The Lost Art of Discernment

By Jeff Mallinson


Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, we discuss the difficulties faced by cultural prophets, and the sad fact that those prophets who get it right rarely get to enjoy their vindication. While we deal primarily with secular prognostications on the show, permit me to reflect on the difficulty of speaking truth to power within religious contexts, something Paul calls discernment (I Cor. 12:10).

Discernment is a spiritual gift. I wish more people valued it, cultivated it, and listened to those who have it. I think I know why they don’t, however. When one discerns a fraud, false teacher, or potentially dangerous trajectory, one makes few friends. First off, no one likes it when their favorite guru gets criticized. Secondly, as a race we tend to have several cognitive biases that prevent us from listening to discerning voices. These include the following:

The Backfire Effect: People often react to troubling information by doubling down on their beliefs. This is often seen when a prophet predicts the end of the world, and it doesn’t happen, yet his or her followers cling even more tenaciously to the false prophet. It’s not clear why people do this, but they do it. Check out an old episode of our podcast, about end-times-prophet Harold Camping to learn more about this phenomenon.

Choice-Supportive Bias: Folks are inclined to recall our past choices as wiser than they were. If we decide to follow some pop guru or other, it is hard for us to admit we were duped. So we stubbornly defend our earlier decision.

Confirmation Bias: This is a big one. Generally, we tend to seek, concentrate on, and recall data that supports our prejudices. Conversely, we tend to ignore and forget data that goes against our position. For example, one might say, “Yeah, I heard there might be some financial monkey business with Pastor X, but his sermons are so engaging!”

Dunning-Kruger Effect: Unskilled or under-educated folks tend to overvalue their intelligence and ability to understand complex matters, while highly skilled folks with advanced educations are sometimes overly-humble about their ability to understand these same matters. Thus, uneducated folks tend to be overly confident about their ability to identify quality gurus, while the educated can be overly deferential when they come across obvious charlatans.

Normalcy Bias: It is hard to conceive of catastrophes, so the emotional distress involved in contemplating evidence that a bad situation might arise often causes us to ignore evidence that there might be “a bad moon rising.”

Semmelweis Reflex: People often reject new data that they can’t fit into a system of beliefs, or paradigm. This means our biases about religious teachers, when we like them, prevent us from receiving evidence that they might be bad eggs.

Halo Effect: Folks tend to treat others who have a strong positive trait, as if that trait affects other traits. For instance, a religious leader who is good looking, witty, or perhaps a former famous athlete or actor can often get away with silly teachings, and even potentially immoral actions.

Ingroup Bias: Most of us want to believe what folks in our own group believes, and dismiss what folks from other groups believe. That’s what makes weird sects resilient, even when weird sects are, well, weird.

In other words, we are a race of suckers. Mad, bad, and misguided religious leaders have a long history of taking advantage of that fact. Couple this reality with our cultural value of pluralism and multiculturalism, and we find ourselves chronically unable to identify and condemn toxic spiritualities.


Now, to call my own spirituality a work in progress would be an understatement. But I think the facts attest to one strength I think I’ve had since grade school: I’m pretty good at spotting wolves in sheep’s clothing. Permit me to share three of the most notable moments when I needed this trait. In middle school I came across a crazy American lady who ran an orphanage in Mexico. One day, she performed petty miracles and a dramatic exorcism on one of the young women in our group. I said she was a nut. The adult chaperones who helped lead the mission project told me: “That’s what the Devil would say; don’t question the Lord’s anointed.” A few years later, she was removed from her position, following allegations that the orphans had experienced physical and sexual abuse during her tenure.

In high school, I composed a full research paper and submitted it to the elders of my church. The topic was Bill Gothard, a popular, but thoroughly legalistic, youth and family speaker. In short, I wrote that he was a nut. Some suggested that I just didn’t like his negative beliefs about rock and roll, long hair, and parental authority. I countered that he had bad theology and worse exegetical skills. Several decades later, he was removed from his position, following allegations of sexual advances toward young women in his organization.

In my late twenties, as a college dean, I opposed collaboration and general involvement with a popular megachurch pastor and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, named Ted Haggard. I said he was a nut. Some wanted to nominate him for the university presidency. When I said he was a theologian of glory who thought Haiti was impoverished because of a deal made with the devil—some suggested I just didn’t like his right wing religious views and patriotism. A short while later, he was removed from his position after allegations that he hired a male prostitute, with whom he did meth.


The sinful part of me always wanted more vindication, after it turned out I was right. But it could never be more than a hollow victory. The discerning person can hardly win. If he or she is wrong, he or she is a mean-spirited nay-sayer. If right, the results are too tragic to permit gloating. In any case, given the frequency with which I encountered situations like the three I mentioned, when I became a member of the LCMS in my mid-twenties, I was finally home. Here, finally, was an entire church body tenaciously clinging to the idea of discernment. Doctrine mattered, false teachers were eschewed, charismatic “sign gifts” were viewed with deep skepticism.

But all was not well, necessarily. Sometimes, in the German-American Lutheran world, our history of opposing unionism has produced an ethos in which sniping at others who do not hold to our confession is a mark of faithfulness. When I tell folks I’m a Lutheran, those folks sometimes recoil. They have, they say, run into us. And, they say, it wasn’t pleasant. They were scolded for the form of their prayer, their songs, their teaching about communion, their disinterest in liturgy, or whatever. I protest that, at least in my experience, Lutheran theology is an oasis in a spiritual desert. They counter by suggesting that however good our theology, we too often lack the theological virtue of charity or agape love. Our theology, I’ve been told, is gracious, but our ethos is too often not. Wow.


What should those of us who love the Lutheran tradition do when confronted by such perceptions? We go back to those pesky cognitive biases, unfortunately. The Backfire Effect makes us dig our heels in and reaffirm our liturgical and confessional position. The Semmelweis Reflex causes us to reject evidence that our communities aren’t practicing what we preach. The Ingroup Bias causes us to dismiss the outsiders who find faults with our insiders. All of this feeds our confirmation bias. In other words, we remain good at discernment when it comes to seeking and destroying foreign aberrations. Nonetheless, we—and in fact all intellectual and religious groups—need to be discerning about our own selves and our communities. This isn’t to be mean-spirited, but rather to be faithful.

The point in all of this is we need to a) maintain our vigilance, within the church, always practicing the art of discernment, since failure to do this can be spiritually and practically toxic, and b) be sure to apply the same critical thought to our own communities, listening to how we come across to others without immediately invalidating their observations. After all, if we are after goodness, truth and beauty, we must let go of defensiveness. When someone points out our blind spots, the proper response is: “Thank you.” May we all relentlessly strive toward faithfulness to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, including those of our own communities!

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping my fifth iced green tea at the fabulous Night Owl Cafe in Fullerton, between chapters of Steven Volk, Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Unexplain the Unexplainable-And Couldn’t.