How Can We Stop Discernment Turning into Sinful Suspicion?
George Hutcheson (1615-1674) ministered in Ayrshire and Edinburgh and was a noted bible expositor. Like many other ministers he was removed from his congregation in 1662 for refusing to conform to the rule of bishops.
2 Nov, 2021

We need discernment and to be on our guard against what is spiritually harmful to ourselves and others. This may be in areas of truth or of living and the effects of what is spiritually damaging can be truly dangerous. But we also need to discern what is good and commend that (Hebrews 5:14). If we are not careful discernment can develop into superior condemnation rather than something that is used to edify and patiently reclaim others from the danger. It can go further and develop such a constant suspicion of almost everything that it makes unwarranted assumptions and misrepresent what people are saying. Being suspicious of individuals (rightly or wrongly), their words are automatically assumed to have ulterior motives or tendencies. When this happens, discernment has become so exaggerated it has turned into sinful suspicion. We need to discern how this happens and prevent it.

It is true that we may sometimes need to highlight things that are wrong; there may be legitimate suspicion based on reasonable evidence. This is different from readily jumping to hasty conclusions about things that could be charitably explained with the benefit of the doubt simply because we are ready to think badly of someone. There is, as Thomas Boston points out, a happy medium between complete gullibility and the evil groundless suspicion that Scripture condemns (1 Timothy 6:4). Such suspicions do not arise from any basis in reality but rather people’s own uncharitable spirits. It is uncharitably judging and condemning others in our hearts (Matthew 7:1). It moves swiftly and rashly to harsh condemnation contrary to the grace of Christian love (1 Corinthians 13:7).

As Boston notes, there is a danger of making ourselves the rule of everything, so that anything that does not meet our standard is automatically and absolutely condemned. It can also be done all too hastily because we trust our own instincts for faithfully distinguishing what is right from what is questionable. We then easily misrepresent others, their intentions, words, and actions and are ready to put the worst construction on them. It is all contrary to what is fair and just as well as love for our neighbour and the ninth commandment. Yet how easily it is done in relation to spiritual matters.

We might think that godly men will not fall into this temptation, but Scripture shows us otherwise. Indeed, the book of Job is full of this. Job must constantly resist the way that they rashly discern the punishment of secret sins and hypocrisy in the afflictions he experiences. His friends begin to charge him with all kinds of things merely on the basis of assumption. Rather than accept the limits of their discernment and understanding they start to dive deeply into hidden things with all sorts of conclusions. It is ultimately clear that they are utterly wrong in their unjust suspicions. This is why George Hutcheson says we must “not make the opinions of the best of men the rule of our consciences”.

Hutcheson shows how much we can learn from the book of Job on this point.
The Lord condemns this explicitly in Eliphaz and his two friends. He even says that in speaking against God’s people we may well be speaking against God Himself (Job 43:7). Their words and principles had wronged God (Job 13:7-8) by misrepresenting Him. It seemed as if they were valiantly defending God and His holiness and justice but what they said was not right but condemned by God (Job 43:7). He vindicates Job because the principles he maintained concerning God were right even though he was not perfect in what he said but sometimes spoke rashly himself. Wrong principles are worse than rash expressions in the heat of trials. God may be very displeased and angry against godly people who maintain such errors and attack other godly men in their trials.

In Job 32-37 Elihu avoids such false charges and seeks to respond to what Job is actually saying. Although he is not perfect. it shows us an example of how to respond to people in a just rather than unfair way. He promises that he will deal sincerely in speaking to him, without annoyance or partiality; and that he will speak truth clearly. It will be sincere and pure, without any dross or chaff (as the original word implies) like purified metal or winnowed corn. He will deal plainly and clearly with him, without evading or beating about the bush. He will not speak upon conjectures and surmises, but will speak demonstrably clear truths and things of which he has certain knowledge. He seems to contrast himself with the three friends who had dealt with Job in prejudice in speaking of him in an ambiguous way. They took surmises and false reports from others and charged him with them as if he had been guilty of them. Does this mean we should avoid lovingly and graciously pointing out what is wrong in the conduct of others? No, it is a biblical duty (Leviticus 19:17). In Job 35:16 Elihu makes his case and does not draw back from pointing out Job’s faults, but he does it in a more restrained way. How much wisdom we need to do likewise. Hutcheson’s comments on Job 33:3 and 35:16 in the following updated extract us help us learn how to stop faithful discernment turn into sinful suspicion.

1. We Must Deal with Others Uprightly

It is our duty to deal sincerely and uprightly with others, especially in speaking of matters which concern their soul. It is great cruelty not to speak truly and uprightly to them in that matter. Elihu says, “My words” (upon this subject) “shall be of the uprightness of my heart” or shall be the uprightness. That is, I shall speak sincerely my very heart in this business.

2. We Must Deal with Others Without Prejudice

We need an upright heart if we would speak sincerely and rightly to the condition of the souls of others. We should be careful that we are not biased with prejudices, or with fear to offend those with whom we have to do. Elihu professes uprightness of heart, as the principle of his speaking right to Job. If many examined themselves, they would find that their hearts do not go along with what they say. They do not believe and then speak (2 Corinthians 4:13). If they speak truth, it is from a false heart, or coldly, and not from the heart. Their biases and prejudices, rather than their solid convictions, make them speak what they speak.

3. We Must Deal with Others Using Sound Doctrine

It is not sufficient that we are those of upright hearts in what we say, unless there is sound doctrine and knowledge in what we say. Elihu says, “My lips shall utter knowledge” (see 2 Timothy 4:2).

4. We Must Deal with Others Clearly

Men should also speak clearly in what they say, and make the truth plain and clear, not leaving people in the dark, or proclaiming surmises instead of verities. Elihu says, “My lips shall utter knowledge clearly”.

5. We Must Deal with Others Carefully

We ought to examine well what we are going to speak and refine it in our own minds (without taking everything on trust without trial). This will ensure our teaching is pure and free of mistakes. Elihu says he will utter pure and refined knowledge (as the metaphor implies).

6. We Must Deal with Others Patiently

Those who speak truth freely, clearly and uprightly, ought to be heard and listened to. This is an argument urged on Job for his attention. If even good men consider that they may err and need admonition, they will allow people to speak to them faithfully. They will esteem it an act of love and kindness not to let them go away with their faults. Those who cannot endure to be dealt with faithfully are cruel to themselves, especially if they still prescribe to others how they should teach and admonish them.

7. We Must Deal with Others About their Faults

Telling others their faults (when we have the calling and opportunity for it) is a proof and evidence of faithfulness. Elihu here freely points at Job’s misconduct. Even godly men may need to hear about their faults (especially during troubles) over and over again, before they own up to them with a felt sense of their guilt as they ought. Elihu tells Job all over again, what he had told him before (Job 34:35).

8. We Must Deal with Others Fairly

It is required, both in justice and prudence, that we charge people only with their true and real faults. We must forbear either unjust surmises and aspersions or unjust aggravations of their real faults. Otherwise, it may tempt them to reject all admonitions. Elihu tells Job his faults as they were and does not charge him with wickedness or blasphemy in relation to his complaints as Eliphaz did, (Job 22:13-14).

When people charge their friends with faults and misconduct they should do so on a solid basis and then they may be faithful in their censures and those who are reproved will be more easily convinced. Thus, Elihu concludes this from reviewing Job’s expressions and conduct, evidencing how Job had opened his mouth.

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