Do you ever have trouble knowing the right thing to do?
I’ve recently listened to a number of presentations by a very smart man about “discernment.” I won’t name the speaker because I’m not certain I understood exactly what he said and I don’t want to misrepresent his position.
Basically, here’s what I heard:
- There’s always a highest, best right in every situation.
- Everyone can learn to discern that highest, best right.
- If discernment is thorough and honest, there will be no disagreement about the highest, best action. As I understood the notion, if my version of right differs from yours, one of us must be “more right.”
I wasn’t sure if I agreed, or even understood, so I spent some time researching discernment. As usual, I discovered that I’ve been guilty of some pretty fuzzy thinking.
In general usage, we tend to use the terms discernment and wisdom interchangeably. In fact, some sources list them as synonyms. While there’s certainly some overlap, I think there are subtle-but-important distinctions. They’re even listed as distinct spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12.
The discussions in which I encountered these notions were not overtly faith-based, but I happen to know that the presenter is a committed follower of Jesus. So I decided to seek an understanding of discernment from a biblical perspective.
I checked several sources, including major denominational web sites, for definitions. Not surprisingly, they didn’t all agree. (Interesting aside—a search of one very large denomination’s site returned no specific information concerning spiritual gifts. They did, however, provide ample discussion on the “spiritual” blessings of “giving,” including estate planning advice and a ranked list of regional contributions.)
Sorting through the semantics, here’s what emerged as my understanding:
Discernment is more accurately labeled as “discernment of spirits.” It’s the gift of determining whether a particular teaching or behavior is from God, Satan, or human. Discernment is a matter of intuition and insight, and may be based on a sense of being in touch with the Spirit on a heart level. As one source described it, discernment is a type of knowing at a visceral level that transcends empirical knowledge.
Wisdom is the gift of applying knowledge and spiritual truths in practical, everyday situations. Wisdom allows one to make connections, understand root causes, and see the deeper implications of beliefs and actions. Wisdom leads to the best individual and group decisions.
Based on my understanding, here’s what I think I know about discernment.
1. There’s always a highest, best right in every situation.
From my perspective, this is obviously true. God’s will is always the highest, best course of action. Basically, the answer to “What Would Jesus Do?” would represent the highest, best right.
2. Everyone can learn to discern that highest, best right.
I’m not sure about this one. Theologically, discernment is a gift of the Spirit. As I understand it, some people will be better “discerners” than others because that’s their gift. So while everyone can and should practice discernment, some folks are given the ability to discern at deeper, more accurate levels.
Practically, even the most gifted human cannot completely know God’s thoughts. We can pray and seek guidance, but I’m not sure anyone can always know God’s will with absolute certainty.
3. If discernment is thorough and honest, there will be no disagreement about the highest, best action. As I understood the notion, if my version of right differs from yours, one of us must be “more right.”
Theoretically, this conclusion follows from #1. Any behavior or thought must either be “right” or “not right.” God’s will is a very small target—you either hit it or you don’t.
On a practical level, I can’t envision a situation in which individuals can ignore deeply-held personal biases and beliefs. We may agree on the existence of ultimate truth in all circumstances, but I doubt our ability to agree on the precise nature of that truth.
So … ?
I began with a question: Do you ever have trouble knowing the right thing to do?
Of course the question is rhetorical. I’m sure we all agree that knowing what’s right is a struggle. But I think there’s an even tougher, more convicting question: When you know what’s right, do you do it?
I’m thinking that this whole debate about absolute truth and not knowing God’s perfect will for every situation might be a smokescreen.
As long as I operate with a limited human brain I’ll encounter circumstances in which I’m uncertain about what’s right. No amount of prayer, discipline, or searching will alter that fact of human nature. As Paul writes [1 Corinthians 13:12], “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
God’s thoughts will always retain an element of mystery—at least on this side of eternity. But mystery doesn’t mean I know nothing, it simply means I don’t know everything.
Someday I’ll know for sure. In the meantime, I believe that I need to focus on the truth I know. If I do that, I believe God will show me the truth I need to know.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13]
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Copyright 2010 by Rich Dixon, All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.
Rich is an author and speaker. He is the author of:
Relentless Grace: God’s Invitation To Give Hope Another Chance. Visit his web site www.relentlessgrace.com