Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies

Last year, Tim Challies' book "The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment" went on sale at Amazon, and I decided to buy it. I've known of the book for several years, but I didn't feel a pull toward it. I've been reading Tim's blog for years, so I'm familiar with his perspective. I've disagreed with him on a few subjects (or at least, with his conclusion on the subject). Some of his posts are great. Others are TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read). You can search my blog for posts I've written in response to something Tim said that I disagreed with enough to take the time to write about.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. What I got is some really basic material written for most Christians starting out to understand discernment. I think it's filled with a lot of cliches and has far less meat than the page count indicates. I can't say I learned very much new, but I've spent several years studying this and other complimentary subjects such as philosophy, so I'm not a beginner. This book is not the final authority on discernment, although it only claims to teach you about "spiritual" discernment. I don't think it does that. It might help you with a narrow range of single-minded Biblical issues. I doubt it would help you discern other spiritual issues like Gnosticism and the Merovingian myths. I doubt it would help you on issues like predestination or a Bible version debate (there are people who have elevated the King James Bible to the level of an idol.)

You should know going into this book: it's definitely a Christian book. Tim Challies writes like a pastor. He currently is a pastor, but was not when he wrote the book. Like a pastor, he repeats things to make points, just like he would in a sermon. Sometimes in the same paragraph. He uses a lot of devotional language. I'm convinced he has about a pamphlet worth of hard material without all the repeats, cliches, and devotional writing. Tim makes some good points, but also throws in a lot of 21st century North American Evangelical (Tim Challies is Canadian) cliches that will get a lot of amens from his audience, but make no sense to the discerning reader and probably fall apart under close examination. I don't think they detract much from his argument, and many contemporary authors and preachers use them, so they won't be out of place for most of Tim's audience. I just don't think they make any sense. When I read statements like "The church TODAY suffers from a lack of discernment", it makes me think there must have existed some magical time when the church DIDN'T suffer from a lack of discernment. I've done a fair amount of study into church history, and I find Ecclesiastes to be accurate: There is nothing new under the sun. I'm not denying that many Christians do not practice or develop discernment. But many non-Christians don't either. It's more a characteristic of fallen humanity than a reflection only of the church in our times.

One compliment I'd like to pay Tim is he didn't include the "just in case" material that annoys me in many Christian books. Christian authors will write to what they believe to be a spiritually mature audience, but "just in case" either include at least one chapter on the basic Gospel, or disperse it throughout the book. Tim doesn't do this, except for a very small part of his devotional language. I liken this to an experienced programmer buying a book on programming, expecting it to be written for an advanced audience, and finding several chapters on how to work a QWERTY keyboard and writing your first "Hello world!" program. Most professional authors don't include "just in case" material to cater to the possibility of a newbie picking up the book. I don't understand why Christian authors do this. I guess it's for the same reason pastors in small churches do an altar call every Sunday even though they haven't had a single visitor in months.  If I buy a seminary level book, I don't want a chapter on the "Sinner's Prayer" just in case somebody not saved buys a book on an advanced Christian subject. So kudos to Tim for not going down this path.

OK, let's get to the book. Page 10 includes a forward written by none other than John MacArthur. That's impressive. John MacArthur is considered a heavyweight among Tim's likely audience. I don't imagine it's easy to get him to recommend your book. That's a little discouraging when I think about my conclusion on the book.

Chapter 1 is "A Call to Discernment". Tim begins with Solomon's conversation with God in I Kings 3. God gave Solomon the chance to ask for anything. Money, power, women, etc. Maybe not women, but he got that anyway. Solomon asked for wisdom and discernment. God rewarded him with the other things. The women probably weren't a reward, but he got 1000 of them anyway.

Chapters 2-8 are where Tim lays out his case. I won't spend much time reviewing them. 

Chapter 9 finally gets into the meat of how to develop discernment. But it's not quite meat; it's still cliche. Tim offers two methods to develop discernment: 

1) Read the Bible
2) Join a church.

That's it. He wrote several paragraphs explaining WHY you need to join a church. I'm not disagreeing with him on that point. I just think it takes a heck of a lot more to develop discernment than "a chapter a day keeps the devil away" and "go to church on Sunday".

Prior to his election in 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a man who had been reading the Bible since childhood, said "I am not  a Christian- God knows I would be..." Supposedly Lincoln did become a Christian during his presidency. But here is Lincoln showing us simply reading the Bible does not magically convert one to Christianity.

There is a little more to it in this book than those two points. Tim does encourage his book's readers to become involved in a local church, and to find other believers to study with. I have no problem with that. I don't believe Christians are saved to be "Lone Rangers". In the 21st century developed world, the church (as in the building owned by the 501(c)3 non-profit corporation) is what our culture provides us for gathering with other believers in community. I have nothing against it. I don't believe it's a "one size fits all" solution, nor do I believe that most of our programs were laid out legalistically in the Bible like so:

"Verily, I say unto thee, thou shalt gather at 8:15 AM or 10:30 AM on Sunday morning. Thou must open service with a prayer, followed by announcements, then another prayer. Then sing 5 songs, none of which may be written after 1865. Thy modern songs art from the devil, except for Gaither. He is permitted for his songs are holy. But no other contemporary music can be holy. Neither is Amazing Grace because it sounds really cool with bagpipes. Holy music shall only be played with the organ or piano, the only two holy instruments, except for in churches of Christ. Foot tapping and clapping shall not be permitted in those churches for that could be considered an instrument. The five somber 19th century American Baptist songs shall be followed by another prayer, then two more songs. Then communion. Following communion (which shall be done with another somber, joyless old people song) a sermon of not less than 45 minutes but no longer than 90 minutes shall be preached. The sermon shall be as contrived as humanly possible, full of little more than a pre-school level exposition of "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so", which the parishioners should already know but must be reminded of every single week in case it didn't take any of the previous times. Also, in case that one person in North America who hasn't heard it is present, which is unlikely anyway because nobody has invited a visitor to hear this pastor preach in the last five years. The sermon shall also inform the parishoners that to not like such repetitive sermons means they don't love Jesus (Editorial note.- I have heard this in a sermon; I wanted to walk out. I was so mad I started arguing with the pastor on Evernote on my iPhone. My wife didn't believe that I wasn't emailing somebody). Also, they may not watch TV or they are not saved. Then another prayer and dismissal. Following dismissal, the parishioners shall spend up to an hour telling the pastor how great he is and how much they loved his sermon. They shall also lie to each other about how great their marriages and lives are. None of this is true, but to struggle with life is to not love Jesus, and no church member should admit to something that could cause them to look like they don't love Jesus in front of another church member. (They think the verse reads "bear someone else's burdens, but thy burdens shall be born by thyself or thou art a loser and unsaved"). Then they shall go home and live in gnostic duality because trying to follow pastor's admionitions leads to nothing more than constant frustration and a belief that they don't really love Jesus. If they did love Jesus, they could stop watching TV. And getting angry and impatient. And craving chocolate. And not feeling like reading the Bible for 6 hours a day, for that is holy. They shall forget the sermon and forget about Jesus and church until next week when they return to repeat the process, thereby getting their tickets punched. And the Gospel not being spread, for that is pastor's job. And that really weird guy who LIKES to knock on doors."

At least, from some churches, you'd think that's how Jesus laid out the prescription for church life. Or Paul. Or Moses. Or somebody. But that's not in the Bible. That's mostly satire based on a compilation of events from my life and stories from friends put together with figments of my own imagination. It's all sarcasm and should be taken as such. Except for the part about "If you don't like this sermon, it means you don't love Jesus". I sat through a sermon with that point. It also said if you don't like the somber, joyless old people songs you don't love Jesus. That's the last sermon I went to at that church.

After telling the reader to read the Bible and go to church, Tim lays out what he calls "The Character for Discernment". This is composed of two parts as well:
1)Humility before God
2) Humility before men- this is accomplished with meekness and compassion

The confirmation of discernment
This again provides a simplistic, cliched response: obey the Bible, and pursue God. Chapter nine is so simplistic and cliched, I believe you could do a "search and replace" and replace the word "discernment" in this chapter with any other spiritual discipline (ie, fasting, holiness, prayer, solitude, etc) and get the exact same material. You'd never notice the change. The chapter is perfectly modular and could be repurposed for material on just about any pious practice.

Chapter 10 is "The Practice of Discernment". I hoped this chapter would provide some meat. It promises to. The opening paragraph says:

In this chapter I will lead you step by step through the practice of discernment. So grab a pen and a couple of sheets of paper or open the word processor on your computer, and we'll get to work.
Challies, Tim; John MacArthur (2008-03-31). The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (p. 163). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.

In this chapter, Tim walks the reader through a series of about 17 steps (and some substeps) to deal with a case he presents: is self-forgiveness Biblical? I think Tim makes his case, but I also find it contrived. Tim already had his problem, conclusion, and references worked out before presenting his case, so the reader is not working through it with him. Tim is only leading you through his process to the conclusion he already arrived at. I agree with his conclusion; that's not the issue. I was not really excited by this case. It was a chore for me to read it. I learned nothing new, but I believe in finishing books and I hoped to get this review done honestly.

Tim provides an appendix of recommended books and ministries, a study guide, index, and notes at the back of the book. I'm familiar with some of them. If you follow Tim Challies, it's the kind of material you'd expect him to present. It's the people he follows. Nothing wrong with that. Later on in this review, I refer you to some people I follow. There is some overlap between my references and Tim's. 

Please don't take my review as any sort of direct criticism of Tim Challies. I don't believe I've written anything in here that I wouldn't be comfortable discussing with him in person. Tim Challies and I agree on quite a bit, and I'm sure we'd get along great if we ever met. I'm merely providing a review of his book from my perspective. I partly disagree with the way he presents information in this book and develops his case. I don't think this book has as much meat as Tim thinks it does, and I don't believe it will help you develop the actual skill of discernment. It might help you understand what discernment is, but I don't think it will help you in any practical way. It's a "what to do" book, not a "how to do" book.

Note: this has been on my mind throughout reading Tim's book and writing this review. Tim Challies even mentioned having written a critical review of a book, then encountering the author at a Bible conference. He felt bad and hid. I attempted to find this post on his blog, but 30 minutes became too much work of going through his archives. You can email him to ask for the URL. But I have that post in mind as I write my review.

In an earlier draft of this review, I said I recommend this book for Christians eager to learn about what discernment is, and how to begin to develop it. I don't stand behind that anymore. This book is NOT the final authority on the subject, and is only a good place to start if you like softball content. It'll probably help you with discerning if a teaching on the Bible you hear is good, like on those Christian cable channels. But it doesn't talk much about logic. I'm not convinced it will help you discern a sales pitch. I think it's limited only to subjects that start and end within the pages of the Bible.

I believe spiritual discernment (or secular discernment) can and should be practiced outside of the Bible, and Biblical matters. It can be done in a Biblical way. I don't think we do ourselves any favors by placing the word "spiritual" as a qualifier before another word. I think it causes us to live in a gnostic duality. Many parts of our world are not that clear cut between spiritual and non-spiritual.  

I use the words "gnostic duality" a lot lately. I do this because I'm convinced in our efforts to be pious, we often set standards that aren't entirely Biblical and serve to only frustrate ourselves and other believers with a failure to achieve them. I'm convinced Christianity is a faith and philosophy that is and should be compatible with our entire lives. We have to be able to discern between what the Bible actually says and somebody else's attempt to apply it in an effort to appear pious or holy. I've read books on spiritual disciplines where the author found a system that worked for himself or herself, at least long enough to write a book about it, and tried to convince the reader that this is the path to holiness. But I've tried to apply the system to my life, and only become frustrated because I can't or won't apply it. I don't care how holy an author feels, I'm not getting up at 3 AM to pray or read the Bible for 6 hours. I get up at 5 for work. That "discipline" does not fit into my schedule. I guess I could quit my job, but am I not supposed to provide for my family? (I Tim 5:8)

I was discussing this with a former pastor of mine. He commented that he heard someone at a conference say "You have to spend eight hours every day in THE WORD!" My pastor's response was "I'm already working more than 90 hours a week and have children at home. How is that supposed to work?" In other words, the speaker, in an effort (I have no doubts about his honesty and good intentions) to lead others into holiness, laid down an unrealistic standard. All he did was frustrate people who could not match that standard.

I've equated discernment with a term that could be considered raw: a bullshit detector (pardon the French). I've written about this before when I was challenged by a pastor to read the book of Nehemiah from a male leadership perspective. I was struck by the fact that Nehemiah had a rock solid bullshit detector. You couldn't pull anything over on him. (Last time I mention). I told God, if it were possible to posses the gifts of men from the Bible in the form of superpowers, I would want Nehemiah's bullshit detector. Yes, I talk to God like this (at times). 

I came across a quote in a paper I was reading about the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric). It said:

One of several tests to show if an individual is reaching this awakened state of education is when he can thoroughly and critically entertain various ideas without necessarily embracing them (i.e., he comes into possession of a truly open mind: he frees himself from his own opinions and prejudices). 

This is what I consider discernment to be. I don't believe Tim's book will help you discern anything outside of a very narrow range of Biblical topics.

Your first lesson in discernment is, just because somebody in a position of spiritual authority says something, doesn't mean everything they say is true. Tim Challies frequently cites I Thes 5:21: "Prove all things, hold fast that which is good". That's always been one of my favorite verses, more so than Acts 17:11. I'm not convinced I Thes 5:21 means "prove all things within the pages of the Bible". It means what it says: prove all things. At the time Paul wrote that, there was no New Testament, and I Thes was one of the first letters to be written, if not the first.

Rant: I listen to a lot of sources. Some are atheist. Christopher Hitchens called himself an "anti-theist". Some sources I listen to try to be purely scientific. Some try to be only "spiritual". The reason I'm critical of Tim Challies' "spiritual discernment" approach is because I favor a multi-disciplinary approach to life. You can't look at life entirely through the lens of naturalistic science, or through a lens of only the Bible. You have to use all the available tools: science, philosophy, history, etc. Use everything. You can't approach life entirely through a "spiritual" perspective. Nor can you approach life entirely through a naturalistic perspective.

How To Develop Discernment
Here are some resources I recommend you use to get started in developing the discipline of discernment: None of them will give you everything you need, but if you integrate the tools they provide, you'll be ahead of the curve.

Stand to Reason podcast - Greg Koukl exercises discernment as he walks through issues and questions raised by his callers. Whether you agree with him on issues or not, following him helped me to understand the "mechanics" of logic and argument as I watched him apply them week after week.

"Love God With All Your Mind" by J.P. Moreland. This explores a section of the command of what we're to love God with (heart, MIND, soul, strength). We often seem to forget that we're supposed to worship God with our intellect. When I used to teach Bible classes at church, I had a small but loyal audience who enjoyed my classes. Other people, including my own wife, wouldn't go to my classes because "It's Wednesday. I don't want to have to think". When I was scheduled to teach, I was always competing against a video series. Most people just went to the video series. I have nothing against video series. The first class I taught in that church was a video series of the Book of Acts. I'd open the class, play 30 minutes of video, and close with comments and questions. The pastors and elders had me do that to see if I could teach an entire quarter. They were being discerning about testing out a new teacher with the congregation. In this book, J.P Moreland explores what it means to love God with all your mind. One thing I really like about J.P. Moreland is he goes deep into the subject matter, and leaves you with constructive, actionable steps to apply them. He is my favorite contemporary philosopher.

"A Mind For God" by James Emery White- this is the book that got me started on the path to discernment. It's a small book and a short but comprehensive read, calling you to participate in the "Great Conversation". After years of listening to legalistic instructions to separate from the culture, this book encouraged me to engage with the culture. It was eye opening.

"How To Read A Book" by Mortimer Adler. This is recommended in the above book by James Emery White. It really opened my eyes and freed me to make notes in my books. I tend to make the most notes in books with material I disagree with, as I argue with the author.

The Real Estate B.S. Artist Detection Checklist by John T. Reed. As I said, a Christian life really should exist outside the limits of the pages of the Bible and the hours church is in session. Although the language in this web page is a little raw, it's an excellent overview of the methods people will use to trick you out of your money. It's geared toward discerning those Real Estate gurus who show up on paid programming time on the History Channel at 4 AM promising you limitless riches (and a boat full of beautiful women) with no money down, no experience, and no actual work. I find John's checklist applies to many situations in life. I believe I'd already read it before my encounter with Sundance Vacations. Next time I go to a presentation like that, maybe I'll bring the B.S. Artist Detection Checklist and run down it in front of the salesperson. "See, I don't want to buy a timeshare from you because you violate number (x, x, and x).

The Trivium- The first three of the seven liberal arts, Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Learning the Trivium will teach you to teach yourself anything. I think it is far more important to know HOW to think. Most people seem concerned with being told WHAT to think.

Study logical fallacies. Learn how to identify a weak argument. I've been doing this a lot lately. I was listening to a podcast about logical fallacies, and I caught the philosophy professor committing the fallacy of equivocating. I was proud of myself for that one. The other morning on my ride to work, I was listening to a Rick Warren sermon, and I caught him Begging the Question. (NOTE: raising the question is NOT the same thing as begging the question. Begging the question is a logical fallacy where a point is assumed to be true then referenced back to itself. You hear from Christians all the time that "The Bible is true because it says so". I'm not disagreeing with that, but it's a VERY weak argument because it begs the question. I hear journalists all the time saying things like "This begs the question..." No, it RAISES the question. That's not the same thing.)

Jan Irvin created a site called Pop Up Fallacies. He only has two videos on it. I think my pastor would kill me if I recorded one of his sermons and did something like that to it. I wish pastoral education would teach people how to reason. I hadn't started studying logical fallacies at the time I read Tim Challies' book, otherwise I'd have a lot more notes in it. This review took me several months to draft to a state I felt comfortable publishing.

In addition to reading and listening to material that will teach you discernment, you also need to work to develop discernment. Here are practical exercises you can do (and should continue to do throughout your life):

1) Constantly challenge your assumptions- when I read blog posts by Tim Challies, I often agree with his conclusions, but I don't agree with the underlying assumptions he took to arrive at the conclusions. Likewise, when I watch a Michael Moore documentary, I often agree with many of the points he makes, but I disagree with the conclusions he arrives at. It's important to know the difference. Every now and again, I find it healthy to take apart what I believe and why I believe it. I often find the conclusion I came to to be right, but the assumptions I used to get there to be faulty. Or the other way around. As an amateur philosopher, I often conduct thought experiences to test my beliefs and observations about the world. I once conducted a thought experience about lying. I tried to create a world where it was wrong to lie at any time and for any reason. That was interesting. Fortunately, about the time, Rabbi Daniel Lapin published a weekly "Thought Tools" about the subject, laying out from the Torah where it is acceptable to lie. When your wife asks "Does this make my ass look big?" is one of them. I put his letter into my experiment and it worked better.

2)Read and listen to things you disagree with. This will help you challenge your assumptions. You may have no idea how many people only read about subjects through authors who either support or oppose the subject. For years, I read a lot of web pages and blog posts railing against Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life". It took me years to read that book (it sat on my shelf for 6 years) but I finally gave it an honest read. I found it to be one of the most Christian books I've ever read. Most people who say not to read it haven't actually read it. They read blog posts and books railing against it. I'm not sure how many of those authors have read it either. When I study a subject, I try to find differing views. Even on subjects I'm firmly convinced of, I try to understand the opposing arguments by reading and listening to them. I routinely look for differing viewpoints to keep my thinking sharp. When people fail to interact with opposing ideas, they tend to commit "intellectual incest". This could be why nobody reads my blog. I don't want to serve up softball content that will be readily agreed with. I want to get you to think. I want to present you with ideas or ways of looking at things you might not have considered.

You can fact check my analysis by buying Tim's book here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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