I work really hard to ensure my kids eat healthy foods.
Okay, I try to ensure my kids eat healthy foods. Both of them have inherited their momma’s sweet tooth, but the rule is they cannot have dessert until everything on their plate is eaten. Even their vegetables. No, especially their vegetables.
The other night, my daughter asked me for a cookie. I glanced down, noticed some green on her plate, and responded with the usual “Not until you finish your vegetables.”
“I did,” she insisted.
“Then why do I still see them on your plate?”
“That’s just the skin. I ate the beans.”
It took a moment for my busy, over-tired brain to catch up. “You did what?”
I looked at my daughter’s plate–really looked–and noticed that, indeed: the green I was seeing on her plate was just the “skins” (or shell); she had opened her green beans, eaten the inside, and left the rest.
“Why did you do that?” I asked, amused and bewildered.
“I like the beans,” she emphasized. “But the skin is gross.” Then she trotted off happily to enjoy her hard-won cookie.
Now, I get it. A lot of kids are picky eaters, my children included. But I had never, in all my years of being around kids, seen a child pick the beans out of a green bean shell, eat them, and leave the skin. To most people, all parts of a green bean taste the same, the skin and beans being simply parts of a whole. But to my daughter’s selective taste buds, the beans were tasty and the outer shell was not.
It may sound crazy to our adult minds (and drive a momma like me insane when it comes to the battle of wills), but this little green bean episode actually highlights a very important spiritual discipline that has been on my mind more and more over the past few months: discernment.
The literal meaning of discernment, according to Webster’s dictionary, is “the ability to judge well.” As Christians, often times we take this a bit further and interpret it as “the ability to discern well those things that are bad for me.” And while this is definitely an important aspect of discernment, because of the world in which we live, it can’t be the only part.
Before His Ascension, Jesus called His disciples (and us) to “The Great Commission”: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19-20a)
We are specifically called to go out into the world and make disciples, to be in the world but not of it (see John 15:19 and John 17: 14-16). So how can we go out into the world…without going out into the world? There is a tendency as Christians to see the world as a bad place and retreat into our bubbles, surrounding ourselves only with “good” people, music, books, and movies. And I absolutely, 100% support faith-based media (I am a Christian author after all!) However, completely closing ourselves off from secular culture not only affects our ability to minister to those outside the “church world,” but also paints a negative picture of Christianity as a “religion of no.”
No, you can’t listen to that song. No, you can’t watch that show. No, you can’t read that book. No, no, no, no.
Who wants to take the time and energy to learn about a God who tells you nothing but no? That is not the God I know. And I certainly don’t want those who don’t know Him to see Him that way either!
While we are absolutely called to reject some aspects of culture, part of a maturing Christian faith is being able to identify both the good AND bad facets of the world around us. We need to learn to embrace the good while rejecting the bad. This is a more complete, and more practical, definition of discernment.
For example, my children are coming to an age where other kids around them are reading and watching Harry Potter. Now, whether you agree or disagree with the criticism and hoopla surrounding this particular series, you can’t deny that it’s a worldwide phenomenon, one which has permeated our culture so fully that even those who haven’t read the books or seen the movies can at least identify the main character when they see him. It would be very easy to take a cursory glance at the books and decide, “No, you aren’t allowed to read that.” But, by doing so, I would be missing an opportunity to develop the discipline of spiritual discernment in my children, helping them distinguish the bad things about Harry Potter (magic, witchcraft, etc) while embracing the good (loyalty, friendship, and the theme of sacrificial love). We can, in essence, take something secular and turn it back to Christ, which may encourage my kids to share this angle of the books and movies with friends who may otherwise never have been able to connect the dots. Rather than having their unbelieving friends see Harry Potter as one more thing my kids’ God won’t let them do, they are instead able to receive a message of Christ within this series they already enjoy.
In the world but not of it.
But please don’t discount the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this. While Harry Potter may not be a stumbling block to me or my children (we liken the magical aspects to Tolkien or C.S. Lewis), they may perhaps be stumbling blocks for you, facets to which your spirit feels particularly sensitive. Pray about any aspect of secular culture in which you are attempting to practice discernment, and abstain completely if the Holy Spirit convicts you to do so. Romans 14 is an excellent resource for when it comes to making decisions about partaking or restraining from taking part in certain activities.
But this practice of discernment isn’t limited to secular culture. We also need to practice it when it comes to so-called “Christian” media and messages as well. There are many false doctrines and misleading teachers out there parading their messages as Christian. That is why simply labeling things as “good” or “bad” is so dangerous. If we see someone who calls himself a Christian preaching a message or writing a book or singing a song, this black and white view of the world is tempted to slap an “its all good” sticker upon it and consume it without thought.
As much as we don’t want to admit it, even the wisest of teachers are capable of bad teaching. Our favorite author, most-trusted preacher, or preferred worship band–all of them are still only human. Fallen, sinful humans who sometimes make mistakes. There was only one perfect person who ever lived: Jesus. This is why reading Scripture is so important (even Paul encouraged this about his own teaching–see Acts 17:11) but also why discernment among Christians is vital. If we trust any message simply because it comes from a “good” source, we are ripe to be led astray. And lies are most easily believed when they are wrapped in half-truths.
We all need the wisdom to embrace the good and reject the bad, no matter what the origin.
Just like my daughter did with her green beans. We may not always agree on what’s “good” and “bad”–like how the parts of the green bean could possibly taste any different from one another–but through prayer and communion with the Holy Spirit, we can grow in our faith and learn the discipline of discernment. And with this, we can overcome our fear of the world enough to love its people and fulfill the commission we all have been given.
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)