Spiritual Virtues: Discernment

Santa Teresa’s Bow

We are forced to make decisions every day. Have you tried to choose a bag of potato chips lately? There is a whole isle at the grocery store devoted to snack chips. Do I want pita chips, tortilla chips, potato chips, corn chips, rice cakes? Do I want dipping size, ruffles, kettle fried, baked or something else? Do I want salt, sea salt, kosher salt, salt substitute or no salt? Sometimes there are just too many choices!

Most of our decisions aren’t life shattering. The world won’t end if I bring home the wrong can of soda pop but there are choices that carry dire consequences. The most important choices seem to revolve around relationships. Should I trust him? Will you be my friend? I love you.

So how do we make decisions? We need the gift of “discernment.” That’s an essential spiritual quality. In the days of the New Testament, there was even a miraculous gift of discernment. The Holy Spirit gave people insight (1 Corinthians 12:10) and the Apostle Paul prays for his friends in Philippi, “that you may be able to discern what is best,” (Philippians 1:10) and tells their neighbors, the Thessalonians, to “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil,” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22).

Recently Jan and I helped rescue a young man who had been blown out to sea in a rented kayak. He was found eleven miles off shore without water, food or even a hat. “I’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life,” he confessed and as he continued, renting that kayak was just one of them.

“Perry, we all make mistakes. That’s just life, but what matters is where we go from here,” I answered. David sinned with Bathsheba and there were consequences. Peter denied he knew Jesus. Paul persecuted Christians. Moses was a murderer. What matters is how we use those experiences to grow. We learn how to make decisions. That’s discernment: the ability to choose between good and evil. Little children don’t know the difference between what is morally right and wrong (see Deuteronomy. 1:39; Jonah 4:11) and the Hebrew writer explained, “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil,” (Hebrews 5:14).

In other words, Christians are called to go through life with both eyes wide open. We are to make judgments all the time about most everything. Is money good or evil? (The answer is “Yes.”) Will this friendship make me a better person or will I be dragged down to places I don’t want to go? If I say “no” to this opportunity, what am I saying “Yes!” to?

Of course, how we make those judgments is critical. Are we constantly looking for “what’s wrong with this?” or are we looking for what’s good? Are we asking, “How can I grow from this experience?” The former attitude is all too common – even among Christians and it’s been my experience that a critical attitude results in an unhappy heart while those who are constantly seeking the good in life will find it.

Finally, there is a huge difference between judging people (always wrong) and judging results. Jesus told us:

7         “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye, (Matthew 7:1-5).

As Marshall Keeble explained, “I’m not a judge, I’m just a fruit inspector.”

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