The Ambush of Discernment

(Originally printed in the Summer 2005 Issue of the MCOI Journal Beginning on page 10)

Half way through college, during the Christmas season of 1974, I first tasted the adventure of life in Jesus. It soon seemed to me that the most difficult resources to find were the ones that answered questions about conflicting world views. In my eyes, the Christian leaders who provided answers in this area became giants.

Little did I expect that the day would come when I would be rubbing shoulders with some of these giants as an equal. At present, besides my main focus on publishing world view research, I own and moderate an Internet discussion list for career apologists. For the past several years, my observation of Christian apologists has been that they tend to have a short fuse. I’ve noticed that there are few who consider themselves apologists who exhibit evidence in being slow to anger.

We, writing as an apologist myself, have earned a sad reputation outside our circles for being a contentious lot. Many churches are fearful of apologists and budding apologists within their local church and view us as “high maintenance.” This does not help any of us who would also be or aspire to be scholars.

One frequently overlooked positive aspect of scholarship is the restraint of emotion in debate. I’m not saying that scholars don’t show their temper. However, restraint enjoys more respect in that environment. Then again, I know scholars who appear to have their anger in check, yet they still perpetuate a reputation for being contentious.

The Land of the Giants

I first entered the “land of the giants” when I began a seminary internship in 1983 with Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) in Berkeley, California. The following year I landed a researcher’s job at Christian Research Institute (CRI) in Southern California. I was puzzled by what seemed to be an unusually high number of former employees from both organizations who had since gone on to work alone as apologists. As you may have already guessed, I have since concluded that the most common reason for this is our inability to get along with each other.

One of the hats I used to wear at Christian Research Institute was that of interviewing people for employment. Eventually, over the decade of my experience there, I had interviewed most of the staff who had been hired after I came on board. When CRI was serious about a job applicant, I would often sit down with them and discuss what I call the “Five Woes of Ministry.” The ambush of discernment has to do with the fifth of these woes. But for those of you who are curious, here is a brief rundown of the first four:

Woe #1 Unrealistic expectations – This follows the line of naive thinking that, “Working with Christians will be like working in heaven.” All too often we soon discover that one of the things the Christians (including us) brought with them to their jobs is themselves.

Woe #2 Unlimited workload – The problem here is unconsciously submitting to the temptation to operate as if we are omnipotent, e.g., assuming our ministry contribution to be indispensable while failing to trust God with the eventual outcome. Impatience with God’s timetable occurs here and becomes a distraction to what we individually are to be doing.

Woe #3 Heightened emotional involvement – Personal sacrifice is common in ministry. Yet, few are prepared to endure thanklessness for long. This is when a martyr spirit kills a servant heart.

Woe #4 Selfish ambition – This is when we repeat the folly behind the question: “Who is the greatest of the disciples?” and its corresponding pride and related insecurity. I would suggest that the Fourth Woe is chronic among apologists.

Woe #5 Woe Is Us – The Fifth Woe is what I call the spiritual warfare wildcard. It is the most complex woe. I call it a wildcard because nobody, short of an angel, qualifies as anything near an expert here. And here is where I will focus on the balance of this article.

The Ambush of Discernment

People have asked me: “In your field of apologetics, you are out to stop the best game Satan has going (e.g., the successful preaching of a counterfeit Jesus). What do you see the Devil doing in response? If anybody sees spiritual warfare, I would think it would be you. What have you seen the Devil doing over the years that has been the greatest hindrance in your field?” (By the way, I don’t believe that our field constitutes Satan’s primary area of concern. But many people seem to believe that.)

My answer is that I don’t think the Devil’s primary response is overt. I think it is covert. The best way I know how to describe it is that I think there is one particular verse in Scripture that Satan would most want us to ignore.

And if you ask people in all types of ministry, I sense that you’ll find the same answer to the question of what constitutes Satan’s most effective offensive weapon. Consider your own experience. What hinders ministry more than interpersonal conflict?

And what verse would Satan most have us ignore? Ephesians 6:12 “We wrestle not against flesh and blood …”

Most likely, you know the passage. Yet, how rare it is that we think of it when we are ambushed by interpersonal conflict. And this is just one aspect of the ambush.

Consider everything I have to say to you as being a reminder. Did you know that the word remind occurs just seven times in the New American Standard New Testament? Each use falls into the same pastoral context:

“… I have written very boldly to you on some points, so as to remind you again …” (Romans 15:5, NASB)

“… I have sent to you Timothy, … he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:17)

“… I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you …” (2 Timothy 1:6) “Remind them of these things …” (2 Timothy 2:14)

These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you. Remind them …” (Titus 2:15)

“… I shall always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them …” (2 Peter 1.12)

Though you already know this, I want to remind you …” (Jude 1:5, NIV)

The art of reminding is a primary function of preaching. Even while I write this to remind you, let me assure you that I, too, need reminding.

Question: Why review the obvious? Answer: Because we need to remember or be reminded of the occupational hazards of ministry – and that if only to help us recognize the need for repentance a bit sooner the next time around. Who likes to repent? Who can avoid it? Who wants to avoid it – knowing we can’t?

Consider David, the psalmist. Was anybody else in the Bible ever described as a man after God’s own heart? Yet, what a seeming poor return on investment! The guy became an adulterer and a murderer. Do you even know anyone who has been both an adulterer and a murderer? Nevertheless, this guy was “a man after God’s own hear” (Acts 13:22).

Some may view this as a paradox, but there is a key which clears this up. When studying his life in Scripture, we notice that David’s repenter saw lots of use. And the act of repentance was heart-rending. He was contrite.

When Discernment is Ambushed

As the Apostle Paul points out in Ephesians 6:12, we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Yet our objectives are most commonly ambushed because we do not love one another (cf. 1 John 3:11); we do the opposite. Perhaps, this doesn’t bother us enough.

The guardians of the faith of Jesus’ day had convinced themselves that they were somehow able to live righteous lives. They were, after all, the watchman and guardians. They were seated in the seat of Moses (Matt. 23:2). Jesus addressed this thinking head on by comparing the standard they lived with God’s standards of righteousness. In doing so, He was demonstrating that the standard wasn’t what they could proudly point to in what they did, but rather it revealed that there was a heart problem. It is most clearly taught in Matthew 5. The higher standard teaching of Jesus has two identifying phrases.

1) “You have heard that it was said …”

2) “… but I say …”

Consider the style of presentation and argument used repeatedly by Jesus here in the Sermon on the Mount discourse of Matthew 5. We start with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the …” (1-16). Jesus next calls attention to the Jewish law (17-20). He then presents six sections each of which describe God’s standard in contrast to the Jewish law. Standards, by the way, which no one but Jesus has been able to live up to. Each of these six sections has the two identifying phrases.

1) “You have heard that it was said …”
2) “… but I say …”
21-26 “You have heard that the ancients were told …”
27-30 “You have heard that it was said …”
31-32 “and it was said …”
33-37 “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told …”
38-42 “You have heard that it was said …”
43-48 “You have heard that it was said …”

Every section uses the past tense verb (was said, were told). Every section uses the phrase “… but I say …” as the introduction to the actual standard God uses. When there are six uses in a passage, consider the author to be making a significant emphasis. And don’t overlook the ironic conclusion. Jesus refers to common standards of the day (not specifically the Jewish law) when He says, “Do not even the tax-gatherers so the same?” (Matthew 5:46). For our purposes I will paraphrase this as, “Even the non-Evangelicals do that!” And that is His point at the end: “Even the non-evangelicals do that!” How are you and I any different where it really counts? How would it affect your life if you realized that Jesus placed a greater emphasis on your behavior than you do?

Jesus repeats Himself at the conclusion of Matthew 5. The equivalent of my phrase “Even the non-evangelicals do that!” is used in each of the last two verses (46-47). Get it? He expects the behavior of true Christians to stand out. That is His measure.

Now, regarding the expression: “You have heard that it was said …” In one example, what they heard was simply, “Do not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14). “You have heard …,” what an ironically casual reference to the formal Mosaic code that every Jew heard constantly. (“Yeah, we’ve heard that only about 2- or 3-million times!”)

But what Jesus said, the higher standard, is that “if you even look at someone else with lust, you have already committed adultery with them in your heart” (Matt. 5:28). This is the most familiar of the six higher standard examples.

Another example: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be judged.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged.” (21, 22a Rich Poll version). This is the first example that Jesus gives us. It is the introduction to the God’s standard teaching. He opens with the idea that anger is the equivalent of murder; just as in the more familiar section, lust is said to be the equivalent of adultery. In both cases, the point is that yielding to the evil thought has priority over the more obvious sinful act. It is the thought that must be dealt with immediately.

Don’t think it a coincidence that where Paul speaks of “the weapons of our warfare,” he concludes with the idea of “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.5).

The Real Ambush to Keep in Mind

Anger is less severe than hate. And that yields a serious warning. In multiple places, Scripture equates unrighteous anger with murder. That makes hate even more serious than anger – lots more serious. “The one who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3.15). Hate has serious consequences. Like the sin of sexual immorality, which is “against your own person” (1 Corinthians 6.18), hate brings spiritual calamity down upon your own head. For one thing, you can be blindsided, ambushed by hate.

“… whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.” (1John 2:9-11)

“The darkness has blinded him.” Did you catch that? Discernment is ambushed by hate.

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar.” (1 John 4:20)

The Apostle John finds that being ambushed by hate is a moral failure of conscience, lying.

For we also once were foolish ourselves … hateful, hating one another.” (Timothy 3:3)

Paul says that being ambushed by hate is to be caught in foolishness.

Perhaps the blind foolishness is most evident when confronted. “I don’t ‘hate’ anyone! Sometimes people just make me angry.” How long does it take for a flame to become a fire? Try telling God your personal anger isn’t hate, down deep. Don’t be so foolish as to justify your anger, thinking it is not hate. Even the non-evangelicals do that.

“… whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.” (1John 2:11)

The ambush of discernment is a self-perpetuating circumstance. It is one of darkness leading to further darkness. Only an act of God redeems the situation. It begins with sensitivity to His Spirit.

From Bugging to Blessing

The outcome of the ambush depends a good deal on your attitude when you realize what has happened. The question is, “Does the warning about being ambushed bug you enough now to become a blessing later?”

I hope you have not failed to sense the irony here. As apologists, we are in a field where the name-of-the-game is discernment. Yet, our sin, our frequently common sin, robs us of discernment. Consider the passage: “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you.” (Mt 5.30) It is better to cut off the “offending member” than to live in darkness. That is a drastic measure, isn’t it? The ambush is common. All of us better be ready for drastic measures if we want to survive. And each of us needs to apply these drastic measures to ourselves alone.

Again, rarely regarding the subject of hate, will a guilty party quickly admit to their sin when first challenged. (“I don’t hate anybody!”) It is ironic. While we might all agree that this “ambush of discernment” is common in our field, few of us seem to believe we ourselves are in any imminent danger of being ambushed. We stand around like pins in a bowling alley. (“There is that rolling thunder again. It seems to be coming this way….”) I urge you to take drastic measures to insure that you are constantly in fresh pursuit of the Holy One. He gives good gifts, as a loving father to his child. He answers the prayer that is according to His will.

What will this moment’s reflection mean for you? Renewed commitment to private time with God? Restitution? (Be responsible to settle disputes that continue to simmer. Let God handle the rest. You are not responsible for another’s reaction. You are responsible to “make it right” with the offended party to the best of your ability.)

Re-examination? (Do you love God more now than before? How long has it been since you have seen a change in this area for the better? Is your current life fulfilling His desire? Does your life really count for God?)

Repentance? (Do you know renewed, simple, sweet contrition? David sure did. God loved him for it.)

There is an early-warning signal to remember. Anger yields hasty self-defensiveness, but love is patient. (Proverbs 14.29; 15.18; 16.32; 19.11; 22.24; 29.11)

What is Mt 18 about? Is it your understanding that Mt 18 is about church discipline (i.e., how to handle reproof, correction, and restoration of a brother or sister in Christ)? My bet is that most miss the fact that there is over twice as much said about forgiveness in Mt 18 as anything else. We don’t cut each other the slack that we hope God will cut us. We tend to overlook the importance of forgiveness as something required from us for the benefit of others. Do we put justice before restoration?

Have you ever tried to discourage someone from entering ministry? That’s what I did with the Five Woes. You may reply that “It is too late. I’ve gone too far in this direction to turn back now.” Have you considered the cost of more pain from going down the wrong path? Make sure of your calling. Do not proceed unless you have counted the cost. This ambush causes the shipwreck of faith for too many. It can mean the difference between:

Calling vs. ambition
Fulfillment vs. survival
Passion vs. emptiness
Purpose vs. indifference

The Larger Context

If you haven’t been ambushed lately, plan on it. Be prepared. Paul the apostle writes: “… for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan …” (2 Corinthians 2.10-11). Here we have the extending of forgiveness, in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan.

Consider the parallel with Ephesians 4:26-27: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.”

Satan is given an advantage when we are unforgiving. One aspect of this advantage for our adversary, if not the entire advantage, is that we become blinded by our sin. Is it any wonder that interpersonal conflict appears to be the chief problem we face? Make sure your repenter is working. Make sure your repentance is heart-rending, and that you are consistently contrite.

Don’t withhold forgiveness.

Beware Of Being Ambushed

Consider the collateral damage of bitterness: James writes: “… if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth” (James 3:14).

In Hebrews, we read: “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled” (Heb. 12.15). By it, many continue to be defiled.

I have often prayed that we, as a ministry community, would consistently experience the grace of God to walk before Him in humility and godliness. Can humility and godliness happen in someone’s life without learning a healthy respect for contrition? Those lessons come hard. The process is called maturing, and it is necessary component of being used by God. At the same time, I pray that, as a result of walking in humility and godliness, we will grow in love and respect for each other.

You may respect someone for their accomplishments, but I’d rather have someone’s respect by way of mutual understanding for the common weakness of our flesh and our being prone to wander away from the Master, Jesus, who is our only hope. We apologists are called to contend (Jude 3), but great competence is required to avoid being contentious.

I know, I’ve been ambushed in this way before, and my sin has hurt others deeply. What qualifies me most to speak also gives me the greatest regret. I, too, need reminding that I may be ambushed and not realize it.

The one who repents often should also forgive often. A healthy appreciation of our own weaknesses should inform our compassion toward others. Remember the parable of the unforgiving servant? He repented, his master forgave, but the servant was unforgiving of his peers and suffered greatly as a result. (Matthew 18: 21-35)

I’ve come to understand that the ability to extend forgiveness is influenced by the quality of a person’s love for God and others. Consider this question: Is your love consistent? The ability to love and forgive is directly related to one’s spiritual health. I’ve noticed a direct relationship between the lack of my love and compassion for others and a decline in the state of my spiritual health, the quality of my love for God at any one time.

Sometimes I am caught up short by my coldness of heart. And at such times I’ve sensed that my spiritual health is at low ebb. Your attitude toward others may be a good measure of your spiritual condition.

Taking this a step further than within the context of discernment being ambushed, rarely do apologists reflect on the influence of compassion, and separately, the ministry of prayer in the life of the apologist. Many have reflected on the relationship of compassion to evangelism. Yet, how rare it is that we relate compassion to apologetics and the role of prayer in our field?

Let me leave you with a challenge. Consider the harm which results from the ambush of discernment when it occurs corporately within a group such as us. During my seminary internship, I interviewed Christian leaders to find out what discipline(s) they practiced for the maintenance of their spiritual health. I was alarmed to learn that the subject received little attention on the whole. I have since continued this inquiry. I do not have good news. From what I have found, Christian leaders do not often spend private time alone with God for the purpose of maintaining their spiritual vitality. Where do you find yourself in this matter? Do these words bother you enough to change? “Even the non-evangelicals do that!” – Are you any different? Can we expect change in our field apart from change in your life and mine?

Remember: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood ….”Ω

Besides what you learned about him in the article, Rich founded Apologia in 1995 and in 1997 began publishing a weekly research bulletin, Apologia Report. Rich received his Master of Divinity degree in 1984 from the International School of Theology, San Bernardino, California. He also earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Manufacturing from Western Michigan University and worked as an engineer for three years prior to starting his seminary education. In 2004, he earned a Masters of Library and Information Science and functions as a public librarian when he isn’t working on Apologia Report. To subscribe to the Apologia Report (which we highly recommend) go to: Apologia Report

© 2018, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.


Comments

The Ambush of Discernment — 2 Comments

  1. I love this article more today than 13 years ago. 2 of my favorite bros working together, Don and Rich, encouraging our love for each other. I also have 13 more years with the Lord to understand it better today.

    In History:
    Don mentored me by example to stand: Take your stand on the gospel. Iron sharpens iron. Contend for this truth.

    Rich encouraged me to display my love of Jesus even as I displayed my shortcoming in scholarship and and/or maturity( the display of my shortcoming were endless but he continually encouraged whatever i did in love which was his living example): Stand, exercise with the armor God has given us. Iron sharpens iron among believers who walk in the Spirit.

    Today, i have a greater appreciation for what i better understand and better realize: The people God uses to build into our life in Christ as servants.

    Singing back to you gentlemen …. thank you ….. love a little sis, tammy

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