While the Scripture encourages us to give up our liberties for the good of each other, the goal is not conformity. We sacrifice for each other because we are in relationship with each other, not in order to stay in relationship with each other. This nuance is essential because it helps us discern the difference between healthy and unhealthy communities. Because as much as healthy communities can lead us to wisdom and goodness, unhealthy communities can actually hinder our developing discernment.
A point that Alan Jacobs makes in his book How to Think is that often we conform to community expectations and toe the party line, not because we are convinced it’s right or good, but because speaking out against it would jeopardize our membership in the group. Sometimes this may mean accepting bad treatment for ourselves, as in abusive relationships, or enabling the abuse of others, all in order to stay in the group. Jacobs says that we can tell the difference between an unhealthy community and a healthy one by its attitude toward discernment. An unhealthy community, writes Jacobs, “discourages, mocks, and ruthlessly excludes those who ask uncomfortable questions. . . . The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill.”
In fact, the dissenting voice is so important to finding goodness that God has equipped certain people with a particular gift for discernment. Paul identifies this gifting in 1 Corinthians 12 as the ability to “distinguish between spirits” (v. 10). As John explains it in chapter 4 of his first epistle, this is the ability to identify false teachers from true ones—to know who is speaking in the name of God and who isn’t. While we are all called to practice discernment, certain people have extra insight and clarity, and they use it the same way a healthy immune system protects the body by identifying and combating illness. “Discernment,” writes Henri Nouwen, “is not about judging other people’s motives. It’s about distinguishing good guidance from harmful messages, and the Holy Spirit from evil spirits. This essential sorting . . . is intended for our protection and not for our judgment.”
But what happens when a community can’t receive dissenting opinions? At the very least, it won’t benefit from those with the gift of discernment, and because of the pressure to conform, those with the gift might be tempted to remain silent about the danger they see. But in the silence, the community risks coming under the control of false, manipulative leaders while those who do have insight from God are ignored. Correspondingly, those with the gift of discernment might become so frustrated that they are tempted to use it to judge and divide the Body, rather than heal it.
I find myself regularly tempted by this. I can remember distinct times of being frustrated with people who couldn’t see what was so obvious to me. Why can’t they understand what’s happening? Why can’t they see that she’s manipulating them with her smiles and niceties? What will it take for them to recognize that he’s teaching falsehood?
At one point, Nathan, tired of my angst, turned to me and said: “Hannah, if you actually have the gift of discernment, then you can’t expect other people to have it too. You can’t expect them to be who God has made you to be.”
Here’s the hard truth: If you are entrusted with a certain gift, most of the people around you won’t be similarly gifted. They won’t be able to see as clearly because God has not equipped them to. But being gifted with discernment does not give you permission to be spiteful, arrogant, or judgmental toward them. It is your responsibility to help the community by raising uncomfortable questions and then waiting patiently while it struggles with them. And more than likely, you’ll have to wait much longer than you want.
“None of us can tell God that He made a mistake in forming and gifting us in the way He has.”
Perhaps you’ve gained clarity about a systemic sin or a cultural tendency that is harming the Body. Because you can see the difference between good and evil so clearly, you’ll want to raise the alarm—which you must. But precisely because the sin has become so common, it will be hard for others to see it as quickly as you see it. Or maybe you can see how a system that was good fifty years ago isn’t necessarily good today. But because it’s been fifty years in the making, it will also take time for others to understand that it needs to change. In either case, you will have to remember that you are part of the Body, you are part of something bigger than yourself. You will have to remember that the clarity you enjoy is not for you alone. It is for the healing of the Body of Christ.
If your experience is anything like mine, you will quite possibly feel alone in this. Instead of relishing being the “prophetic” voice, you’ll agonize over it. If you truly have the gift of discernment, you’ll also know the weight of what you are about to say. But because you see good and evil more clearly, you’ll also see more clearly what’s at risk, and like Jeremiah, even if you try to keep quiet, you’ll find the weight of God’s message stronger still: “I say, ‘I won’t mention him, or speak any longer in his name.’ But his message becomes a burning fire in my heart, shut up in my bones. I become tired of holding it in, and I cannot” (20:9).
I know there have been times when I have sinned by silence and other times I have spoken in arrogance. I also know there are times when I have frustrated people by simply being a dissenting voice. I know some would prefer I be the proverbial meek and quiet female tasked with maintaining social norms. And if I’m honest, I’d prefer that too. As I’ve confessed to Nathan on more than one occasion, “I’d be anybody else if I could.” But at the end of the day, none of us can tell God that He made a mistake in forming and gifting us in the way He has.
In Romans 9:19–21, Paul notes that none of us are in a position to question how and why God formed us the way He has. He is speaking in context of redemption, but the principle is larger than this specific application. None of us can call unclean what He has called clean. None of us can call bad what He has called good.
And of all people, those with the gift of discernment should be the first to recognize that.
by Hannah Anderson
Winner of the 2018 TGC Book Award for Christian Living “And God saw that it was good…” Look out over the world today, it seems a far cry...
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