We concluded our previous post with the observation that a robust view of human reason will not only include virtues of intellect but virtues of character as well. One virtue that lies at the heart of this intersection is the virtue of discernment. “Discernment” comes from the Latin word discernere meaning “to see, discern, distinguish, separate.” It may be used in a variety of contexts, for example, someone with a “discerning eye” may have a knack for identifying things of particularly good quality. When we talk about discernment as a virtue necessary for human flourishing, we mean the ability to distinguish or separate good from evil. This requires two things: recognition of a standard outside of oneself and an act of the will.
We already briefly discussed the importance of humility in the cultivation of reason, but it is worth mentioning again here. To put us in the right frame of mind, picture God answering Job out of the whirlwind: “Now brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall inform Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” When we seek to discern what is good and what is evil, we should not begin with what we, as individuals or groups or societies, think or feel about it, rather, we should ask “What does the One who called all things into existence call good and evil?”
But discernment is not merely being able to identify good and evil according to God’s standard. Even the devil knows the difference. And, he tempted Eve to sin in order to gain such knowledge. Discernment requires an act of the will toward the good. Its cultivation is intimately tied to sanctification in a virtuously circular way: as we grow in discernment, we become more Godly; as we become more Godly, we grow in our ability to discern. Discernment enables us to identify and rightly order our actions and affections so we can love those things God loves and love God himself.
We are given nearly endless opportunities to cultivate (or fail to cultivate) discernment in the choices we make, both big and small. Consider this (real) conversation between a mother and her daughter about a popular television show in which a major plot line involves the growing romantic attraction between two people who are married to other people. Mom: “So, what’s going on in the show, and what do you think and feel watching it?” After some discussion, the daughter admits, “Well, I guess I find myself rooting for adultery.” “Right. It’s important that you see it for what it is. It’s important to name it.” End of conversation. Some would consider that an exercise in discernment. But, is it? Consider a hypothetical continuation of that conversation. Mom: “If you’re regularly rooting for adultery, even in this imaginary case, what effect do you think that’s having on your affections and your character? Do you think it would be better to find another show to watch?” As Christians, we are told to “hate what is evil, cling to what is good.” We train in smaller things so that we may be fit for more important things. It’s no small question to ask, “How is our media consumption forming our thinking and our affections?”
A clear example of both the standard and act of will required in discernment can be found in Matthew’s account of the temptation of our Lord. Three times the Devil tempts him, and three times Jesus answers him with Old Testament scripture. Finally, Jesus rebukes him saying: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Did you ever stop to think about that? Jesus is God! He certainly could have answered the Devil extemporaneously. Instead, he used the very words his followers then and we now have access to. It’s hard to miss the importance of knowing scripture, of “hiding it in one’s heart,” in order to face temptation. At Trinitas, we take this calling seriously as we encourage students in extensive Bible memorization and study of salvation history, in daily morning prayer and classroom discussion, in virtue education to form their minds and hearts to be tuned to God’s voice.
It is often observed that we live in an age of “information overload” and increasing anxiety fueled by the barrage of messages. How much, then, do we need the virtue of discernment so that we can not only identify what is true, good, and beautiful in the midst of all that is not those, but also so that we can pursue and enjoy what God has intended for us from the beginning and what he grants, even now, through the Holy Spirit.
If you’d like to think more deeply about this particular virtue, listen to BaseCamp Live host Davies Owens and Hannah Anderson as they discuss Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment.