I hadn’t planned to go grocery shopping, but as I read the weather report a friend had posted on Facebook, I knew I’d have to change my plans. A winter storm was bearing down on our region, promising to be one for the record books. Mentally, I began rearranging my schedule: I’d shop on Thursday to miss the empty shelves and long lines, and I’d stay close to home on Friday in case school was dismissed early or canceled. My husband, a pastor, had a funeral on Saturday, but the storm would change that, too.
“Honey, come here!” I called. “Have you seen this?”
He began reading over my shoulder. “This can’t be right,” he said, shaking his head. My husband, something of a weather enthusiast, prides himself on keeping close tabs on the forecast, but even he hadn’t seen this storm coming. Reaching around me, he scrolled to the top of the page. “Did you look at the date?”
The storm warning was a year old.
A decade ago, the possibility of abruptly changing my plans because of an obsolete weather forecast was next to zero. But in the digital age, we’re just a click away from false, misleading, and simply outdated information. Add to this the fact that our society is quickly losing the ability to distinguish between legitimate and unreliable sources, and the problem becomes even more disconcerting. In many ways, we are living in the post-truth world that apologists warned us about, an era the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a world where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Given our unprecedented access to information (both accurate and inaccurate), we also need unprecedented wisdom to process and filter it. As followers of a Savior who describes Himself as Truth, Christians must become people of discernment, people who “examine everything carefully” and “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). But this is not without its difficulties.
We often misunderstand discernment, thinking of it as a “sixth sense” or gut instinct that kicks in when we encounter false information. The problem with this is something researchers call confirmation bias, a term that describes our human tendency to process information in ways that verify the opinions we already hold.
But this sets up a second challenge. Instead of relying on instinct, we can err in the opposite direction by thinking, If only we do enough research, if only we find that leaked memo, if only we uncover the hidden meaning in the text that no one else can see, then we will know the truth. Yet this approach can also mislead us, especially if it grows out of pride.
There’s a thrill in being the only one to know something. But this is also why false teachers so often peddle “secret” things: They lure us with the promise that we can know what others don’t.
A third challenge to developing discernment is overconfidence in our ability to make good decisions. Once we’ve confirmed the facts, we must ask, What do these facts mean? What should I do because of them? But here again, pride quickly assures us that we don’t need to listen to anyone else. Ironically, confidence in our ability to make sound choices leads us to make poor ones because we don’t seek help from other people. Or as Proverbs 12:15 puts it, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel.”
Developing discernment does not mean that we will never make mistakes. But it does mean that when we do, we’ll be quick to recognize them and to receive correction from those who have looked at the date on the weather report. And ultimately, it is this attitude of humility—not self-confidence—that opens our eyes to truth. It makes us more like our Savior who is Himself Truth.
Illustrations by MLC