Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The ABC’s of Discernment: H is for Heart

Knowing the difference between good and evil is not enough. We know we should obey our parents, but still we come home after curfew. We know lying is wrong, but still we stretch the truth to avoid a reprimand from our boss. We know the Bible says, “Do not steal, do not lie, do not covet, do not worry,” and yet we still do these things. No, the head is not our problem. Our problem lies with the heart:

“The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean.” (Matthew 15:18-20, NIV)

To complicate matters further, this heart corruption affects the whole person, including our ability to separate good from evil. We say, “Lies are evil,” yet we justify that truth stretching: It’s not a lie, not really. Or so we say to ourselves.
So how can we bring good things out of our hearts?

First, we need a heart replacement. By nature, our heart is corrupt. So even if we fill our heart with good things, everything put in will be corrupted, and our hearts will still spew garbage. However, God took on human form in Jesus Christ, who died to kill that corruption and then rose again to replace the corruption with life. So through those acts of God, our hearts can be made new and fresh.

Once we have new heart, we must then fill it with good things. What are those good things? As we saw last week, they are good presentation (“pleasing to the eye”) and good content (“good for food”). Yet these guidelines oft feel vague. What qualifies as good presentation? What makes for good content? Thankfully, God inspired Paul to write Philippians 4:8 to explain:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (NIV)

And if these things are worth dwelling on (part of the meaning of think in this verse), then they are worth putting into our hearts.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The ABC’s of Discernment: G is for Good

What makes good good? After all, if we are to separate evil from it, we need to know what good is, right?

Sure, many of us think we know what is good. We say theft is wrong—until it’s a spy swiping enemy plans. We hate it when people get hurt—until it’s the villain getting what he deserves. We denounce evil loudly and frequently . . . until it benefits us.

In truth, most of us would be hard-pressed to define good if we were asked. Add to this the double moral standard derived from our tendency to justify wrong, and the already amorphous standard of good becomes even more vague and muddled. Which brings us back to my original question: What makes good good?

The best—and really, the only—way to know is to return to the Source of all good: God Himself. He is good and is the One who set the original definition in the beginning when He proclaimed His creation “good.” And what constituted good? Genesis 2:9 gives us a hint when it describes the trees of Eden, part of the creation proclaimed “good”:

“The LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food.” (NASB)

Those things which please the eye—or any other sensory organ—are good. A delicious meal. An enticing perfume. Velvety fabric. Harmonious music. Awe-inspiring architecture. All of these are good. So outward appearances, presentation, execution of a skill, and craftsmanship are important when considering the good.

But God doesn’t stop there; He adds, “Good for food.” Things which permit us to be healthy, providing the nutrients to grow and the strength to live, are also good. So we must also consider what we are ingesting—physically and metamorphically—when defining good. Indigestion was never part of God’s original plan.

So what does make good good? That which exhibits good craftsmanship—how something is presented, making it pleasing—and good content, the healthy things we ingest. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The ABC’s of Discernment: F is for Flexibility

We like rules. Rules are specific. Rules are precise. Rules provide a measuring stick of how well we are doing—and loopholes to do what we want.

This may be why many people do not like discernment: It is neither as rigid nor as clear-cut as rules. For while discernment affirms that right and wrong exists, it also acknowledges that vast territories of amorphous gray areas fill our lives. After all, if gray areas didn’t exist, why would we need to separate good from evil? They would already be separated for us. Therefore, discernment depends on the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.

The result is flexibility—flexibility for ourselves, flexibility for others, flexibility to handle the unexpected and ever-changing. With discernment, we can adapt with circumstances and culture. We can provide room for growth and diversity. We can acknowledge that what is wrong for us personally many not be wrong for another.

In short, discernment says, that although truth is not relative, it’s application to life might be, which in turn eliminates our ability to judge one another yet holds us all accountable before God.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The ABC’s of Discernment: E is for Endless

Mastery is largely an illusion.

Whether it is learning a musical instrument or growing a garden or playing a sport, you will never outgrow ways to improve your skill or lessons to learn. Oh, a time may come when your ability exceeds that of most or even perhaps all others. This, I suspect, is what many of us really mean when we refer to mastery. But such excellence, as many masters will attest to, does not mean you have “made it,” whatever “it” is, to the point that they no longer need to learn anything.

Discernment is the same way. The day will never come when you are discerning and you will never have to worry about it again. Discernment, rather, is a process—an endless one.

On the surface, that may sound discouraging. As humans, we like end points. We want definite places where we can say, “We’ve made it.” We want ways to compare ourselves to others, to make ourselves feel important—which is probably one reason why things like maturity, spiritual growth, and discernment have no end points—it hinders pride and finger pointing.

However, if we will dig past the surface—and our selfish pride—the endlessness of learning discernment is a wonderful thing. It means we serve an infinite God.

For discernment is the ability to separate good from evil. We learn the ability to separate them by learning to recognize what is good. We discover what is good through our study of God. Because God is infinite, we will never run out of facets of Him to explore. Since our knowledge of Who God is will forever be expanding, our understanding of good will also continue to expand, our ability to separate good from evil will grow, and our discernment will keep on increasing.

And that makes discernment worth life-long pursuit. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The ABC’s of Discernment: D is for Discipline

Learning discernment is not easy. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either ignorant, a fool, or a liar. Rather, learning discernment takes time and energy and effort. It takes consistent practice and regular application. In short, it takes discipline.

Discipline comes naturally to very few of us.

Instead we procrastinate and say, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.” Or we shrug our shoulders claiming to be too busy. At times we may argue ourselves into believing that discernment isn’t all that important, or at least not important enough to expend our time and energy on.

But God did not save us from our sins merely to provide us a “Get out of Hell free” pass. He intends for each of us to grow up in our faith. He wants us to become like Him in order that we may reflect His Glory—the sum of His character and all that He is—to the world. And one of the marks of maturity is discernment.

Therefore, discernment is important. It is worth the time it takes out of our busy lives. Failing to take that time to learn discernment is to our detriment.

How, then, do we disciple ourselves to learn discernment?

First, commit. You may want to put it into writing, tell others of your intent, ask friends or family to join you in this venture. But do something to declare your firm resolution to learn discernment in a way that will hold you accountable.

Second, train. A commitment is only an empty promise—worthless and false—unless acted upon. So act upon your commitment. Study Scripture. Analyze whatever you meet in light of that study. Ask hard question. Refuse to accept the easy answer.

Finally, be deliberate and consistent. While we need discernment every day of our lives, to learn discernment will require you to allot time on a regular basis for the purpose of practicing discernment. Personally, I love using the analysis and dissection of fictional media for this, as stories are life contained and compressed in a repeatable format. But other methods exist—journaling, debate, discussion. Whatever method you choose, just make sure you set aside time regularly to focus on a specific issue with the intent of measuring it against the plumb line of Scripture in the attempt to separate the good from the bad. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

September-October 2014 Reading List

A writing conference and the return of teaching have cut into my reading time over the past couple of months. But I am a writer, and writers read. So here’s what I’ve been consuming in September and October:

Title: The Prophet, the Shepherd, and the Star
Series: Epic Order of the Seven #1
Author: Jenny L. Cote
Genre: Midgrade Animal Tale/Biblical Adventure

Synopsis: A group of immortal animals aid the people of God as they await the promised Messiah.
Review: A delightful read, with plenty of humor to tickle the funny bone and great content to make you think. Not a book to rush through, but worth every minute it takes to read!

Title: Anomaly
Series: Anomaly #1
Author: Krista McGee
Genre: Teen Science Fiction/Dystopia

Synopsis: In a society where emotions are eradicated, a teenage musician attracts the attention of the ruling scientists with an emotional outburst.
Review: An okay read. Nothing problematic in content, but I found it hard to connect with the characters or get into the plot. Read it if you want, but I personally found it to be a forgettable read.

Series: The Selection
Titles: The Selection, The Elite, The One
Author: Kiera Cass
Genre: YA Dystopia

Synopsis: A fiery-tempered artist enters a competition for the hand & heart of the prince.
Review: Not my favorite of secular series that I’ve read. The plot is strong and the character cast quite likeable, but the character arcs felt incomplete at the story’s end—that they really didn’t change all that much. Also, there’re some very strong sexual elements (no outright sex, but only a couple of steps removed from it), and several uses of swearing and profanity that not only added nothing, but felt stilted and forced on top of it. Maybe worth a once through, but nothing lost either if never read.

Title: Eyes of Elisha
Series: Chelsea Adams Series #1
Author: Brandilyn Collins
Genre: Adult Suspense (with a twist of the supernatural)

Synopsis: The wife of a successful businessman witnesses a brutal murder through a vision.
Review: A good solid read. Not the most suspenseful book I’ve read, especially since I had most of the plot figured out by page 100, but the good storytelling keeps the pages turning.

So what have you been reading of late? Any great, not-to-be-missed tales?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The ABC’s of Discernment: C is for Caution

The Word of God is living and active, sharper than a double-edged sword.

So I’m a bit surprised, in our idiot-proofing society, that every Bible is not required to come with a warning label: Caution. Dangerous. May cause injury. For here’s the thing about swords: They are sharp and have point. Which means they can do a lot of damage—including to the one wielding it.

Of course, the possibility of injury shouldn’t stop us. It should, however, encourage us to use Scripture properly. Otherwise, we will either never learn discernment, which is even more dangerous as it leaves us unarmed in enemy territory, or our discernment—our ability to separate good from evil—will be greatly impaired.

There are many great resources out there to help you learn to study Scripture well, but in the meantime, here are three basic safeguards you should employ:

1. Make sure you’re a Christian. Being a Christian is no guarantee that you won’t misuse or even abuse Scripture, but if you have not unconditionally surrendered your life to God’s sovereign rule through dependence on Christ’s payment for the crimes you’ve committed against God—well, you’re completely out of luck. You will be unable to accept Scripture as true, much less as an authority over your life. Only as a Christian will your eyes be opened and your heart receptive to Scripture. Only Christians have the full power of the Holy Spirit enabling us to handle the truth rightly.

2. Study the Context. Pull a single sentence, a single action, a single life out of its surrounding context, and you can twist it to mean anything you want. And if you can twist it, temptation will exist to do so—especially if the reality unsettles you. So to get a proper grip on Scripture, you must study the context—the immediate words surrounding a verse as well as the historical, cultural, and larger scriptural contexts. Otherwise, your sword may slip and you might impale yourself upon it.

3. Consult others. When we work in a void, we become easily distracted and lose perspective. So we need other, trustworthy Christians in our lives to balance us out: Pastors, Bible teachers, mature Christian friends, commentators. This doesn’t mean we will never disagree with them; a seminary degree or a doctorate in biblical languages does not guarantee they are right. However, their presence in our lives can provide other interpretations, different connections between passages, illumination of blind spots, and encouragement to keep digging to find out what God says.