Not long ago, I ran across a bunch of Pope Francis’ suggestions for developing discernment. He thinks very highly of this concept. So did my old fundagelical crowd. Today, let me show you what discernment is, and why Christian leaders must teach their followers to use discernment instead of real critical thinking skills.

(I’m leaving in the story about moving, because there might be people who can’t listen to the reading but might enjoy knowing what happened.)

What a week!

This past week or two has been one of the wildest, most serendipitous periods of my life. I say that in a good way, thankfully! I alluded to a developing story at the last Movie Night (we watched Blazing Saddles and it was fantastic). That story has now concluded, more or less, so I can talk about it!

After searching on apartment sites for a new place in our new hometown, I was having very little luck. One of Mr. Captain’s co-workers had moved to our current town from there, and she suggested we use Craigslist instead to find a place. The denizens of that strange land speak in that odd dialect, and do most of their business through it, it seems. So, I quickly found a place that sounded right up our alley.

When I called the number, we had a rocky and strange star. At first, she thought I was a telemarketer, since she’d been inundated since putting up the Craigslist ad. But we quickly chatted and found our stride. We got along very well actually! And I told her we wanted the place advertised. She curates residents carefully, so after some background check stuff, she said we could have it. Hooray!

A hitch in the plan

Ah, but things so often don’t run smooth, as Captain Mal used to say. We needed to be there by June 13th, because Mr. C’s transfer position had to start by then or the deal was off. But then, this lady, we’ll call her Janet, learned that the current residents of our future home wouldn’t be moving out till July 1st.

At first, I freaked out and agonized. NOTHING else had seemed anywhere near as ideal as this place. Then, I thought: huh, what if I just call her and ask for suggestions? She seems to know the area very well, and she owns a lot of properties. Maybe she has somewhere in mind we can stay just for a couple of weeks. It’d be way less expensive than getting a hotel room for two weeks, even if it’d be a little kludgier to manage the moving details.

When I did that, she did indeed have a great solution. She’d stash us in a unit that was available now, and we could prorate rent on that till we got into the new place. That actually worked great, because we’d be right there and ready to go, and she could spend an extra couple days getting the real unit into move-in order without scrambling.

Everything just fell into place. Smooth as silk. Just a hugely complicated problem became a simple path. And it happened completely unexpectedly.

So Mr. C is now staying in a 1-bedroom unit right below where the real one will open up in a couple of weeks. I’m still here, finishing up the packing, while he gets situated in our new hometown. He loves everything about our new home, and he thinks I’ll love it forever too. He sends me pics all the time and they just make my heart burst with joy. It’s SO quintessentially Oregon-ish. I can’t wait to explore it.

Diving into discernment

Back when I was Christian, I noticed something strange. Well, I noticed a lot of strange things. But this one thing always bothered me a lot, and it happened often.

Very often, two Christians had completely different opinions on something religious. The topic of discussion could be anything, really. It might be a specific doctrine, the interpretation of a particular Bible verse, what a Christian should do in a certain situation, or even the relative value of a given Christian song.

Those two Christians could even belong to the same exact church and clique within that church. And yet, they would each have completely different opinions about that topic.

Whatever the topic was, they would each claim to have come by their opinion about it through prayer and Bible study. The implication was exactly what you think. Jesus himself had dictated his opinion on that topic to this follower. It was, therefore, the most correct opinion to hold.

But wait! He’d apparently said something completely different to the other follower!

An argument that nobody ever really won

Even if the first Christian didn’t flat-out accuse the other of having heard from some source other than Jesus, the implication always floated above their increasingly-heated argument about the topic.

Each participant in the argument always sounded so frustrated that they couldn’t convince the other person to change their mind. After all, they had Jesus on their side! They held Jesus’ own opinion on this topic!

However, the other person thought exactly the same thing. That other person was even certain that their counterpart was Jesus-ing all wrong. If only they Jesus-ed correctly, they’d be able to discern the real-deal, capital-T Truth!

What I describe here happened all the time.

In order to know why these arguments are so common in Christianity⁠—and why they will never end⁠—we need to understand discernment.

It is the Christian substitute for truth-seeking.

Evaluating truth claims

As we go about our lives, we all need to be able to figure out if a given claim is true or false. A claim, of course, asserts a fact:

  • The local school declared a snow day today
  • An item at this shop is on reduced sale
  • Our dearest friend is doing us dirty
  • Randy’s boyfriend loves him
  • The god of the entire universe impregnated a virgin without sex, after which she gave birth to the god himself, who then had a bad half-weekend, died, and then resurrected himself and floated up into the sky, and now, 2000-ish years later, he totally used his limitless magic to boost the healing time of a follower’s sprained ankle last Tuesday while ignoring the 10,000 children who died of starvation that day, and by the way he deeply cares about exactly what consenting adults do with other consenting adults in private

Knowledgeable folks call the skills involved in assessing claims critical thinking. They don’t mean critical in the sense of criticizing something, as most folks use the term in conversational English. Rather, they mean being able to draw upon a suite of mental skills that allow people to test a claim in objective ways, then act upon the results of those tests.

With critical thinking skills, we can assess claims’ validity and truth value.

The difference between discernment and critical thinking skills

Alas, critical thinking skills seem to be less and less often taught or treasured.

Worse, though, is this: if a particular claim comes to people as part of a set of beliefs with no real-world validity and zero objective truth value, then even if they possess those skills, they might not actually deploy them to evaluate that claim. After all, if they tried that, then the belief would be disproven!

So, the people holding such beliefs tend to completely compartmentalize how they assess claims in and out of their belief system. They use critical thinking skills just fine when it comes to, say, buying a home, deciding on a job offer, or picking a new brand of jeans to wear. But when it comes to anything relating to those dearly-held beliefs, then they slide right into another mode of evaluation entirely.

When it comes to those claims, they draw upon pseudo-skills taught to them by their trusted group leaders.

In Christianity, the religion’s leaders call those pseudo-skills discernment.

The processes that go into discernment are not critical thinking skills. These alternative processes are what religious leaders teach their followers to use in their stead. When these processes are used instead of critical thinking, followers will more reliably conclude that claims related to their own beliefs are true, while competing claims made by people with different beliefs are false (and possibly demonic in nature).

What discernment technically even is supposed to be

I suspect that most Christians believe in discernment. It’s hard to say exactly how many do, but it does seem like a lot do. Discernment isn’t quite “Yahweh talks back to Christians in prayer all the time,” which about a third of Christians think, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey. It’s more like thinking Yahweh stands by to share his opinions about things on command.

It seems like most Christians think that their god grants his favored, fervent believers a magical ability to tell what he thinks about any given situation or choice, as well as the origin of any impulse or suggestion a believer encounters. Is it demonic, fleshly (meaning originating from the believers themselves), or divine? Sometimes the three can sound completely identical to each other, after all! (There’s a good reason why, too, of course: they are.) For all that Christians parrot that one Bible verse about the sheep always knowing the shepherd’s voice, they get confused all too often.

Discernment is supposed to eliminate all of that confusion.

How Christians get the power of discernment

Yahweh grants Christians this superpower through the Holy Spirit, if you’re wondering. Most Christians think that the Holy Spirit is the part of Yahweh that performs his will. Often, Christian leaders teach that their followers can develop a sense of discernment through Jesus-ing. The list varies considerably (and hilariously) by the leader and the flavor of Christianity, but here are the usual steps recommended:

  • Prayer (of course)
  • Bible reading and study
  • Constantly asking how Jesus would respond to things
  • Following their leaders’ behavioral rules
  • Regular church attendance
  • Discipling (apprenticing) oneself to a longer-tenure Christian

The more of these devotions followers perform regularly, the faster they’ll learn to think like Jesus.

Gosh, Christians sure do a lot of work to develop a supernatural power that supposedly flows straight from Jesus!

But sometimes, Yahweh grants a follower so incredibly much discernment that they get regarded as supernally wise in the ways of Yahweh. When that happens, that follower is said to have the gift of discernment. Christians consider it one of the gifts of the Spirit. (The term bears a capital S. That means it totally derives from Yahweh’s Holy Spirit. A little s would mean a person’s own human spirit. The spirit is not a soul.)

My first Pentecostal church thought that the pastor, that genial old fellow I’ve mentioned a few times, had this superpower. (Nowadays, I just think he was one big ole pious fraud.)

Testing claims with discernment

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Christian advice regarding exactly how to use discernment seems to contain everything under the sun except exactly how to deploy discernment. As examples of what I mean, check out these posts from Apply God’s Word, Kenneth Copeland, this Jesuit university, and even WikiHow. The best any of them can suggest involves comparing the claim to any potentially-related Bible verses or feeling “inner clarity” about the decision made.

Let’s say a young Christian woman wants to know if Jesus wants her to marry a particular young man in church. He has asserted that he’d be a good husband for her. She does feel attracted to him, and he seems very fervent. (Yes, I’m primarily talking about myself and my first husband Biff. That said, I personally saw this situation duplicated countless times in my friends’ lives.)

She can assess his suitability as a mate using discernment or critical thinking skills.

With discernment, first and foremost she confesses and addresses all her own misbehavior to Jesus. Then, she prays extra-hard. She asks Jesus to send her a sign that her beau would be a good husband.

That sign might just be a really good feeling about the beau. Often, that’s all that’s needed or expected.

Why discernment is a necessity in Christianity

When I was Christian, evangelicals tended to believe that their god spoke to his followers in a lot of different ways. He didn’t just utilize direct telepathic speech. As one evangelical site points out, the Bible itself mentions its god using “a still, small voice” to talk to one character, Elijah. Even our gut feelings about things might be Jesus trying to convey an opinion or command to us.

(As I descended further and further into untreated anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, you can guess that feelings of dread messed with my head worse and worse as time went on.)

However, as I’ve mentioned, Jesus wasn’t the only source of supernatural communication. So, Christians had to use discernment to figure out who was really talking to us: our own flesh, Jesus, or demons.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher for us, either. Without discernment, Christians could stray into terrible and even eternal harm by misattributing something to the wrong source.

Yes yes, but what does discernment look like?

Many Christian leaders teach that discernment flows outward from Jesus himself down to his followers. Through it, Jesus teaches them what he considers true and false, good and bad.

Past that, though, it’s a free-for-all out there regarding exactly what it is, how it operates, and what processes it uses.

For example, Got Questions manages to blabber forth an entire page about the topic of discernment without getting around to telling us exactly what it looks like in practice or how it works. Ligonier does the same thing.

On the other hand, Blue Letter Bible manages to explain a little about what it’s supposed to do, but never tells us exactly how Christians are supposed to “exercise the gift.”

And in this Christian author’s explanation, she sounds like she’s suffering from the same anxiety problems I did as an evangelical⁠—and maybe also from a teeny bit of unwarranted self-importance.

Catholic-style discernment varies very slightly

Catholics, of course, believe in spiritual gifts. They also believe that discernment is real. They simply add angels to Protestants’ list of possible sources for a given sign or situation. And interestingly, Catholic leaders provide a lot more information than Protestants do about how discernment operates. A Catholic site explains:

Now this [spiritual] judgment may be formed in two ways. In the first case the discernment is made by means of an intuitive light which infallibly discovers the quality of the movement; it is then a gift of God, a grace gratis data, vouchsafed mainly for the benefit of our neighbour (1 Corinthians 12:10). [. . .] Second, discernment of spirits may be obtained through study and reflection. It is then an acquired human knowledge, more or less perfect, but very useful in the direction of souls.

Discernment of Spirits,” New Advent

That site even explains how Catholics acquire this “human knowledge.”

It is procured, always, of course, with the assistance of grace, by the reading of the Holy Bible, of works on theology and asceticism, of autobiographies, and the correspondence of the most distinguished ascetics.

Discernment of Spirits,” New Advent

But as that “with the assistance of grace” bit reveals, Christians assert that discernment can never be a wholly human endeavor. It always requires divine aid to function.

In the end, discernment always boils down to subjective readings

In the end, though, Catholics still end up judging signs and situations using the same methods that Protestants do.

First of all, Christians search their feelings. How does a particular decision feel to them? Does it make them happy or sad, anxious or fulfilled, empty or full of Jesus-y joy?

Next, Christians should see how well a given course of action fits into Bible verses. They mistakenly believe that there’s no way something really off-limits could be shoehorned into Bible verses. As I discovered on HBO’s Big Love forums, though, Christian guys did exactly that all the time to rationalize their desire for extra wives.

(Man, I miss those forums. They were so much fun. Back in the 2000s, HBO ran forums for all of their shows. Big Love attracted a lot of fundagelicals, since it was about a polygamous Mormon-ish family. So, it was a fun train wreck to watch from afar. HBO discontinued their forums ages ago, and I can’t blame them for doing so. But many groups spun off from there to talk about the series elsewhere. And Christian guys probably still asked the same questions there that they had on HBO.com!)

Last, Christians should ask their superiors in church about their potential decision. Their superiors should agree with whatever they think Jesus told them.

If the Christian has done all that work to learn to think like Jesus, they should never make a mistake with discernment using these basic steps.

Except Christians are wrong about their discernment constantly.

Blaming the wrong people for discernment malfunctions

Christian leaders teach that there is no way that real discernment can possibly lead any Christian astray.

If a Christian gets led astray, therefore, and claimed beforehand that discernment had led them there, then they did discernment incorrectly. It’s as simple as that.

Naturally, what one Christian considers proper discernment, another considers foulest lies from Satan meant to drive wedges between believers.

Rowdy John Piper tells us about “discernment gone wrong” over at Desiring God. There, he compares Christians obsessed with discernment to a drug-sniffing dog that can’t do anything else. Don’t go overboard, he cautions!

We see a similar admonishment from The Gospel Coalition. There, we learn that even properly-used discernment can lead to impatience and frustration on the part of the supernally-gifted discerner. Spiritually-gifted discerners need to remember to use their gift wisely and not cause ructions and fights!

But they never talk about Christians who were dead convinced that Jesus wanted them to marry this one person, but the person became abusive after the wedding. Or to run for office, or open a fast-food franchise or church that ultimately failed. Christians think they’re judging a decision the way Jesus would, and yet things go completely pear-shaped.

Of course, these sources use discernment more in the sense of judging fellow Christians and doctrinal shifts. Even then, they don’t accept that someone could Jesus 100% perfectly, but still end up in a dangerous cult (as friends of mine did, and as I almost did). It’s just completely outside the realm of possibilities.

A dogged insistence on having only truth in my life

By the time I deconverted from Christianity in the mid-1990s, I’d all but lost my ability to use critical thinking skills. To be sure, I’d compartmentalized my thinking so much that it was impossible to use what skills I still had on Christianity-related claims. Instead, I used only what my leaders allowed, and that meant discernment and all that it entails with all that Jesus-ing.

But discernment led me further and further into trouble, as I mentioned a moment ago. No matter how hard I Jesus-ed, I didn’t seem to be able to accurately tell what Jesus really wanted me to do. Of course, that beat the alternative: that maybe he wanted me to get into more and more trouble and face greater and greater danger!

In the end, I escaped by using my indoctrination against itself. I had finally noticed that without a single doubt, my leaders lied often and freely about miracles and their culture wars (especially abortion). I’d also noticed that the Bible itself did not line up with Christians’ claims about the power of prayer.

I decided that no matter what, a cause based on lies was not a cause I wanted anywhere in my life. That cause was not on the side of good. As scary as deconversion was at the time, if its claims just weren’t true then I could not remain part of Christianity. My dogged stubbornness about seeking only truth, about building my beliefs only on the truth as shown by little-f facts, saved my life.

Learning real critical thinking skills and using them relentlessly saved me

It wasn’t till later that I re-learned critical thinking skills and began insisting on using them everywhere, especially on beliefs I personally held dear. Those skills confirmed my deconversion many times over and led me to ways of thinking based more and more in reality, often in ways I didn’t even expect.

I can’t go back. Not just because Christianity is distinctly unpalatable to me on many levels just as a worldview, but also because my dedication to reality-based beliefs simply cannot brook the idea of joining any group based around untrue claims. And I hope more people join me in thinking that way.

We don’t need no steenkin’ magical discernment if we have actual critical thinking we can use to assess claims. Critical thinking actually works. We can actually say exactly why we think a certain way and how we came to a certain conclusion, and chances are good that we’ll come out way better than if we try to base our opinions and decisions on a magic non-process.

Of course, critical thinking destroys Christian claims every single time. No wonder they don’t like it and push discernment instead!

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

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