Discernment: A Spiritual Battle, Not a Logical One

The way people think, the way we react to environmental stimuli, the way we relate to one another, the way our backgrounds and experiences shape the way we view and interact with the world absolutely fascinates me. It’s probably what led me to pursue degrees in psychology and counseling as well as every sociology, anthropology, criminology, and every other social science -ology elective I could get my hands on when I was in college. What makes people tick? Why does the human mind perceive things the way it does? Why is it that two people can witness the exact same event and come away with two completely different interpretations of it?

Those human-centered constructs and sciences can be helpful when it comes to studying observable behavior, but that’s exactly where their helpfulness ends – at the line of observable human behavior. Statistical psychology can perform a longitudinal study on people who were abused as children and show us that those people are much more likely to become abusers themselves. But, try as they might, none of those -ologies can accurately explain why they don’t all turn out to be abusers, or why some become abusers and then, for no earthly reason, suddenly stop and are seemingly magically transformed into healthy parents or spouses.

It’s because all of the -ologies lack a major operating component in their schemata – the spiritual realm. They’re like a football team with an adequate defensive team but no offensive team. You can’t play the game of football that way, and you can’t begin to understand people without acknowledging and understanding the spiritual.

Humans are more than just brains transported around by a bag of bones and muscles. People have spirits, and there are only two kinds: a spirit that has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, or a spirit that is in rebellion against Christ. And even among those who have been redeemed, there’s a broad spectrum of maturity, both overall and in specific areas of sanctification. You can generalize someone as a “baby Christian” or a “mature Christian”, but even among mature Christians, you’ll find that Christian A isn’t as mature in trusting God as Christian B, that Christian B isn’t as mature in generosity as Christian C, that Christian C isn’t as mature in patience as Christian D, and so on.

People are wonderfully and weirdly spiritually complex and unique.

As Christians, I think most of us realize all of this on some level. We know that the Bible says that when we’re born again, we become completely new creatures in Christ. Out with the old man, in with the new. It’s a redeemed spirit that causes us to do things – in varying levels of maturity – like: love Christ, hate our sin, enjoy worship, and weep over the lost. Conversely, not having a redeemed spirit will cause those things to be absent in someone’s life. The words, attitudes, and behaviors we see on the outside are driven by what’s on the inside – the state of our spirits. Or, as Jesus put it:

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. Luke 6:45

We know this in our heads – when we’re dealing with someone’s sinful or otherwise inappropriate or aberrant actions, the words and behavior we’re observing are an outflow of the person’s spiritual state.

Sometimes, it’s easy to apply that knowledge. You observe someone murdering someone else, and it seems pretty clear-cut to say that the murderer is almost certainly not a genuinely regenerated Christian. Which is why he’s murdering someone.

The waters get a bit murkier when it comes to discernment issues in the church and among professing Christians, but the same spiritual principle applies. We’re ultimately dealing with someone’s spiritual state, not their external behavior.

“I don’t understand why my friend can’t see that _____ is a false teacher!”, I frequently hear from frustrated Christians (and myself!). “I’ve shown her video evidence, print evidence, and audio evidence of this teacher twisting Scripture, teaching false doctrine, and blatantly sinning, and she dismisses it all, telling me I’m being hateful and legalistic or that what the teacher is saying and doing is no big deal!”

That’s because what we’re dealing with is a spiritual issue, not a logical one. No amount of biblical evidence in the world is going to convince that friend of false doctrine until the Holy Spirit opens her eyes to it. My job is not to argue my friend into believing that Joel Osteen or Beth Moore or Benny Hinn or Christine Caine is a false teacher. My job is to lovingly present what Scripture says, demonstrate how the teacher is in conflict with it, leave it on the table, walk away, and continue to pray for my friend. My job is done. It is now the Holy Spirit’s job to open my friend’s eyes and change her heart.

Still not sure about all this? Let’s take a look at what Scripture has to say:

The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers…but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. John 10:3b-5, 26-27

You really need to read all of John 9-10 to get the fullest picture of what’s going on here. Jesus has, once again, proved His divinity and Messiahship – this time, by healing a man who was born blind. That’s all the proof the formerly blind man needs. He is all in. “He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him.” (John 9:38) and that’s all she wrote.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, despite having just witnessed a miracle only God can do, and despite the very words coming out of the mouth of God Himself in 9:39-10:30 – overwhelming, irrefutable, biblical video and audio evidence, you might say – refuse to believe. Instead, they do the first century equivalent of calling Jesus a legalistic-Pharisee-hater: “Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?’…The Jews picked up stones again to stone him.” (10:20,31)

Jesus gave them evidence. He gave them Scripture. And He did it perfectly because He was God. But they still chose to believe false doctrine over sound doctrine because they were not regenerate: Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” (10:25-26)

Sometimes that’s what’s going on, spiritually, with our friends who follow false teachers. Despite what they say, how many times they’ve walked the aisle, prayed a prayer, or been baptized, or how intense an encounter with the Lord they think they’ve had, they’ve never been genuinely saved.

Jesus definitively says that His sheep – genuinely regenerated Christians – know His voice. They either instinctively know, through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, when what they’re being taught is biblical (Jesus’ voice) and when it’s not (the voice of strangers), or they’re willing to learn as someone else teaches them God’s Word. Whether it’s an instant spiritual aversion to false teachers, or a gradual opening of their eyes through the teaching of Scripture, they will not follow the voice of strangers.

I can’t tell you how many women have told me (and I’ve personally experienced the same thing myself), “I was attending this women’s Bible study where they were using a book by _____. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I knew something was wrong, so I stopped going. Later, as I learned more and matured in my faith, I realized I had felt uneasy because the author teaches false doctrine.”

If a friend is following the voice of strangers, it could be that she doesn’t know the voice of the Shepherd and needs you to share the gospel with her.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. 2 Timothy 2:24-26

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians 2:14

People who aren’t saved, even if they appear to be and say that they are, aren’t going to “get it” when it comes to rejecting false teachers and false doctrine in favor of sound biblical doctrine. That’s something that only comes with a regenerated heart.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5:12-14

For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 3:6-7

Being unregenerate isn’t always the reason people follow false teachers. Sometimes the reason a friend follows a false teacher is that she has recently become a Christian, is immature in the faith, doesn’t know her Bible well, or is weak in the area of discernment.

When someone is genuinely saved, her life is on a trajectory toward holiness. But that doesn’t mean that God grows every aspect of her spiritual life at the same time or at the same rate. God may be growing your friend in kindness, or purity of speech, or self-control right now, and the “constant practice” of discernment might take a little longer, or not come as easily to her as it did to you. All Christians grow in the same direction, but we don’t all grow in the same time frame or in the same way. And that’s a good thing, because that way there’s always somebody strong to help me in my areas of weakness, and I can help others who are weak in the areas I’m strong in.

Something interesting I’ve discovered as I’ve studied and taught through the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles is a recurrence of some variation of this statement: “Nevertheless, the people still sacrificed at the high places, but only to the Lord their God.” (2 Chronicles 33:17)

Often, a righteous king came to power on the heels of an evil king. The evil king had introduced all sorts of idolatry into the nation, including building temples for idols and altars on the “high places” where the people sacrificed to false gods. As the righteous king settled into office and began painstakingly ridding the land of all the vestiges and accoutrements of idol worship, the people sometimes continued worshiping on the high places, but would worship God instead of idols. Was this pleasing to God? No. Not only was the place they were worshiping God defiled because it had been used for idol worship, but God had been very clear that the temple was the proper place for worship and sacrifice. However, the fact that the king had not yet been able to remove the high places did not make him an evil king or negate the fact that he was hard at work removing other, sometimes larger, icons of idol worship.

There are “high places” – areas of spiritual weakness – in all of our lives. I’ve got them, and you do too. Are they pleasing to God? No, and we should be working toward finding out what they are and tearing them down. But their existence doesn’t negate the fact that we love the Lord and are striving toward holiness, nor that God is hard at work conforming us to the image of Christ. Just because your friend’s “high place” is following a false teacher doesn’t necessarily mean she doesn’t love the Lord or that He isn’t at work in her life.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12

We’re not at war with friends who follow false teachers, so we shouldn’t be fighting with them, trying to “win.” Our enemy is the Enemy – the one who holds lost sinners captive. The deceiver. The tempter. The father of lies.

The next time you get frustrated with a friend who’s following a false teacher…don’t.

Remember that this is a spiritual battle. Lovingly lay out biblical truth as long as she’ll let you. Then, stand down, keep praying, and trust the Holy Spirit to do His good work through His Word.

16 thoughts on “Discernment: A Spiritual Battle, Not a Logical One”

  1. Wow! Thank you Michelle, this was a great explanation and a wonderfully written article! All of us who struggle with friends or acquaintances who follow or listen to false teachers need to read this! I often want to pull my hair out seeing what some “Christian” friends post on FB and the teachers they follow and quote. It’s hard to understand why they don’t see how it’s unbiblical when it’s so obviously false. Your words of wisdom have soothed me this morning. God bless you sister. Your ministry is a blessing to so many of us.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Michelle, this was excellent. I hope multitudes of Christians read this…….especially those who have rejected warnings of their more discerning brothers and sisters. You hit the bulls eye with this: Jesus’ sheep KNOW his voice. If you believe yourself to be one of His sheep and yet you follow false shepherds, you must ask yourself why that is.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Just amazing. This is the third time in less than a month that you have addressed an issue that I am struggling with. What I think of as gullibility in a dear sister, could be immaturity in her discernment. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Great article. I agree with both angles you have given. Yet, I do struggle with the commands of Scripture to not associate or be yoked together in spiritual matters with unbelievers. Obviously, this command calls for discernment, making judgment calls and decisions on our part. So, if a husband and wife in my Bible study group professes to be believers (for 50+ years) yet they listen to Joyce Meyer sermons, believe the spiritual gift of tongues is still in operation and are also excited their daughter in law is studying to be a pastor – do I not have to make a judgment call? I am a young believer, yet find a great part of their theology to be off base, according to Scripture. Do I continue to study with them? I have studied with them 4 years now and have not seen any change in their theology.
    Is this really how the Spirit of God works? Scripture uses the analogies of a seed and birth to describe our new life in Christ. How can a spiritual life going on 50+ years exhibit such confusion? Can we, as believers, really stay on milk for decades and not mature? If we are sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit, is it plausible for someone to remain stagnant for decades? Please understand my heart. This is not asking in pride…rather humility and frustration as this has caused much confusion in my own growth in Christ as well. Thank-you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bekki- I would say in a situation like that – where you’re in a class with someone (they definitely shouldn’t be teaching anybody, but from your comment, it sounds like they are your classmates, not teachers) – yes, it is a judgment call as to whether or not you can continue on in class with them. There are a couple of things to prayerfully take into consideration:

      The first thing is to consider whether your good theology is having more of an impact on them or or their bad theology is having more of an impact on you. Are you making progress in influencing them toward good theology? Are they causing you to doubt God’s Word, discouraging you beyond what you can bear, etc.? If they are hindering your learning and progress more that you are helping theirs, that’s an important factor to consider.

      The next thing to think about is your class and church as a whole. How is it that a couple with such aberrant theology feels comfortable in your church and in this class? Normally, the type of people who like Joyce Meyer and are pro-female “pastors” won’t stay in a doctrinally sound church very long. I don’t know a thing in the world about your church and class, but you might consider whether or not your church/class is teaching strongly and clearly in the areas this couple is “off” in, and firmly proclaiming God’s Word in general.

      To answer your question about whether someone can go 50 years in unbiblical theology with no apparent growth in holiness- generally, the answer is “no”. They are probably false converts. But we don’t get to make the final pronouncement on that, only God does, because we can’t see their hearts. Our part is to respond to what we can see: offering a loving rebuke where there’s sin or unbiblical theology, sharing the gospel, etc.

      Finally, you might want to set up an appointment with your pastor for counseling about this decision. He knows the church and you and the couple and can offer you more pointed answers that will better help you figure out what to do.

      Hope this helps :0)


      1. Thanks, Michelle, for the meaningful and biblically based response to our dilemma. I so appreciate being able to bounce this off another godly woman. I am going to take what you said, share with my husband, pray and then we will proceed from there. As young believers, we value the wisdom, insight and instruction from our brothers and sisters in the faith. Thanks so much!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Michelle, this is my first time looking at your blog. It is fantastic and refreshing to hear a strong voice coming out of the wilderness that speaks truth! Your insight was in depth and really good solid topic that is really eroding how a lot of believers assemble for apathetic worship and praise. As well as being afraid to share the gospel or even minister to those around them which God called us to do if we believe.

    This level of discernment that you mention in your article comes by hearing and reading the word of God for ourselves. In 2 Timothy 2:15 tells the believer to study and show thyself approved in knowledge and understanding of the scriptures. Consistency in this elevates our Spiritual growth and you break that down in your article. You even model it in how well you wrote this post. Thank you for your truth and which is your life in Christ Jesus that you share with others.

    Liked by 2 people

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