Posts Tagged Discernment

Love and Discernment

People too often turn biblical statements into cliches in order to wield them to their own advantage when convenient. One I’ve been noticing a lot recently, drawn from 1 Corinthians 13:7, is “love believes all things.” Because the biblical words have been turned into a free-floating cliche, some people seem comfortable using them in whatever way suits their purposes.

For instance, we are told to accept a person’s unverifiable and/or unverified claim because “love believes all things.” Or, someone who has severely broken the trust in a relationship uses “love believes all things” to guilt other people into accepting his word without question or doubt. Practically, those two approaches treat the biblical words “love believes all things” as if they mean “love suspends all judgment” or “love is gullible.” Is that really what Paul was saying to the Corinthians and us? Highly unlikely.

I say that because those two uses of “love believes all things” actually contradict other clear biblical teachings regarding both wisdom and love. In Proverbs, we find these words, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (14:15). Only simpletons accept everything without evaluation. Biblical love does not contradict biblical wisdom. It is not naive.

Think, too, about how Paul prayed for the love of the believers at Philippi, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:9-11). Clearly, there is no conflict between love and discernment. In fact, the proper exercise of one (love) demands the other (discernment). If love seeks the good of others, we have to know and understand what that good is.

So what does Paul mean by “love believes all things?” I’ll let Gordon Fee answer that: “Paul does not mean that love always believes the best about everything and everyone, but that love never ceases to have faith; it never loses hope” (“First Corinthians,” NICNT, p. 640). The NLT, while a little paraphrastic, captures the idea well, “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” The key here is that instead of translating it as “all things,” the Greek word Paul uses would be better translated as “always” since it is being used adverbially (i.e., always believes vs. believes all things).

Biblical love does not require us to accept accusations without verification. Neither does biblical love mandate that we keep extending trust to someone who has flagrantly violated it. To the contrary, God’s Word stands solidly against gullibility and in favor of discernment. Don’t let someone falsely guilt you into bad judgment by using biblical words like a cliche!

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Possible or Probable?

One of the vexing things, at least to me, is the too frequent tendency to read and use a writer’s words carelessly, especially at those points where one wants to disagree with him. I am sure there are lots of reasons for this, some of which may be simple matters like reading comprehension or carrying one’s own assumptions into the words. What concerns me, though, is when the fairly obvious point of certain words is ignored in order to bring a criticism based solely on a possible meaning of those words. The goal in criticism isn’t that kind of nitpicking. It is to interact with what an author intended to say, that is, with the most probable meaning of his words.

Maybe an example would help. Let’s say you and I are golfing together and I push my drive wide right of the fairway into a patch of trees. We begin looking for my golf ball. As we search, you ask me, “Where do you think it landed?” I reply, “It could have landed anywhere.” Eventually we give up and I take my penalty stroke. Later that day, you bump into a mutual friend and decide to report to him that you think I am careless with the truth. This mutual friend asks why you would say that and you reply, “Because on the golf course today he said his tee shot could have landed anywhere. Does he really mean that his tee shot could have landed forty miles away in Toledo? That’s a conclusion I could come to based on his words.” Frankly, I hope our mutual friend looks at you in amazement and then proceeds to tell you that you are an idiot. Of course my words possibly could mean that the ball left the golf course, but the context of my words and the nature of such an idiom would clearly show that such an interpretation is highly improbable. If you are concerned about genuine understanding, then you are after the probable meaning, not just a possible meaning of someone’s words.

Perhaps I am mistaken on this, but it seems that I see this most often done when an agenda is driving the interpretation. Usually that agenda focuses on discrediting someone or someone’s work, and the method employed is serving that agenda, not the truth. I fear it is becoming part of our culture—a lot of talk radio and the shout-at-one-another cable shows operate like this. I suppose I can understand when lost people twist the truth to serve their own agendas, but it is hard to understand how God’s people can justify this.

None of us are above using weak arguments or misunderstanding what someone has written or said. I certainly am not trying to claim absolute purity on this point. I believe, though, there is a clear line between using a person’s possible meaning to build a straw man and actually engaging the probable meaning of his words. I think it is a breach of good faith to twist people’s words like this. It reflects a lack of trustworthiness in the critic and/or a lack of trust in the one whose communication is being criticized. So, don’t be an idiot.

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