The Value of Discernment
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Hannah AndersonHannah Anderson is an author and Bible teacher who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with her husband, Nathan, and their three children. Her books include Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul and All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment...more
Too many opinions can be overwhelming. Hannah Anderson tells how she’s training her children to decide between what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s the best.
The Value of Discernment
Bob: Hannah Anderson is a mom raising kids in a new digital world. And she says things like internet filters—those matter, but they don’t solve every issue.
Hannah: Even though I do have boundaries on our internet usage—on what sites they can go to—there is still no way I can control my children as they begin to navigate the world. I can’t keep up with them, and so I learned that what they needed was principles. What they needed was to develop their own ability to sort through.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, February 3rd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online on FamilyLifetoday.com. Are you training your kids with critical thinking skills? Do they have discernment? How do you do that as a parent? We will talk with Hannah Anderson about that today. Stay with us.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I read a quote—this was a number of months ago, and I’m not going to get it exactly right—but the author was saying that he believes, in the church today, one of the biggest issues—if not the biggest issue—is a lack of discernment. He said, “I think we have got congregations full of indiscriminant, undiscerning people, who will hear something and go, “Oh, that sounds good,” and never take it any further than that.
Dave: Wow; that’s a big statement.
Bob: That’s a big statement. And yet, you look around and you do see people falling for error because they’re not thinking clearly or carefully about what truth is.
Ann: And they are basing it on their own beliefs, and their passion, and their convictions. That’s kind of where it stops, sometimes—it feels like.
Dave: And the good news—I don’t know if you know this Bob—but I have been told for decades now that I have the gift of discernment. I always thought that meant I could tell people what they were wrong at—[Laughter]—that was what it meant. No, that’s truly what I was told as, “You have this gift of discernment.”
Ann: I think you do have that gift.
Dave: And I thought it really did, for a long time, mean that I was like a prophet in people’s lives, that I could point out sin; and it’s a whole different deal.
Bob: There is a whole different deal; in fact, a lot of people online now, who are referred to as discernment bloggers. All it means is we just tell you what is wrong with everybody else and why we are right about everything. [Laughter]
One of the reasons we are diving into this is because, as parents, we want to raise kids, who—
Bob: —who know and love truth—
Ann: —and who are discerning.
Bob: —and who can tell truth from error. We thought, “Who should we get to talk to us about that, and teach us about that, and…”
Dave: It wasn’t me. [Laughter]
Bob: It was Hannah Anderson, who is joining us back on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back!
Hannah: It’s great to be here again.
Dave: Hannah does not know what she thinks right now. She’s like, “Who are these unhappy…”
Bob: She’s trying to discern.
Dave: Yes; she is.
Bob: Hannah is an author; she’s a blogger; she has written a number of books, including a new book that’s all about discernment that’s called All That’s Good.
One of the things I love about Hannah is that she goes deep into whatever she’s digging into. When you wrote the book, Humble Roots—it’s really a book about three verses in the Bible; right?
Hannah: It is.
Bob: It’s all about: “Come to Me all of you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest,”—it is an extended meditation on it.
This is another book that’s about three or four verses in Philippians; right?
Hannah: It is; it’s Philippians 4: 8 and 9.
Bob: And that’s a passage that may be familiar to parents because they’ve looked at their kids and said: “Whatever is good, whatever is pure”—I don’t have them all; do you have them memorized? Can you do it?
Hannah: I do—
Bob: No; you’ve got your Bible open.
Hannah: —but I am going to read. [Laughter] So it’s: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Bob: Now, I don’t know if I have ever read that passage and thought, “This is about discernment.”
Bob: But somehow that switch came on for you. How did that happen?
Hannah: Well, I think it came on in part because of the verses that precede it. And what we may not recognize is that, immediately before this, Paul is writing the Philippians and he’s addressing something that we wouldn’t necessarily link to discernment. He’s addressing their anxiety about the world around them and how they should conduct themselves in a world that often feels scary and overwhelming and a world that they may not know how to navigate.
He says to them: “…to let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious about anything; but in everything in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God”—and then he promises this—“and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Bob: Okay, we can’t rush passed that; because as you were reading, “let your reasonableness be known to all people,” I’m thinking, “Is that a passage for our day?”
Hannah: Isn’t it; isn’t it?—yes.
Bob: I mean, the circumstances in which we find ourselves/the anxiety that is around us, this is something—we can read this, and we can apply this in what I’m going through, and I can raise kids, who can understand: “There’s a way not be overwhelmed by the confusion, the evil, the contradictory thoughts, and opinions of people. There is a way to navigate that”; isn’t there?
Hannah: Absolutely. And when I was reading this passage immediately before the verses that the book is based in, I recognized an environment that is very similar to the one that we live in now; and I think one that is unique, particularly given the digital age.
People ask me, “What promoted you to write a book about discernment?” Of course, this passage was a significant part of that; but it was also my own experience of logging on and not knowing who to listen to—and suddenly having this disorientation of this wealth of information and data pouring into my home—proximity to people I never would have been exposed to/ideas I would never have encountered before. Suddenly, I have to sort through that.
And so I tell people, “I don’t think that we’re uniquely undiscerning as a culture or as people, but we live in a moment in history that requires more discernment; because we have more access to new ideas and to different things.” It can feel like you are caught in the middle of this vortex, and that can be very overwhelming/very disorienting. The very first thing that you begin to feel is—you say things like, “I don’t know what to think.”
Dave: “I don’t know who to listen to,” “I don’t know to how to decipher truth.”
Ann: And I think, as a parent, that can feel overwhelming as we have teenagers, that are logging in, that are listening to so many different voices. You have teenagers.
Hannah: I do; I have a 15-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son.
Ann: And I’m guessing you have been helping them learn how to be discerning.
Hannah: I hope so! It hasn’t been as intentional in the past as maybe I needed to be. I think I did as a lot of parents do: when your children are young, you have a lot of control over their environment; and you can filter through what they are reading, what they are watching, what they are exposed to. But as they grow older—and they are going off to school or they are going to the library by themselves—I found that my daughter could out-read me. [Laughter]
When she was young, I could keep up with what she was being exposed to and read with her. There came a point, where I could simply could not. I would walk into a room, and see books, and think: “I have no idea who these authors are. I have no idea what the content of this book is.”
You know, as a family, we have boundaries on our internet usage—on what sites they can go to—there is still no way I can control my children as they begin to navigate the world; I can’t keep up with them. I learned that what they needed was principles; what they needed was to develop their own ability to sort through.
And so, even today, when I go in and my daughter is reading a new book, instead of me feeling like I have to read it with her, I ask her: “Is that is a good book? Are there things that you think are wrong in it? Are their things that are objectionable? Let’s talk about it.” I am watching her begin to apply principles that I have been teaching her. But it all does come back to equipping her to be able to discern and navigate it well, because I am not always going to be able to keep up or be with her.
Dave: So let’s talk about that. What is the foundation?—and again, you’re talking about doing this with your kids—but it’s also for us, as adults. So what’s the foundation? Where do we start to get—and I’m guessing it has something to do with your title, All That Is Good—but how do we decide/how do we discern: “Good,” “Evil,” “Right,” “Wrong”?
Dave: Start there.
Hannah: And for a Christian, obviously, our understanding of good and evil is shaped by the Scripture. You know, that’s going to be our foundation. I think anyone who claims to be a Christian would say that. You know, we know the verses—Romans 12:1,2—“that our minds would be transformed so that we can discern”—you know—“what is the good, and perfect, and pleasing will of God.” We understand that there is something about the way our thinking needs to be shaped. It needs to be shaped by the Scripture—and so we are coming to the Scripture; we are seeking the ability to weigh good and evil—we are seeking discernment.
But I think one of the things we don’t always understand and it gets confusing is, when we come to the Scripture, the kinds of things we want answers to aren’t there. This is what I mean: “Should I send my child to this school?”—that’s not in the Bible. And so then, I think, at that point, we have this disconnect to not understanding how to have the Bible as our foundation—how to have the principles of Scripture lead us and guide us in our decision making.
One of the things that’s fascinating about how the Bible itself talks about discernment is that the goal is not so much the decision so much as the person being made wise—that the person would be changed and the person would grow into a person, who can look at the world—and because they have been changed and matured—they can be able to see what is good: what lines up with the character of God and what doesn’t.
What’s fascinating to me, as I really dug into the Scripture, a lot of the ways that we think about discernment—Bob, you mentioned kind of pointing out what is wrong with something; or sometimes, we think of discernment as isolating ourselves from the world—that is not at all how the Scripture talks about it. And when you actually get to passages in the Scripture that use the language of discernment—I’m thinking of a passage in Hebrews 5—it talks about: “Christians who are mature will have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” And so even—I think we have to back up to the point to understand that discernment is not just pointing out what’s wrong with something; it’s the wisdom and the Christian maturity to know what’s good about something.
And so, when we come to the question of cultivating discernment, with the Scripture as our foundation, what we are trying to do is learn what goodness looks like/what the character of God, displayed in the world, looks like.
Bob: I preached a message, a number of months ago, on I John 4, which says, “Test the spirits.” And so discernment is a part of what you do. On Twitter I said, “I’m going to preach this,” and I was crowd sourcing, trying to get a little help for my message.
Hannah chimed in; or somebody said, “Ask Hannah what you need to say.” You said, “Here’s where the focus needs to be—it’s less on being a heresy hunter and more on being a truth aficionado—it’s more on all that’s good.” That’s why we get to
Philippians 4:8,9—it’s like the old illustration of: “You don’t recognize a counterfeit by looking at counterfeit bills; you recognize it by being an expert in what authenticity looks like”; right?
Hannah: Exactly, and what’s fascinating about this is that is exactly how we use discernment in every other context. If I said you had a discerning eye, I’m not saying you know how to point out bad art; I’m saying you know what good art looks like. If I say you have discerning taste, it’s complementing you on your ability to recognize the inherent goodness of something.
What’s fascinating to me is—we know this language/we know these categories—but somehow, when we come to our spiritual lives or to making moral and ethical decisions, we do kind of opt for a defensive posture rather than saying: “No, I am going to be a discerning person, who moves into the world,” and “Yes, I will reject evil; I will reject things that are not good, because I am seeking goodness. I’m seeking the goodness that God has given us in the world and through His Son.”
Bob: Have you thought about why it is we go the other direction? Why are we so preoccupied on pointing out what’s wrong rather than on building up what is right? Why is that a spiritual characteristic for us?—do you know?
Hannah: I’ve thought about it some; I think it might be easier, quite frankly. I think the work that is necessary to develop discernment requires that we, ourselves, be challenged. And when we opt for a negative disposition in discernment, we can point the finger at everyone else; and we can draw our boundaries; and as long as we stay inside of those, we know we are good.
A positive proactive approach to discernment [is] where we are actively seeking whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just. What’s fascinating about this is, as we are seeking truth, it’s going to check us where we are not true; so there is going to be a process of sanctification in pursing truth that doesn’t necessarily have to happen if we are just staying away from lies.
Ann: Hannah, what would be an illustration of let’s say discernment or negative discernment gone bad? And then the same situation, and you would take that in a positive direction. Can you think of something?
Hannah: I’m going to drive into the deep end with a very loaded—
Ann: —oh, social question.
Hannah: —because it is one that I have had to address with my daughter. My kids have been in public school for almost all their years in school. They have a lot of exposure to a lot of the ideas of the culture. I remember, just a year or two ago, my daughter coming home. Because one of her classmates was transgender, I’m having a conversation with my 14-year-old in the kitchen, doing dishes, about a classmate that she grew up with, who was a girl, and now was asking to be called by a boy’s name.
In that moment, I could have said to my daughter: “This is wrong. Here’s why…This is the Bible; this is what we believe—end of conversation.” But I realized that what my daughter needed was an appreciation for the goodness of our physical bodies. She needed to understand—not: “Here are just the boundaries; stay within them,”—because she might be able to make that decision for this particular moment. What she needed was an understanding that that question goes back to: “Am I pursuing an understanding of the validity and the goodness of the body that God has given me?”
Now, if I give her that more fully or perspective, that is going to serve her—not only in this conversation—but it’s going to help her when she is coming up against her own insecurity about the way her body looks. By taking a proactive positive approach that says, “No, let’s talk about the goodness of our bodies,” and “How does that relate to this cultural question?” instead of just saying, “No,” “No,” “No,” I’m saying, “Actually, God has a way of life that is, ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes,’ to the life and goodness that He has built into the world,” and “We are to actively pursue that.”
Bob: You do still, as a mom, have to say: “This is wrong,” “This is bad,” “This is evil,” about things. You’re just saying, “If that’s all we say, we are not serving ourselves, the culture, or the kids well”; right?
Hannah: And I want her to understand that wrong is a deviation from good. So if I try to establish categories of wrong without my children understanding: “This is what goodness looks like,” I am not going to equip them beyond that specific issue.
Hannah: Like you said earlier, Bob, that you learn when something is off, based on knowing what the true authentic thing looks like. So yes, we absolutely say, “That’s counterfeit”; but we only know it’s counterfeit because we know what goodness looks like.
Dave: And yet, you also brought this perspective of love. I mean, you didn’t even use the word; but as you talked about how you were talking that through with your daughter, it’s like, “Man, there was a love for the image of God.”
I remember reading in your book—from Philippians 1:9—I don’t know if you know that reference—but man, when you pulled that thing out, I thought: “I want to read it [Philippians 1:9]. I want to hear your comments on it.” But it—Paul is writing to the Philippians; and he says, “And this is my prayer that your love may abound more and more in knowledge, in depth and insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best, and may you be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” So there is this discernment enveloped in love, and that is what we don’t see. We see discernment attacking—I mean, there are times I can’t open Twitter; you know? I’m talking about my brothers and sisters in Christ just attacking—
Ann: —one another.
Dave: —trying to use discernment to say, “I’m right; you’re wrong—here’s why…” There’s no love; it’s like I have turned it off at times—like, “I can’t read this, because this is lacking what Paul is talking about.” There is discernment needed; but in this—this aroma of love—so talk about that.
Hannah: Right; I think it goes back to remembering what the goal of discernment is. The goal of exercising discernment is not for one-upmanship; it’s not to win an argument; it’s not to be proven right, which can be a form of self-righteousness and works religion if we have all: “We are the ones who are right.”
The goal of discernment is goodness and, ultimately, redemption. The goal of discernment is healing. Particularly, for those who are gifted with discernment, that is a gift given by the Spirit for the healing of the world, for the healing of the church, for the healing of families, for the healing of individuals. It’s almost as if we are entrusted with remembering what goodness and love look like; and then, when we recognize things that don’t measure up to that, that’s when we raise the alarm—not for the sake of being “right”—but for the sake of drawing people back to the lives that God has given us and the abundant life in Christ.
Bob: And that’s why we train ourselves to think about what is true, what is honorable, what’s just, what’s pure, lovely, commendable—those things in Philippians 4:8,9 that are the heart of your book. I’m just thinking how good it would be for all of us to—yes, we want to be alert to error—but what if we were passionate for truth? Yes, we want to—to say, “These things are wrong”; but what if we were passionate for what’s right?
Dave: —and passionate with an aroma of love.
Dave: And it’s so interesting—its, often, you think that discernment leads to division; and it shouldn’t. If it’s done in love, the way God designed it, it would lead to unity. The church would be the most beautiful community on the planet because they are discerning all that’s good—but there’s a warming, loving spirit to it that would bring people together—not divide people; right? That’s the picture.
Bob: Well, I hope listeners have caught a little excitement about this subject of discernment and will get a copy of Hannah’s book. The book is called All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment. You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, for information on the book or to order it from us online. You can also call if you’d like to order: the number is 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-358-6329 to order Hannah’s book. The number again is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
We’re trying to help couples this month exercise a little discernment when it comes to the state of their marriage. Our team has put together an online assessment—it’s the “Marriage Health Assessment.” You can go online and answer a few dozen questions; it will measure how your marriage is doing in five critical areas of marital health: a help, you know, where you are doing well and where you might need some assistance. And then we’ve got articles and resources that we can recommend to you to help you grow and strengthen areas in your marriage.
These are the areas that we have learned, over time, make the difference between marriages that go the distance and marriages that struggle over time. The assessment is free. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link for the “Love That Lasts” information. Take the assessment online, and you will get your results immediately. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and find out how your marriage is doing and what you can do to build an even stronger marriage relationship.
And then we hope you will be back with us again here tomorrow. We are going to continue to talk about how we cultivate discernment in our own lives and in the lives our children. Hannah Anderson will with us again. Hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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