In Christianity, discernment is Christianese for sussing out the most Jesus-y option and interpretation out of the kabillions of competing ones. Though different flavors of Christians rely on varying tools for the job, most of them agree that discernment comes down to accurately perceiving what Jesus is trying to tell them to think and do. Alas, Jesus has no clue how to communicate. Today, though, we’ll encounter some progressive Christians who think they’ve figured it out—and they’re going to skewer those ickie evangelicals for Jesus-ing all wrong when it comes to discernment.
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 4/6/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and should be available by the time you see this note!)
Before You Lose Your Mind wants Christians to listen to their hearts
Last time we met up, I showed you a chapter from Before You Lose Your Mind. Progressive Christians published this book as an answer to Before You Lose Your Faith, which we discussed—at length—not long ago. As I said then, I hadn’t really planned to devote that much time to it. Its first few chapters didn’t cover topics we’d find interesting, I don’t reckon. Mostly, their writers simply explored deconstruction as a concept and wrangled Bible verses to support their own flavor of the religion. It’s nothing we haven’t seen many times. I thought I’d get a nice post about the doctrinal yardstick that all Christians use, and that’d be that.
Then, Chapter 5 walloped me with its “beauty in the wreckage” horseshit trying to hand-wave away the Problem of Suffering. (Unfortunately, their solution just made Yahweh look incompetent and malevolent—and just as awful as the evangelical version of him.)
Well, right after that I found another topic that we just might like.
See, in Chapter 6, author Keith Giles just wants deconstructing Christians to listen to their hearts.
Christianese 101: Discernment
In Christianese, discernment describes the processes by which Christians figure out which of many options is the most Jesus-y. It is also one of the formally-recognized gifts of the Spirit, which are superpowers that Jesus grants to certain prized followers.
Christians are well aware that any given option has three potential sources:
- Demons. Yes, they think demons can make people think that a given option is the most Jesus-y. These options will eventually cause TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to commit sin and even lose faith.
- The flesh. That means an answer borne of human pride, greed, and/or arrogance, for the most part. If something is of the flesh (or fleshly), Christians must reject it out of hand. If allowed to fester unchecked, fleshly answers can have the same effect as demonic ones. The main difference between demonic and fleshly answers is that a Christian operating in the flesh will likely stay Christian for way longer than one receiving demonic answers to their questions.
- Jesus himself. Obviously, this source is the gold standard that all Christians want to achieve. Hooray Team Jesus!
Some traditions add angels as a source. For the purposes of our discussion today, I consider them part of the third option. Also, all flavors of Christianity work with discernment as a concept, but we’ll mostly be dealing with the evangelical version today for two important reasons:
First, because Before You Lose Your Mind addresses itself to evangelicals whose faith pool is emptying. And second, because I really don’t think most mainline and progressive flavors talk nearly as much about discernment as evangelicals do.
Why evangelicals are cuckoo for discernment puffs
And I can easily understand why most discernment chatter comes from evangelical circles.
Out of all the flavors, evangelicals put the most emphasis on correct beliefs. No matter how kind, compassionate, and charitable any Christians may be, evangelicals think that if they believe the wrong things, then they are going straight to Hell. Worse, if those Christians teach or pastor others, they can spread their incorrect beliefs and send others to Hell with them!
Remember that evangelical belief we talked about last time, as the night the day? Evangelicals think that if you believe all the correct things, then your behavior will automagically fall into line with the tribe’s rules, and you will be sure to go to Heaven. Well, they also believe the opposite: Wrong beliefs lead to wrong behaviors, which leads to Hell.
The Third Law of Evangelical Motion:
For every evangelical belief, there is an equal and opposite evangelical counter-belief.
Drawing evangelicals away from their laser focus on discernment
It’s extremely clear that Chapter 6 is written with evangelicals in mind. Those are the only Christians who get so skittish about incorrectness that they might require someone to gently tell them that maybe, just maybe they have missed some important points in their rush to be as absolutely correct in their Jesus-ing as they can possibly be.
Mainline and progressive Christians lay much more emphasis on behavior over strictly-correct beliefs. They’re not as concerned, either, with differences of opinion regarding doctrines. Their belief system easily makes room for those differences.
Unfortunately, that emphasis can make inexperienced mainline/progressive Christians easy prey for evangelical recruiters. That’s how a preacher at a Southern Baptist pizza blast ensnared me when I was a wee Catholic lass. He made the very reasonable point that all we knew of Jesus came from the Bible, so didn’t all us non-evangelical kids want to follow the Bible instead of man-made doctrines?
That’s Christianese for any doctrines that a given judgey evangelical thinks are incorrect. You can see the phrase in use at Got Questions:
However, the Bible is not always the foundation upon which people or churches build their doctrinal statements. Our sinful natures do not easily submit to God’s decrees, so we often pick and choose the parts of the Bible we are comfortable with and discard the rest. Or we replace what God says with a man-made doctrine or tradition.
Tsk tsk! Obviously, all those other people and churches botched their discernment roll!
Man-made doctrines can be fleshly or demonic, but they are never Jesus-y. They always represent an error in discernment.
But now, along comes Before You Lose Your Mind to tell evangelicals to trust their hearts when it comes to their beliefs.
The basic gist of Chapter 6 of Before You Lose Your Mind
Our chapter is titled “Reading Scripture Through the Lens of Christ.” First, Keith Giles establishes that Jesus himself should be the only “mediator” standing between Christians and their god:
Only Jesus stands between you and God. Only Jesus connects you to god. Only Jesus reveals who the Father is, and what the Father is like.
So no one—and nothing—else. . . stands between you and God. Not even the Bible. [. . .]
Jesus is our instructor. He teaches us. He leads us into all Truth by His indwelling Holy Spirit. [p. 99]
(Oh yeah, Giles is apparently one of those Trinitarian heretics. Incidentally, Oneness Pentecostals consider Trinitarianism a man-made doctrine My old tribe used to think that demons masquerading as pagan gods persuaded Catholic leaders to adopt this doctrine in the 4th century to make it easier to convert entire countries. Having adopted that foul heresy, Catholic leaders went on to persecute the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who rejected it. The sheer animosity between Trinitarians and Oneness Pentecostals will never stop amusing me.)
Without once using the actual words discern or discernment (that I could find in my dead-tree edition of the book, though he does use the D-word a few pages later), Giles then launches into an extensive wrangling of Bible verses to support his position:
Christians already have Jesus right inside them, so all they have to do to figure out proper Jesus-ing is to listen to him speak from within them.
That sound you just heard is sixty kabillion zillion evangelicals spontaneously combusting. And they ain’t even sure why.
For good measure, let’s also accuse evangelicals of being on a power trip
What’s so funny about this chapter is its constant jabs at evangelicals. Like look, nobody is ever going to accuse me of being on their side about anything. But Christians’ internecine squabbling is never gonna be not-funny, and the fact that it’s coming from the side that prides itself on its lovey-dovey-ness just makes everything more hilarious. Check out these quotes Giles includes:
[Quoting New Testament (NT) scholar T.F. Torrance] We came up with the idea of inerrancy because we needed another mediator between God and man other than Jesus.
[Quoting NT scholar William Paul Young] It’s a very Western certainty. I mean, we don’t even have the original manuscripts in order to create (or justify) a certainty out of, yet we’ve come up with a doctrine that we can be certain of rather than a relationship that we can be certain of. . . . So what are we putting our certainty in: the character and nature of a God we are in relationship with, or the certainty of hermeneutical extrapolation that is without encounter? [p. 102]
Right after those quotes, Giles refers to evangelicals’ excessive focus on Bible verses and certainty as “this fear of the Holy Spirit.”
I don’t think he’s completely wrong, of course, though I don’t think they’re afraid of “the Holy Spirit.” How can they be, when they know better than any other Christians how truly weak and ineffectual that is? That said, evangelicals are indeed the most terrified Christians on Earth, as well as the angriest, cruelest, and hurtingest. (That really should be a word.) But declaring that evangelicals “have embraced a false Clergy-Laity divide” (p. 103) certainly implies that Giles thinks his flavor of Jesus-ing is the vastly—and more importantly, objectively—superior one.
How this kinder, gentler discernment
works is supposed to work
Giles doesn’t entirely write off the NT, of course. In his view, Christians should frequently and earnestly study the Gospels so that they know what Jesus said and did. At the same time, they should pray very hard for Jesus to give them the gift of discernment (and this is the one use of the D-word that I could find in the entire chapter), and then pray very hard to learn how to use it.
And then, having done and continuing to do all that, they should listen very hard to figure out what Jesus’ spirit is saying inside them, and “test the Spirits and hold tightly to the words of Jesus, trusting in His Spirit to guide us” (p. 104).
Y’all, I am starting to get the distinct impression that Jesus hasn’t yet gotten the hang of effective communication. Maybe he needs to stop making appearances on toast and dog’s butts and take a class or something. Or join Toastmasters or something.
And then, we get a story about an instance of totes-divine discernment
To round out the chapter, Giles offers up an anecdote about a time when he and his wife totally heard Jesus’ voice to help them figure out what to do in a tough situation.
Late one Sunday night, a neighbor showed up at the Giles home with a teenage girl in tow. The girl had run away from a group home nearby. The girl didn’t want to go back to the home, though she said it wasn’t mistreating her or anybody else. She simply preferred another group home and wanted to live there instead. Her mother’s home was, to say the least, not a safe option for the girl. And she refused to return to the group home.
However, the adults all knew that the home would soon realize she was missing. Someone would undoubtedly call the cops that very night. There’d be unpleasant legal stuff happening. And the girl would likely get in some kind of trouble for running away. All that trouble would make it unlikely that she’d be able to return to her preferred group home.
So the adults prayed very hard. And suddenly, Giles’ wife said they should call the preferred home.
Giles was sure there’d be nobody there to answer the phone that late at night, which seems unlikely given that most kids’ group homes usually have 24/7 staffing. So the Gileses might have been shocked to hear a human pick up on the other end of the line, but I sure wasn’t.
That human turned out to be the runaway’s previous case worker. She talked to the runaway, promising to get her readmitted to the preferred group home if she’d return to the current one. The runaway agreed, then willingly got into a van sent by the home and left. And there Giles’ knowledge of the girl appears to end.
But he is 100% certain that Jesus himself told his wife to call that former group home:
Now, I want you to know that if God had not told us what to do that night, Wendy [Giles] and I would never have thought to call [the former group home]. Before we prayed together and asked God for wisdom, neither of us had any clue about what we should do. But, once we prayed and asked God to tell us what to do, He answered us. [p. 108]
See? All Christians have to do to get direct instructions from Jesus is what he does, and then nobody will ever be confused about how to Jesus ever again! It’s so easy!
Sidebar: Occam’s Razor slices a testimony to ribbons
For a moment, let’s ignore the biggest problem with Giles’ anecdote: the fact that not one Christian in the history of their religion has been able to provide any objective support for the notion that their god talks to anybody or actually does anything in the real world.
That’s an issue that every testimony-bearing Christian must deal with or ignore. Like many of his brethren and sistren, Giles has chosen to ignore it. However, he’s talking to people who still want to be Christian after their deconstructions end. So fine, fine, I’ll cut him a little slack there.
The Razor of Occam still destroys his testimony.
Occam’s Razor tells us to seek explanations with the fewest unverified components. By that phrase, we don’t mean the simplest explanation. For Christians, that’ll always be It was magic! That explanation consists of nothing but unverified components.
No, instead let’s focus on two facets of his story. Those two facets reveal the real source of his discernment.
How discernment really works in the real world
First, let’s examine his assertion that he and his wife would never in a billion years have thought to call the former group home if Jesus hadn’t told them to do it.
As he himself tells us, he already knew that the girl’s current group home would soon have police looking for her. That implies that he knows that some adult staffer is up and about at that home. It wouldn’t be that big a stretch to imagine that the former home might have similar staffing. It isn’t even that weird that the girl’s former case worker might be the staffer at her preferred group home—after all, that case worker probably placed her there!
The adults’ prayers don’t even have to have any supernatural components—and indeed, unless Giles can prove otherwise then we must assume that they don’t. In Giles’ anecdote, the time they spent praying just provided them a space of time to consider their next move.
And now, let’s examine the strange way his anecdote assumes its ending.
In Christian testimonies, listen for their ending. Christians will never, ever leave out any details that would strengthen their anecdotes. If any strengthening details get left out, it means they don’t exist. So if the miraculous evangelism coincidence doesn’t end with a conversion and baptism, then there simply wasn’t one to report!
As I mentioned, the last we see of the runaway girl is her getting into a van to go back to her current group home. Giles never tells us anything more of her. He assumes that everything worked out great. He assumes that the case worker did what she promised. Likewise, he assumes that the two group homes teamed up to get the runaway where she wanted to go. And he attributes that perfect ending to Jesus.
Why not Artemis, protector of unmarried girls? Or Utu, the Mesopotamian god of justice and morality? Just because the Gileses prayed to Jesus doesn’t mean that’s who answered. Gods never do seem to sign their miracles, do they?
But we never hear that the runaway did, indeed, get to her preferred group home. For all we know, the home brutally punished her for running away and then sold her to a Eastern European copper mine. Giles doesn’t even seem curious about the real end of his own story.
(See also: Confirmation bias. We tend to remember things that confirm our beliefs, but we quickly forget things that contradict them. Giles remembers this story, but has likely forgotten tons of others where he just didn’t get any clear message from his head-voice.)
The biggest problem with discernment is what Christians tend to do with it
Sometimes, it feels like the Christians yammering on about discernment have never actually tangled with Christians who think they’ve discerned something in their guts or spleens or brains—or even in locales a couple of feet lower.
Every single Christian wackaloon and wingnut is absolutely convinced that they’ve correctly discerned Jesus’ opinions and instructions. They’ve followed Giles’ exact process for gaining and developing their gift of discernment. They’ve prayed tons and tons to learn how to identify whatever subjective feeling they’ve decided equals a divine voice.
Every one of them can point to dozens of Bible verses to support whatever it is they think they’re hearing. Yes, even Keith Giles and the his running buddies.
And then, having done all that, the less wacky and wingnutty of them decide that Jesus told them the world will end on such-and-such date, or that a surprising new doctrine is actually the truth Jesus wanted Christians to know all along, or that entire swathes of Christendom are completely wrong in their Jesus-ing and thus are doomed to Hell—so join this one or else!
Meanwhile, the worst wackaloons and wingnuts rush out to cheat their congregations, embark on extramarital affairs and engage in premarital nookie, commit various crimes, and even kill people. And they do it because they think Jesus commanded it.
Discernment can’t tether to reality
All of this and more happens because that divine voice they think they’re hearing is coming from inside their own heads. It’s completely subjective. Christians have no way in the world to compare it to any objective known voice of Jesus, because there has never been one. And the Bible can easily be made to support whatever a Christian wants.
So what Christians get instead of a unified, coherent, cohesive Jesus-voice is billions of Christians all certain that each of their quirky li’l head-voices is Jesus. Thus, any different Jesus voices saying different things become not-Jesus.
Thus, whatever Christians may call the voice of Jesus, it can’t really be trusted as such. It can’t be tethered to reality, and so neither can they.
Please understand: Keith Giles seems like a really nice fella. I’ve no real objection to him. I’m sure that I agree with him about a lot more things than we’d disagree about. And because he’s a really nice fella, it doesn’t even occur to him that almost all Christians in all flavors of Christianity are sure that their head-voices are right, and they use their own head-voices to rationalize doing all kinds of things I doubt Giles would like or find palatable.
Every evangelical involved with the culture wars is 100% certain that Jesus, who lives inside them, has personally blessed their behavior. They are certain that Jesus has personally told them to conduct those culture wars and to trample other people’s rights and liberties. And without even checking, I already know that they are already certain that Giles’ head-voice is demonic or fleshly, because there’s no way it could possibly be Jesus. (In fact, that does seem to be the case. Over on the book’s Amazon page, evangelicals do not approve at all.)
Giles just happens to be nice as a person, so his head-voice leads him to do nice things. If someone’s not a decent human being, their head-voice will lead them in very different directions.
Discernment comes down to this one simple truth
So far, we’ve covered a lot of ground regarding Christians’ conceptualization of discernment. We’ve talked about Jesus’ so-called voice being utterly unverifiable and unsupported by a single shred of evidence. We’ve talked about it saying drastically different things to different kinds of Christians. And we’ve discovered that there’s really no way to know for sure that one is hearing the correct Jesus-voice.
Really, if I were a space princess looking down at Christians from orbit, I’d simply assume that their god didn’t exist at all, and they were just making up his supposed messages to them. That is, after all, where the evidence leads.
If he exists, then unless Jesus is completely incompetent or purely malevolent, he can’t be causing this situation. And if he’s either of those, then he’s certainly not worthy of anyone’s worship. Worse, nothing such a being could say about the afterlife could even be trusted.
But the most pointed criticism I can possibly level at Christian discernment is simply this:
With so many Christians hearing so many different and mutually-contradictory messages from their god, they can’t all be correct in thinking that they’re hearing Jesus’ voice.
But every one of those Christians could certainly be wrong.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter email@example.com (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!
Endnote: I now hate the word “fleshly” and just never wanna say it ever again in my life. It’s worse than “moist.” In mid-post, it suddenly began conjuring up images in my mind of giant tunnels made out of undulating meat, and I would like to get off this mental-hellscape ride right now, please.