Discernment: A Forgotten Virtue

Since at least the end of World War II, American society has emphasized education as the path to success. This likely grew out of the practical experience of the Great Depression, as countless workers lost jobs and seemed at the mercy of their more educated counterparts. However, over time, the American system of higher education—whether consciously or not—realized the economic benefits of welcoming an increasing number of students into their midst and found ways to make a place for them. This then led to creating departments and degrees of, shall we say, questionable academic value, besides lowering standards while exponentially raising costs, partially to build buildings to house the students who in previous generations would not have qualified to attend. But these social sins are only part of the problem. Beginning in public school, the barrage of information heaped upon students in order to fulfill—at least on paper—the demands of politicians has led many to value knowledge while completely ignoring discernment. Growing in knowledge consists chiefly of information gathering, but discernment requires knowing what to do with that information—including knowing what to pay close attention to and what to ignore. Unfortunately, while this latter skill holds far more practical value, it rarely receives even scant attention, and this failure has a multitude of consequences—not only in the secular world but chiefly in spiritual life.

As Solomon wrote about the value of wisdom in the book of Proverbs, he included not only the pursuit of knowledge but also its proper focus in the spiritual and the necessity of understanding and discernment in order to properly apply that knowledge once learned. We see this necessity in daily life but rarely appreciate it in the moment. The wise king may not have always exercised discernment in his life, but in this inspired book he provided some essential principles for how to learn discernment in life. “My son, if you receive my words, And treasure my commands within you, So that you incline your ear to wisdom, And apply your heart to understanding; Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding, If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, And find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:1-5). Thus, discernment is essentially cutting through the nonsense to recognize the essence so that you can have the presence of mind to live with good sense. If you want to learn how to discern, follow the pattern provided by Solomon.

  1. Recognize your need to learn (Prov. 2:1). If you approach education of any kind as just a matter of gaining a piece of paper or establishing the right credentials, you have missed the point entirely. More than that, learning is not just about knowing the right information; it is also about doing the right things (Jas. 1:22).
  2. Listen with interest to those wiser than you (Prov. 2:2). Impatience often breeds contempt while simultaneously advertising ignorance. To distinguish between style and substance, cleverness and wisdom, stubbornness and steadfastness requires more than just a theoretical understanding of the issues. It takes experience in detecting the essence of character by observing the subtleties of human behavior with someone available to point out these nuances lest the uninformed make decisions that look good on paper but that are weak in principle (Jas. 1:19-21).
  3. Learn to ask questions (Prov. 2:3). Learning discernment should never be undertaken solely on the basis of personal experience. Instead, value others’ experience too, especially when they have walked the same path you wish to tread. Indeed, it takes a great amount of knowledge and understanding even to know the right questions to ask. Therefore, spend time thinking of good questions instead of assuming you already have all the answers (1 Cor. 4:4; 10:12).
  4. Make it a quest—not a hobby (Prov. 2:4). If you truly value discernment, your priorities will reveal it. Learning to make good decisions in every circumstance and scenario will become what you consider in the morning and what you reflect on in the evening. It will become part of you because you live with these thoughts every moment of every day (Matt. 6:33).
  5. Acknowledge the right standard of judgment (Prov. 2:5). Much of discernment depends on following the proper standard for decision making. As long as we judge matters by personal experience rather than by the objective standard of God’s will, we will misunderstand not only matters of basic morality but the core of life. God’s Word provides not only the correct approach to ethics but also the proper priorities in life. Without the recognition of the absolute standard of God’s will, all discernment is a mirage, offering explanations to the weary soul without the substance to offer solutions grounded in reality and truth (Matt. 7:1-4; John 12:48; 17:17).

1 Comment

  1. Pat McIntosh on February 3, 2020 at 8:21 am

    Good stuff!

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