen Wetherell of Unlocking the Bible demonstrates our responsibility to Trust God With the Spiritual Gifts He Gives. She brings us back to the reason He gives those gifts in the first place.

Evangelism intimidates most Christians. Because of this fact, Becoming More Faithful in Evangelism by Zach Putthoff in Parking Space 23 will encourage you through its practical counsel.

In Throwback Thursday ~ Don’t Get Your Theology from the Movies, Michelle Lesley of Discipleship for Christian Women cautions us that a Movie Subscription Service doesn’t necessarily promote sound doctrine. We can’t hear this message enough!

Katie McCoy lists 5 Things A Woman Considering An Abortion Needs To Hear in a post for Biblical Woman. She raises a couple points that I never would have come up with.

The term “evangelical” has a complicated history, as Jesse Johnson of The Cripplegate shows us in I’m old enough to remember when “evangelical” was a bad word. He provides interesting insight into the theological mess in Christian America today.

Few people understand how to pray Biblically. On her blog, Growing 4 Life, Leslie A asks Are You Treating God Like Your Personal Genie? She uses the Lord’s Prayer as a template for true prayer. Interestingly, my pastor is preaching through Luke’s treatment of that same topic.

Let me squeeze in a second post from Michelle Lesley. Safe Spaces and Wearing Our Hearts on Our Sleeves: 6 Ways to Follow Jesus’ Example of Handling Hurt addresses self-centered attitudes that far too many Christians (including myself, I admit with shame) nurture.

Michael Coughlan, in a contribution to Things Above Us, offers some Recent Racist Rhetoric Reflections that balance the discussion. I really like his delineation between the Gospel and its efforts.

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Saturday Sampler: April 1 — April 7

Spring 2018 SamplerWhat do you call home? Sometimes (too often, actually) I tell folks that God made me for Boston. John Ellis, in his blog A Day in His Court, writes Rooted: A Christian’s Place to challenge that temporal perspective. But his rejoinder isn’t exactly what you probably think it is.

Starting with an account of John Hooper’s martyrdom under Bloody Mary, Clint Archer discusses Exquisite Tenderness – Being Christlike in the Crucible of Suffering for The Cripplegate, The main body of his post draws from Christ’s attitude during His crucifixion. It’s an uncomfortable post to read, but we certainly need its message as we face the growing threat of persecution in our own century.

In How to Cheat Death, Leslie A of  Growing 4 Life questions the power of a healthy diet. She sees a much more effective way of cheating death.

I remember the frustration of being single, and thus I feel concern for my unmarried sisters in Christ. Lisa Robinson, who blogs at Thinking and Living Theological Thoughts Out Loud, writes On kingdom seeking and stuff: a personal reflection to encourage other single women through the wonderful blessing God is working in her life.

Using Titus 2 as a  template, Amanda Walker shows us Six Habits Younger Women Need Older Women To Teach Them in Biblical Woman. Ladies, all of us can benefit from the reminders Amanda provides.

Although I don’t think I’ll close The Outspoken TULIP’s Facebook page quite yet, Stephen McAlpine’s When Facebook Falls Out of Like With Your Blog gives me something to ponder.  I understand that the growing censorship against Christians and conservatives in social media is minimal compared to the persecution Christians face in other parts of the world, but I believe we should be aware that we have limited time in which to proclaim the Gospel online. Let’s not waste it!

Also in this week’s The Cripplegate, Eric Davis writes Is the Bible Enough for Us? – Sufficiency as part of his series on God’s Word. My regular readers know how strongly I believe that the Bible provides absolutely everything we need to live in accordance with God’s will, so you’ll not be surprised by my recommendation of this post. Davis makes the case for the sufficiency of Scripture much better than I ever have.

Michael Coughlan’s thought-provoking piece, Sad Facts About Racism, adds needed perspective to the difficult conversation we’re having in our nation currently. He regularly contributes posts to Things Above Us.

If you struggle to distinguish between discernment ministry and “discernment ministry,” please read How To Do Online Discernment Ministry, Part 1 and How To Do Online Discernment Ministry, Part 2 by Elizabeth Prata in The End Time. Whether you aspire to write a discernment blog or you need help determining which blogs to trust, Elizabeth’s two essays can help you develop a good criteria for vetting discernment ministries.

At first, Stephen McAlpine’s title,  The Sex Pistols, The Bible and China, put me off. But as we think about the probability of persecution reaching American shores, this article offers encouragement and hope that the suppression of religious liberties might actually serve to further the Gospel!

I certainly have an abundance of links in this edition of Saturday Sampler, but I must include That’s Not How This Works by SharaC of Into the Foolishness of God. The practice she addresses reminds me of Thomas Jefferson, who reportedly took scissors to the parts of the Bible he didn’t like.

Finally, Jeff Robinson writes Jonathan Edwards and Why I am a Cessationist for Founders Ministries to help us evaluate the work of the Holy Spirit in revivals. He imports thoughts from Jonathan Edwards, who preached during the Great Awakening in the 18th Century.

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If We Love Those In Heaven

Spotlight on God

This past Wednesday I introduced the topic of whether or not our deceased loved ones look down on us from heaven. This topic touches everyone; we’ve all lost at least one special person, and consequently we feel the powerful desire to cling to the relationship. We crave assurance that that person still loves us. That we matter to them.

Please understand that I really do understand that craving. When my friend Bob succumbed to his battle with AIDS, I found myself believing that he watched me from heaven, perhaps even more attentive to me in death than he’d been in life. In a sense, his death allowed me to feel closer to him. In my mind, he was now always with  me, focusing his love on me.

Dear sisters, do you see my self-centered attitude here? I wanted Bob’s attention to center on me rather than on the Lord.  I disregarded the truth that he now beholds Christ in all His glory — a wondrous sight that will consume him (and me) for all eternity!

As mortals still locked in sinful bodies, we tend to forget Christ’s preeminence in His creation. I realize I quote Colossians 1:15-20 often, but this passage has so profoundly transformed my understanding of heaven that I want to again draw your attention to it.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (ESV)

Although Paul didn’t write Colossians 1:15-20 specifically in reference to heaven, the concept of Christ’s centrality in His creation should clue us in to the fact that creation revolves exclusively around Him. That being the case, it seems to me that heaven strips away everything that distracts from Him. Therefore, those in heaven with Him must be consumed with adoration of Him.

Doesn’t it seem selfish, then, to expect our loved ones in heaven to divide their attention between the Lord and us? Wouldn’t we want them to delight wholly in Him, completely liberated from all other concerns?

And do we seriously want to compete with the Lord for their attention?

I challenge you to think carefully about that last question. As harsh as it sounds, I believe it brings us to the heart of the matter. In repenting of my fantasies about Bob watching over me from heaven, I’ve had to confront my tendency to rival the Lord for Bob’s attention. Not a pretty admission, but a true one.

We continue to love those who go to heaven ahead of us, as well we should. But let’s love them enough to rejoice that they behold the beautiful face of the Savior. And let’s love our Savior enough to rejoice that our loved ones can worship Him without distraction. One day, we will join them in that glorious devotion to Christ.

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The High Calling Of Discernment

Floating BalloonWhen people think of discernment ministry,  they usually think of calling out false teachers. And that’s certainly an important aspect of discernment. Jude’s epistle supports the task of identifying those who propagate false teaching, suggesting an urgency in doing so.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. ~~Jude 3-4 (ESV)

And regretfully, the visible church in our century swarms with more false teachers than I can keep track of. So we most definitely need people who have the courage to name names when they see a popular teacher consistently spouting error.

That said, it increasingly bothers me that we’ve apparently diminished the concept of discernment to this one area. Contending for the faith definitely has a part in discernment ministry — a vital part, as a matter of fact. But if we limit the role of discernment ministry to merely pointing out false teachers, I believe we miss the grander scope of what it means to be discerning.

Discernment, in its broadest sense, encompasses the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This distinction necessarily includes distinguishing between truth and error. Therefore, identifying false teachers is obviously part of the process, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for discernment as a whole.

To properly discern whether or not someone teaches falsely, we first need to know true doctrine. Reputable discernment bloggers like Elizabeth Prata, Michelle Lesley, Leslie A and Amy Spreeman can tell you who the false teachers are, and even demonstrate why they’re false teachers. But unless you have a firm grasp on sound doctrine, you’ll likely replace the teachers they identify with other false teachers who are just as dangerous.

Therefore, true discernment requires regular and careful intake of God’s Word.

I hear some of you groaning, wishing I wouldn’t bring up something as dry and academic as studying Biblical doctrine. Isn’t it more interesting to pick apart Beth Moore’s latest sermon?

Yes, I agree picking apart her sermons provides hours of entertainment, but again, we still need to land on truth after examining her half-truths and falsehoods. We need to know what God really means, and how He really desires us to respond to Him. In a nutshell, ladies, we need to know truth.

Furthermore, we need to know truth for its own sake, rather than simply so that we can refute false teachers. God is more concerned with our ability to worship and honor Him than with how many false teachers we can call out. His Word, more than anything else, teaches us how to love Him as He wishes to be loved. Discernment helps us understand how He wishes us to love Him properly.

Like every other spiritual discipline, discernment has the purpose of drawing us closer to the Lord. True discernment shows us how to live in ways that glorify Him. Yes, contending for the faith is one part of Biblical discernment, but I’d encourage you to remember the bigger picture. The Lord calls us to discernment for His glory. What a high calling!

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Don’t Use Discernment Ministry To Tear Apart God’s People

Discernment ScrollDiscernment ministry, particularly online ministry, has suffered increasing criticism in the last six or seven months. The scrutiny has intensified as a result of online squabbling between well-known discernment ministries on Twitter and Facebook.

To be sure, the bickering and anathematizing generates terrible confusion. I find myself scrambling to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Just when I think I have a handle on it, one of the good guys will link to one of the bad guys, or one of the bad guys will speak at a conference that the good guys host. So I’m left doubting my own discernment abilities, and wondering if I’ve misjudged people.

There are, certainly, individuals and ministries I definitely avoid. Other people within Reformed circles have no problem with these individuals and ministries. I’ve learned to disagree quietly, aware that I may be off-base in my assessments. Just because I participate in discernment blogging doesn’t mean my judgments are infallible. They’re most assuredly not!

And maybe other discernment bloggers and podcast hosts need to remember that occasionally they could make mistakes in calling out people. Obviously, there are blatantly false teachers like Beth Moore and Rick Warren; anyone can easily document their errors. But sometimes waters get murkier, and discernment bloggers end up labeling people as false teachers based on minor differences or incomplete research.

The individuals and ministries I avoid may or may not promote false teaching. So I’m learning to remain silent, or at least express my reservations very cautiously. In the past six months, I’ve come the conclusion that naming names should be done rarely, and only when someone definitely teaches false doctrine on a consistent basis.

I do realize that we must take care not to partner with those who embrace false teaching (see 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 and 2 John 10-11). But I question whether or not we take this principle a bit too far. You realize, for example, that John Piper has spoken at both The Shepherd’s Conference and Passion 2018. That being the case, should we write off John MacArthur because he gave a platform to someone who shared another platform with Beth Moore at Passion 2017?

I’ve asked a thorny question here. Sadly,  there are other thorny questions discernment ministries must struggle with if we play the guilt-by-association card too fastidiously. Sometimes we call someone a wolf in sheep’s clothing when they’re simply a little naive about who they affiliate with. Because discernment bloggers and podcast hosts can judge too harshly and/or too quickly at times, we need to remind ourselves of the apostle Paul’s counsel:

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. ~~Galatians 5:13-15 (ESV)

People make mistakes. People in discernment ministries make mistakes too. Discernment bloggers can too eagerly call out others who, in reality, may be solid teachers with a few blind spots.

Discernment ministry does greatly serve the body of Christ. In no way do I believe we should shut down discernment ministries in general. But I implore bloggers and podcasters to dial back the name calling and balance the critical rhetoric with sound teaching that enables readers and listeners to discern for themselves. Furthermore, let’s bear in mind that sometimes even solid teachers have areas of disagreement. Let’s use discernment ministry to build each other up, not tear each other apart.

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