The Discernment Myth

DEBORAH: In LDS theology, discernment is a God-given ability of priesthood leaders that allows them a type of spiritual eyes with which to judge people under their stewardship. Discernment is at play when a stake president selects a new bishop, or a bishop calls his ward’s auxiliary presidents, but discernment is also alleged to help leaders spiritually sense when someone isn’t living the commandments or is in need of specific, divine guidance he alone can voice for them. It’s a lofty idea but also a dangerous one.

The idea of discernment took a few solid blows to the chops last week when news broke that two bishops, one in Idaho and one in  Utah, currently stand accused of serious sexual misconduct. Here in our little quorum of sisters there have been incidents where discernment failed us. Pilar’s story comes to mind (read here and here). Several of our SQ readers have shared their personal experiences in which the discernment of priesthood leaders was absent when they needed it present. As examples, both SQ readers Jane and Verlyne shared that, after being raped, their bishops held disciplinary councils against them on the grounds of fornication and exacted punishment, even disfellowshipment (read Jane’s story here and Verlyne’s here). There’s no end to the pain caused when discernment fails.

And it does fail. We don’t like to talk about those failures. We excuse them. We say it isn’t a lack of discernment that’s the problem; the problem is free agency. Some defenders of the faith are quick to point out that bishops are human; they have the freedom to choose how they’ll behave. They say sometimes a bishop chooses sin. Or, in cases of misjudging hearts and situations, they say of course priesthood leaders will err, seeing as they aren’t trained therapists or social workers. What few dare say is that discernment is a myth. 

Myths aren’t lies but stories people tell because they bring comfort or explain the irrational. It’s simple to identify myths that aren’t our own and socially dangerous to identify those that are our own. But holding to a myth as if it is true is irrational. The LDS discernment myth gives us a false sense of security and encourages a lack of vigilance regarding our own spiritual, emotional, and bodily safety and that of our children. In some situations, the myth shifts accountability from ourselves onto a priesthood leader. No longer do we need to study something out and take it to God ourselves because our priesthood leader will know that answer. What saves a lot of people are priesthood leaders who don’t buy into the myth that they are privileged by God to know what they cannot know.

Conversely, damage happens when a priesthood leader buys into the myth. I fear it’s easy to do because the discernment myth feeds the ego. When a myth feeds the ego, the ego feeds the myth. Over and over, we see evidence that discernment is a well-intentioned fantasy. Women are hurt. Men are hurt. Children are hurt. Our priesthood leaders don’t need to be magical. They need to be good, reasoned, insightful, empathetic, and honest. Honest with themselves about their capabilities and limitations. Repentant. Because the restoration every one of us needs most is a vigilant return to humility.

We are wise to look at ourselves as objectively as possible. LDS mock spiritual mediums and those who believe in them. Yet we’ll tout discernment, which has no better a record for provability that mediumship, pretending it isn’t mystical because it’s “true.” The logic is so circular it can be nothing but spin. 

We expect our priesthood leaders to be God, to be able to discern that which is indiscernible for human beings. We expect them to have minds filled with the will of God, not just for themselves, but for us. As men progress up the leadership ladder, they are told that God will share His mind with them, that their thoughts are God’s thoughts. We’ve created imposter Gods out of our neighbors. Where is the humility in that?

The myth of discernment shortchanges us of our own spiritual growth and spiritual connection with God. It encourages us to believe that stating something is true makes it true. The myth of discernment harms our leaders by feeding their egos rather than their spirits. It’s a sorry day for any man when his ego is conflated with the Spirit. The myth of discernment also creates victims as we see from the reports recently coming out of Utah and Idaho. The myth coddles us into thinking we don’t need background checks, or to include parishioners (especially women) in the selection process of leaders; it tells us all is well in Zion when it is not. 

Most LDS, myself included, have been trained from a young age to be “defenders of the faith,” including when the Church or its leaders sin or are in error. This isn’t healthy, nor is it appropriate, and, more importantly, it is without principle. Discernment has a poor track record for success, and we ought to be careful about pretending otherwise. I’m not saying priesthood leaders are without inspiration and insight but those things are quite distinct from discernment, or the idea that a man will see with God’s eyes and know God’s will by the thoughts that come to his mind. I’m cautioning us not to expect discernment, to put in our own time developing a relationship with God, and to never defend the myth of discernment when it clearly has not been present. We shouldn’t place our faith in our priesthood leaders nor in a church. Faith must be reserved for God.


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