I received an email a while back asking this question. I am rephrasing it a little bit.
“In the Charismatic Church (and sometimes elsewhere), Christians sometimes interpret all bad events (weather, illnesses, etc.) as being from the Enemy/Devil/Demons and all good events (good parking spaces, good vibes etc) as being from the Lord. Is this really the right way about discerning events?”
Spiritual Causes are Difficult
The email went longer than this. Still, I think the author has put his/her finger on something important. Namely, that tracing spiritual causes is actually quite…well, difficult. I actually think that sometimes Christians can participate in fulfilling their own prophesies. What I mean is, since they are looking for it already, they will find it. Moreover, clarity is dim here on earth. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully…” Moreover, even if/when prophetic words are given we are not supposed to take them as being totally ‘clear’ in everything. For “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9).
Causation Versus Correlation
There is much difficulty in deciding if something caused something or if something is merely correlated. For instance, every time that I exercise outside, a red car drives by my house. What is the cause of such a thing? Is my exercise causing this, or some kind of cosmic power? Or rather, is it just a correlation. Perhaps, the neighbor with the red car and my time of exercising outside happen to coincide. Therefore, it makes perfect sense. We should be careful stacking up correlative events and calling them ‘caused by the Lord’ or ‘caused by the enemy.’ Sometimes odd series of events just happen, and they are neither the direct causation of the Lord or that of the enemy.
Time Can Change Perspective
I had a professor that warned us all about ‘finding a devil in every doorknob and every crack in the sidewalk.’ Moreover, the difficulty of judging the spiritual causes of anything are even more difficult when examined in light of time. At one juncture of life one may attribute something to the enemy, but later on, with perspective, it might be clearer to 1) Attribute it to the way of nature or regular life or 2) to the way of God.
The major difficulty of a heavy Charismatic approach, is the individualism that it breeds. Namely, that it is always ‘me vs. the enemy’ and the ‘God is for me and my ways.’ What about the other guy or girl than oneself? Is God not for her/him as well? I think that the biggest corrective to false discernment, or discerning falsely, is to be part of a scripture bound, truth seeking community that has Christ as the King. Paul himself says to check every prophetic word by having all others discerning its accuracy (1 Corinthians 14:29).
Lily Pad on the Pond
Moreover, there has to be ways of checking our own small communities of faith as well. Each church can be a little like a lily pad on a big pond. They each have their own mechanism’s for discerning internally to themselves, which at times can be good and at times can be bad. Each lily pad may be able to act swiftly and make quick decisions, but it is important to be in step with the broad church as well as the ancient church (which can take more time). One of things that I do personally is to hang out with someone/s that is in a different Christian tradition than the one I currently serve in. Why? Because, any group can become an echo chamber. Any group can begin to become lazy in thinking through the various dreams, visions, words, and encounters that are had. And, then they simply reaffirm each other in everything and nothing goes against that particular grain. Sometimes, we need someone to look more objectively at what is going on and tell us what is really happening. Moreover, and this is widely witnessed throughout church history, that groups that separate from the greater whole end up having lackluster discernment. Let’s not forget there are other pads on the pond.
I recently talked about the problem of “contingent/group Christianity” on this last Sunday morning. The point for all of us to remember that one small group or contingent should keep in step with the whole local church. Moreover, the whole local church has to find ways of relating to the large sphere of Christian thinking. I consider true believers to be part of the “CATHOLIC” church. Namely, the universal church.
In my view, discernment can take time. Even if our instincts or nudges are leading us in the right direction, we should be careful of speaking infallibly on the subject.
Be Careful Being TOO Spiritual
Every Christian relates differently to ‘spirituality.’ However, I do think it behooves us all to be careful of being too spiritual. The reason why, is that we can be easily manipulated. One of the issues that non-believers sometimes have of Christians, is that they are gullible. Back during the time of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, seemingly this was not as much of a problem. Chesterton and others could challenge the non-believers that it was the believers who were less gullible. This was so since their “religion” was a settled religion. Namely, the revelation had come, and there were then clearly some ‘spiritual things’ that are out of bounds of goodness and truth. Therefore, at least from their estimation Christians were not easily gullible people.
The hesitancy of interpreting everything in a spiritual way, is that the greatest story, or most illustrious vision, can easily capture our imagination and we think it ‘surely’ from God. The Apostle Paul cautions the Christians in his letter to the Colossians by saying “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind” (Colossians 2:18).
Frankly, if one is always looking for a burning bush experience, they can be more easily manipulated by others.
Don’t Quench the Spirit
This category is difficult. On the one hand we want to avoid false spirituality or manipulation and those who make things up and on the other we do not want to avoid the work of God. I find 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to be pretty helpful here. It tells us to “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Namely, whether things are bad or whether things are good (from at least our perspective) we should give thanks. Therefore, the check of being open to the work of the Holy Spirit is one that does not lead astray, but grounds one in thanksgiving to God, regardless of the circumstance.
The Difficulty of the Presidency
There is a little dilemma regarding the last two presidency’s and discernment. The strong conservative-prophetic groups prophesied that then Donald Trump would win. Since, there have been all sorts of other prophecies about what he will do. Since he did win the presidency, some conservative Christian groups point out that this is God’s man for God’s time. These groups sometimes go on about how Trump is a good Christian, even if a baby one.
When President Barak Obama was going against Mitt Romney, several groups had apparently prophesied that Obama would win. These were more liberal and yet charismatic groups. Once Obama won, these groups declared that Obama was God’s man for the job, just like Trump is now God’s man for the job from the conservative perspective. These groups went on about Obama’s Christianity and the good that he would do for the nation.
The dilemma posed to both of these groups, is how could they both be right about the Christianity of their respective person? From a Conservative-Prophetic viewpoint, Obama was a horrible leader and did much harm and was against God. From a Liberal-Prophetic viewpoint, Trump is a horrible leader and is doing much harm and is against God. Who is right? I will leave you to the dilemma. But, one caution to all who have read this far. If you find yourself in one camp or another, don’t allow yourself an easy answer on this one.
At the end of the day, we do not have to get lost in this. We can instead, go the voting booth and live our lives in a way where we are trying to do good, regardless of the prophecies that have come one way or another. We should not let those things control us either way.
The Difficulty of Scripture
Another thought here is that if one already has a spiritual viewpoint in mind, it is easy to find Scripture to back themselves up. This is a classic case of reading into Scripture what you already think rather than reading out of Scripture what it is saying and adjusting yourself accordingly. Even discernment with Scripture can take some time. The great Apostle Peter even notices this with some who read Paul’s letters. He says, “…Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Therefore even people who took Paul’s sacred letters and found what they wanted in them to back up their unstable viewpoints!
The End Times is a great example where many Christians have needed better discernment (at least in America in the last 50 years or so). There has been so much publishing on the end times and very little holiness. Holiness, Hope, and Readiness (See 1 Thessalonians 5 for these three themes) are what Jesus’ second coming is supposed to instill in the body of believers. Now, endless speculations swirl! It is a little unfortunate for this as well. The authors of those numerous End Times books should have known better. Either way, when a person’s compass is a little off, it can make their conclusions off as well. Scripture is again, and spiritual happenings are again, to be read in the community of faith both living as well as that of the ancient church.
In closing my thoughts for today I end with some great words from 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
“19 Do not quench the Spirit; 20 do not despise prophetic utterances. 21 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.