The lost art of biblical discernment: Understanding rhetoric to equip our minds

Transcript

Today, we consume information in many different forms and from many different sources. As a result, we end up getting a hodgepodge of opinion and facts. Nearly all the messages we hear or see, whether through news, social media, or entertainment, uses rhetorical techniques to get us to believe something and act on it. The trouble is, it’s in our human nature to accept a statement as true if it sounds believable and doesn’t clash with what we already know to be true. That can be a dangerous thing and lead us to make a lot of assumptions without realizing it. 

Woman holding two mobile devices in a car.

Furthermore, the Bible tells us our own hearts are deceitful [see Jeremiah 17:9], which means we can’t always rely on our own feelings or common sense. In Colossians, Paul says: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” [2:8]. As Christians, if we want to increase in discernment, it’s clear we need a way to process the smorgasbord of messages that we hear from a biblical perspective to filter out truth from lies. We know God’s Word is everything we need for life and godliness [see 2 Peter 1:3]; that means the Bible can help us be careful consumers of information.

Hi, I’m Anna Belmonte, the Director of Communications at Troy UMC. My field of study was in rhetoric (particularly writing), as well as public relations and communication. Fun fact, one of my beloved professors also attends this church! The topic of using biblical discernment to filter messages has been on my heart and mind for awhile now. It breaks my heart when I see Christians indiscriminately buying every message they hear and supplementing it with the Bible. That’s NOT what we’re called to do! We’re called to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we may discern what is the will of God” [Romans 12:2]. God is the standard. Everything else must take its place below Him.

So, in this [daily Facebook Live devotional, taking place at] 4:16, we’re going to get a birds-eye view of what “rhetoric” is (particularly persuasion vs. deception) and how we can examine messages with a cautious and biblical frame of mind. 

Ampitheater

To start off, let’s define rhetoric, persuasion, and deception: 

  • When I say “rhetoric,” please don’t jump to the common use of the word (empty rhetoric or political rhetoric). At its core, rhetoric is simply “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.” Today I’m focusing on the persuasive aspect of the art of rhetoric.
  • Specifically, persuasion is “causing (someone) to believe or do something through reasoning or argument” or to “provide a sound reason for (someone) to do something.” Persuasion is neutral and is always based on sound reasoning. We see a lot of persuasion in the Bible because the Bible gives us great reasons to align ourselves with God’s standards.
  • Deception, on the other hand, is “causing (someone) to believe something that is NOT true, typically in order to gain some personal advantage.” Deception is subtle because it doesn’t necessarily ask you to do anything; it leaks a lie into your mind, which can grow and affect the way you think, speak, and even act.

Notice that both persuasion and deception involve belief. Many people would like us to believe many things. But as believers in God, we should only believe what harmonizes with what He tells us is true in His Word. In order to do that, we need to be familiar with the way rhetoric is typically used, whether we’re being persuaded or deceived in the messages we hear, and equip ourselves to do some critical thinking.

Man speaking into a microphione

What we often see with the ethical use of rhetoric, or persuasion, is a heavy reliance on providing logical arguments and reasoning, as well as appeals to the listener based on character and principle. Let’s look at a positive use of rhetoric from the Bible:

[The Apostle] Paul used persuasive techniques for the benefit of his listeners. He is frequently described as using arguments, proof from Scripture, discussions, and debates to persuade people to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. Paul was not using persuasion to get his listeners to believe a lie (that would be deception). He provided “sound reasons” for his listeners to embrace the gospel. Paul persuasively presented the truth to them in a manner that would engage their minds and imaginations: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” [see 1 Corinthians 9:19-22]. He used whatever means possible to bring his listeners to believe the truth.

As you can see, persuasion can definitely be a good thing. If I’m holding onto a false belief or have a wrong attitude, I need to be persuaded to see things correctly and to change. 

What we often see in bad, deceptive use of rhetoric is an emphasis on activating the listener’s emotions and manipulating them to respond with emotion rather than reason. We recognize a bad preacher (or newsperson, for that matter) when they use scare tactics, blame, or other emotional triggers. Let’s look at the infamous case of deception from the garden of Eden:

Snake

The serpent said to Eve: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened.

See Gensis 3:1-7

Our Enemy is a deceiver and the Father of lies [see John 8:44]. We see how he uses words to lead Eve to question God (did God actually say?). He gets Eve to believe a lie (you shall not surely die) by mixing it in a true statement (your eyes will be opened). He exploits Eve’s desire for wisdom to gain an advantage over her.

That’s often the way deception works. Leading language in a headline, emotional manipulation in a shocking image, the choice to share some facts and leave others out of a news article: we encounter these techniques every day and can become blinded to their affect on our thinking. Paul expressed this concern about Christians being blinded in their thinking in 2 Corinthians 11:3: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to begin digging deeper into the messages you see and hear:

  • What statement is being made? 
  • Is there any evidence to support that statement? 
  • Does the statement exploit my emotions, particularly negative ones? 
  • Do they use divisive or leading words? Does the language pit people or groups against one another and stir up conflict, or does the language promote unity or problem-solving?
  • What are the underlying assumptions or implicit biases in the statement, and do they go against a biblical worldview? 
  • Is the statement in harmony with what God calls “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy” (Phil. 4:8)? Or does it express something God condemns, or forbids? 
  • Does the statement glorify or justify idolatry? 
  • Does consuming this information cause me to draw closer to Christ and become more like Him in my thinking, or does it lead me away from Him or cause me to compromise sound thinking?

These are just a few questions that can help us think critically about messages we hear. Once we hold a statement up to God’s standard, we’ll more clearly see if it’s the truth or a lie, if we’re being persuaded to believe and act on the truth or if we’re being deceived to buy into a lie. 

I should say here that these questions alone can’t help us filter messages from a biblical perspective. We need to know our Bibles well if we want to discern whether or not something is leading us away from biblical teaching and thinking.

Man reading the Bible

My challenge to us as Christians is to examine the arguments and opinions we hear around us, rather than going with our gut; with the enemy of our souls out there, we can’t afford to have a “if it sounds right, it is right” mentality. Paul was zealous about tearing down deceptive arguments. He said: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” [2 Corinthians 10:5]. 

Are we as determined to reject such arguments, or do we compromise? Are we, like the apostles, willing to become “fools” by clinging only to Scripture as our source of unchanging truth [see 1 Corinthians 4]? Or are we mixing a little Christianity with a little zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age”? It’s my hope and prayer that we would not conform to the pattern of the world but instead be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so we will be able to test and approve what God’s good and perfect will is [see Romans 12:2].

Thank you for listening. I hope you took away something useful or are at least challenged to become a more critical consumer of information who holds everything up to God’s standard. Once we begin noticing subtle deceptions in the information we encounter every day, our spiritual senses will get sharper, “so that we may no longer be…tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” [Ephesians 4:14].

Closing prayer

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