A counselee recently brought in a book to show me. She’d gotten some ideas from it, and she wanted to know if I thought the book was theologically sound, and whether the advice in it was biblical. I had never read the book, or even heard of the author, so there wasn’t a lot I could tell her without reading it myself. As we talked, though, I realized that she was lacking something that every believer should have, when it comes to books written by humans: Discernment.
Many of my counselees will take to heart the advice of just about any book that is recommended to them by someone they know. Some of those books are good and helpful. Others…not so much. So, how can we tell whether the advice in a book is biblical, theologically sound, or even useful to us? Typically, when we buy books about marriage, parenting, family, or really any kind of life circumstance, we are having some kind of problem in that area, and we’re looking for help. This leaves us vulnerable to bad advice.
As I addressed my counselee’s questions about the book she’d brought in, we didn’t really talk about the merits of the book itself. We talked about how she could figure out for herself whether or not the book was good, and we came up with three keys to developing discernment about advice, whether it’s in a book, a blog, or a conversation: Prepare, Pray, and Practice.
Before you read any book about any subject, you must be well acquainted with the Word of God. If you have not read the Bible, seeking God’s wisdom on your topic of interest, then you have no business reading anything written by a human about that subject. Someone once told me that governments train their people how to spot counterfeit currency by never showing them a fake. They study real bills until they are so familiar with them that they can spot a counterfeit in an instant. This is what we must do if we are to develop discernment sufficient to spot bad theology behind others’ advice.
This may seem obvious, but it is the one thing that many of us leave out when we are seeking advice and information about a problem. We get into “task mode,” and set out to figure out how to fix our problem, without first praying to the only One who can! I don’t know about you, but I am a fixer! I love problem solving and critical thinking, so that tends to be my first response. But, as I’ve grown in the Lord, I’ve learned to stop when I see that things may be getting out of hand and pray, going to Him in a quiet moment, and asking Him to give me discernment and wisdom to know what resources (books, sermons, people) to trust for advice. There have been several times that books were recommended to me, of which I read only a few pages before He brought to light errors in theology or application. He is faithful, and will do the same for you.
Like any new skill, your discernment will grow as you practice it. While I don’t recommend seeking out books with bad theology and playing “spot the error,” there may be some value in choosing a few books on which to test your skills. If someone recommends a book, begin reading it with discernment in mind, and jot down notes about any counsel or advice in the book that is questionable. Then take those sections and search the Scriptures or a Systematic Theology book, to see if they line up with sound doctrine. Sometimes, you may find that it is your thinking or theology that is off base, and sometimes it will be the author’s. The most important thing here is to make sure that your standard of right or wrong theology and application is the Scriptures, not someone’s opinion or experiential counsel.
Discernment is an important skill for us as believers. This world is becoming more and more hostile to Truth with each passing day. Ungodly attitudes and beliefs are almost as rampant in “Christian” publishing as they are in the world. Sometimes, the only difference is the degree. It is vital that we hone this skill of discernment if we are to stay true to the Scriptures in our walk. My challenge to you today is this: If you are not wholly familiar with what the Word of God has to say about your life, read it! Since becoming a biblical counselor, I have been astonished at the number of people that come for counseling who rarely read their Bible, but have read several books on whatever problem brought them to counseling! My dear sisters, you simply cannot know whether a book is true to what the Bible says if you’re not reading it! Read the Bible. Read the whole Bible. Read it often, and pray for discernment. Then, when challenges come and you seek counsel, you will be ready and able to spot a counterfeit.