Recently, while looking through the writings of Jeremiah, I ran across highlighted scriptures that caught my eye on several occasions in the past. I vividly recall how, when I reflected on these passages in a prayerful manner, their current relevance jumped off the page with an unmistakable clarity. It was as if the Holy Spirit especially wanted these words to come alive for me and that they did. Like I have commented in the past, at times like these scripture ceases to be just printed words on a page and instead, morphs into a living organism.
The subject matter here comes from Jeremiah 23 and deals with his observations that many religious leaders, including priests and prophets, are deceiving people with dreams, prophecies, and other revelations that they claim to be from God, but are actually made up from their own imaginations or worse, their own treacherous hearts.
When I read these words from the prophet Jeremiah I am reminded so clearly of what I hear going on in many corners of the church today. I hear various preachers, teachers, self-proclaimed “prophets” and “apostles”, along with lay brothers and sisters who have what they claim to be a “word” from the Lord, or a “vision,” a dream, or some other form of divine revelation. I am certain that in some cases these phenomena are exactly what they are said to be, but in the majority of cases my internal “discernment alarm” goes off loud and long. Instead of a true “word” or revelation from the Holy Spirit, my fear is that many of these self-styled “teachers” are either deceiving themselves, being duped by the enemy, or worst of all, deliberately leading others astray in order to advance some personal agenda, often financial.
The prophet Jeremiah dealt with a similar infestation in his day, and that is exactly what it is my friends, an infestation. In Jeremiah’s time many religious leaders, motivated by their own personal agendas as well as self-deception, were leading followers down various paths laced with deception. Reading the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, you cannot help seeing this issue with great clarity. In graphic terms, the prophet describes the impact of these “prophets” on himself and on the nation:
My heart is broken because of the false prophets,
And my bones tremble.
I stagger like a drunkard, like someone overcome by wine,
Because of the holy words the Lord has spoken against them.
For the land is full of adultery and it lies under a curse.
(Jeremiah 23: 9-10 NLT)
After further describing these false teachers, Jeremiah expands upon the effect of their erroneous teachings. He then warns the people:
Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you,
Filling you with futile hopes.
They are making up everything they say.
They do not speak for the Lord.
(Jeremiah 23: 16 NLT)
Speaking through the prophet, the Lord makes it clear that these false teachers were not sent by him and that they do not speak for him. As I listen to so many preachers, teachers, evangelists, and “apostles” speaking today, it strikes me as clearly evident that God did not send them, either. Sure, they may claim to have a “word from the Lord” or a “holy vision.” And perhaps a small percentage that makes this claim are genuine. But in my estimation, many are engaging in their own dreams, fantasies, and vain imaginings. As stated earlier, some are merely self-deceived, while others have darker motives of personal gain or advancement of the enemy’s agenda.
This state of affairs is made more critical by the fact that the church is at such a pivotal point in its history. Marked by a massive exodus from their ranks, the older Mainline denominations are, at best, hanging by a thread. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, long the solid backbone of Evangelicalism, is now losing members and yearly baptism numbers are at record lows. The only churches that seem to be growing are generally of an independent, charismatic nature, but researchers are sometime cautious about the statistics associated with this group, along with the Word of Faith churches, because it appears the membership rolls are constantly shifting, with new members flowing in and at least an equivalent number flowing out.
My point here is that the church, floundering as it is with these problems, can only be further weakened by false teachers, prophets, and the like. Already viewed in a generally negative light, every time a prominent Christian leader is caught in some sort of scandal, usually either sexual or financial, it only deepens the public image of Christians as little more than hucksters and hypocrites.
I am of the firm conviction that now, perhaps more than ever, each Christian must take it upon himself or herself to take responsibility for deepening their capacity for discernment. Granted, some are gifted in this area, but gifted or not, each of us needs to become as sharp as possible when it comes to discerning the spirits. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of wasting valuable time, resources, and energy running here and there chasing windmills, rather than going about the kingdom business we are all called to: deepening our relationship with Christ, making disciples, and serving others in his name.
There is no magic formula for developing discernment and chances are you already know how to do it, you just haven’t seen the necessity of it and taken the time. Here is a list of a few basic strategies that, if consistently applied, should help you deepen your level of spiritual discernment:
- Pray diligently, asking the Holy Spirit to help you specifically in this area.
- Immerse yourself in scripture. The key principle for evaluating any teaching or preaching is making sure that it is aligned with biblical principles.
- Read several books that discuss how to deepen your level of discernment. Also, explore relevant material on the Internet and apply what you learn.
- If you know someone who is gifted in the area of discernment, ask them to mentor you for a period of time.
Christianity in the West is at a crucial crossroads. The church finds itself in a time of shifting sands and changing landscapes. In a metaphorical way, this state of affairs is like being in the desert or, like the ancient Hebrew people, wandering about in the wilderness. We may wander off the path in countless ways, certain we are traveling in the right direction, only to discover we have been chasing a mirage. In other cases, we become mesmerized by a certain teaching, an innovative program, or, as is often the case, a highly personable teacher. In this mesmerized state, we are prone to drift far off the course set for us by the Master.
It is vital that we train ourselves in the ways and means of biblical discernment, especially in these changing times. To neglect this critical need, for whatever reason, is not a viable option.
© L.D. Turner 2013/All Rights Reserved