For some time now, I have been struggling with this thing called discernment. It makes me cringe a little every time I hear it. And despite my unease, I have used it to describe myself. “I have the gift of discernment.”
Discernment – discrimination, acuteness of judgement and understanding (synonyms: judgment, perspicacity, penetration, insight) (dictionary.com)
Based on the definition, it seems like a pretty good trait to have. So why does it make me so uncomfortable? I think the answer is that it assumes too much and since as human beings, we often inflate our perception of our own gifts, it can often go too far. I do believe that some people have been blessed with the gift of insight. I even believe that I am one of those people. Because that belief and this post may end up being in opposition, it is only fair that I start by using myself as an example before I talk about others.
In the last few years, I have just started to see how my gifts have been developed and how I am (hopefully) using them to help people. I tend to be able to talk to a person, hear a story and quickly see what might be driving their behavior, what might be going on with the other people involved and offer an observation that allows them to think about the situation in a new way. When this happens, solutions seem crystal clear to me and when I choose to share my observation, I am often told that I hit the nail on the head. So far, so good right? The problem occurs when I am wrong or when I might be right but the person isn’t ready to hear it, or when I haven’t listened enough, or when I project my own junk onto the situation. ALL of those things can and probably do happen with the same frequency that the alternative occurs (just ask my daughters), yet I still have a tendency to pat myself on the back for knowing so much about people.
I think true discernment is SO much more than being able to see into a situation quickly. It also means knowing when to shut up. It means knowing when it is time to look in the mirror instead of telling someone what is going on with THEM. It means listening. To truly understand a situation, I first have to know the person, or at least enough about what might be making that person tick, that I can factor in their history, their fear, their heart.
One of the biggest mistakes that I have made is in assuming that I know more that I do. It has taken some bumpy relationships and bruised feelings for me to see that I can only see what my personal lenses allow me to see. And like any gift, in order for it to be truly realized, this gift requires work and practice. Great athletes may have been given a gift of natural athleticism, but it is only through extremely hard work and dedication, that those gifts are turned into something marketable (worth something to others). The same is true of musicians, artists, scientists or ANY other success story. The gift is just the start that God gave us. And when I presume that the gift of discernment is any different, I risk so much, I know that I talk when I should be quiet. I know that I project my history onto other people’s stories. I know that I am often too sure of my opinion. Like anything else, I need to practice.
Now I’ll talk about discernment in a broader context.
How many times have you heard a right wing “news” anchor tell you what the motivation is of the person on the left? How about the reverse? How many times have you heard a straight person tell you what motivates a gay person? How many times have you heard a non-Christian tell you what Christians believe? How about Muslims? How much does the collective “we” presume to know about what motivates Muslims in this country, or what is in their hearts? I know that some of these opinions may be shaped by our collective experience in the last decade, and those experiences are valid data points for judgment. But they aren’t the only data points. When we assume the rest based on our gut….or discernment, what happens? When does discernment turn into hate?
And what about the things I know because God told me? How can anyone argue with that? Believe me, I am the first one to tell you that God has touched my life, and has used some pretty powerful ways to get me to see the direction that in hindsight seems blessed by His hand. I do believe that God speaks to us, sometimes very directly. But how is it possible that I can be so certain that God is telling me one thing, and another Christian can just as confidently tell me that God has told them the exact opposite? How is it possible that I believe that loving a homosexual means accepting who they are, accepting that God made them and believing that their worth as a Christ follower is not defined by who they chose to spend their life with. And another Christian feels equal passion for his belief that the only way to love a homosexual is to save them from their “sin”? What if we both claim a gift for discernment? If one of us has to be wrong, what does that say about the other things we believe God has told us?
In the last year, I have heard people tell me with conviction that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment for voodooism, and that more importantly, they believe this because the Holy Spirit made it known to them. I have heard people say that the east coast earthquakes were because of the fight for marriage equality and/or rampant homosexuality. These people believe as strongly as I do that they have the ability to discern what God wants. Discernment? In this case, I think that discernment becomes a club and “God told me” is the ultimate conversation ender. Is that really God? Does He really speak softly to only a few people so they can use their newfound discernment to beat people down and judge them? And how about all the casualties in those natural disasters who are Christians? As someone aptly asked me, “Does God have bad aim?”
It is funny how most of the time when I hear, “God told me” it is in the context of something that could easily be seen as unkind or is a judgment of someone else’s sin. Whether I call it discernment or disbelief, I just don’t see it. And I don’t know what to do with it, because I know that the people who are saying it believe it with their whole hearts, and I believe that they are also trying to follow God’s direction. So are my signals crossed? Are theirs? And even worse, as I type this, I realize that I am guilty of the very thing I accuse them of, because I have decided they must be wrong because God has spoken a different message into my heart.
I have been struggling with this post for some time because it feels incomplete. There isn’t a conclusion. I don’t have the answer. I do know, however, that when I am the most sure of what is right, I am most at risk for missing the quiet voice of God. When I am busy telling people what their problem is, telling them what they should do, and bestowing on them the wonderful benefit of my discernment, I need to tread softly. I need to wait. I need to pray that the right words be brought to my lips. If I am to claim the gift of discernment, I also have to claim the responsibility that goes with it. I have responsiblity for the words that leave my lips, for the hearts that those words are spoken to, and for knowing when it is best not to speak.