I connected this week with my 22-year old niece who is in Italy on a personal 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. There are many routes a pilgrim can choose to complete this spiritual journey. She spent time in Rome before launching her walk in Pied de Port, France, crossed the Pyrenees, and will eventually end up in Santiago de Compostela on the west coast of Spain.
She told me she’s taking the trip to get off alone–where she knows no one and only has to take care of herself–to realign her priorities to God’s and to recognize more clearly his voice and leadings for her life, vs. the voices and pulls of everything and everyone in our culture who demand her obedience.
In other words, she’s working hard to develop discernment.
The dictionary defines discernment as the ability to judge well. The Bible talks about spiritual discernment–an even more specific process of perceiving God’s desire or direction in a certain circumstance. Sadly, both kinds of discernment appear to be in short supply these days in our country–inside and outside the family of faith. Just take a look at the headlines.
I’ve been a news junkie my entire life and a professional journalist for half my adult life. I’ve lived through dozens of events that required mature discernment to fully understand. But history shows the default human response to those events was, typically, outrage on all sides, not discernment. (Sound familiar?)
Civil rights marches,the assassinations of Pres. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Viet Nam war, Watergate, the AIDS crisis, recessions (including the one that rivaled the Great Depression), 9/11, and protracted wars in Iran and Afghanistan. Repeatedly in history we have been called upon to think deeply about what’s happening. Often, the natural human response has been to rant, take a position, and never budge. And our nation has the scars to prove it.
Even as a young child, I remember asking an aunt what the McCarthy Hearings were all about, because the adults around me were so up in arms about it. The specifics of that sad bit of American history are largely unknown to today’s generation. But “McCarthyism” remains in our lexicon as shorthand for the practice of making unfair allegations in order to restrict dissent or political criticism. I didn’t know what to call it then, but it was an experience where discernment was called for by adults but not present.
Today, discernment is needed more than ever. “Fake news” is the newest addition to our lexicon, even though it’s original meaning has faded. Ask any three people if they know where the term “fake news” got its name. I did. No one knew it involved 14-year-old boys in Macedonia who figured out the Internet was hungry for content and that many sites would buy their sensational but fake stories because these upstart outlets had no rigid protocols for fact-checking. The sites just wanted to draw traffic. The sensational “fake” stories went viral on social media and raced around the world before someone figured out what was happening.
The boys spawned a whole cottage industry, because they recognized that readers had become lazy when it came to the truth. People weren’t reading the newspapers that had long histories of Pulitzer prizes for reporting real stories that required exhaustive research and rigorous fact checking. Readers were getting their news from their hairdresser and Facebook and their crazy Uncle who hated anyone with a college education. They had abandoned discernment and critical thinking in favor of the next delicious sound bite. Truth be damned.
In only a matter of months, that original definition of “fake news” (complete fabrication) has morphed into something totally different. Now, the President of the United States has appropriated the term to mean any unfavorable news coverage that challenges (and often proves false) what he says. Fifteen times this month the President talked about the “fake news media,” (implying that what they report is a complete fabrication), calling the media “the enemy of the American people.” It turns the original definition of fake news on its head.
Prof. George Lakoff, a linguist at the Univ. of California, has studied this “fake news” phenomena in exhaustive detail and finds the President’s use of “fake news” troubling. “Calling real news fake,” Layoff says, “is an attempt to hide the truth and undermine the function of the truth in a democracy.”
The Bible has a stronger word for it: It’s lying And lying, for any reason–especially if spoken by someone who claims to follow God–never wins God’s vote, In fact, Proverbs 6:16-19 calls lying one of the Seven Deadly Sins:
“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”
This has nothing to do with whether you’re a conservative or liberal, a Republican or Democrat. It’s about developing the discernment to recognize what’s true. It’s about learning what aligns with God’s definition of truth, not what a politician or your Facebook friends or your hairdresser insist are true.
It means we must take personal responsibility for developing discernment and learn how to become critical thinkers.
The website SkillsYouNeed.com says, “Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions, rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not.”
It means, when you listen or read the news, you ask questions like, “What facts or independent sources support their statements? In what setting did they say this? What was their agenda? Why did they say it now? Is this person trustworthy? What is the fruit of their words? Are they accountable? Do their plans bring people together?”
Discernment is not about asking questions like, “Do you agree with my position? Do you agree with my leader/cause/party? Do you agree with the outcome I want to see happen? If not, I can’t trust anything you say.”
The 17th Century philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof, but on the basis of what they find attractive.” However, if we are to develop discernment, our loyalties must be based on evidence, not emotions and self-interest. That’s hard. It goes against the grain of our sinful nature.
Bottom line? We must do our homework, develop discernment, and give the Holy Spirit permission to soften our rage, redirect our harsh judgments, and refine our stances that are cemented to political affiliations rather than the things that matter to God. And we must remember that God is not a one-issue God. He has a lot to say about money, the poor, the outcast, those without a voice, the earth he gave us to care for, and how love, honesty, humility, and unity are to undergird everything we do.
It’s hard work. But it’s holy work. Almost as hard as walking 500 miles across the Pyrenees.