Why We Must Develop Habits of Deeper Discernment
The demands of our world make it abundantly clear that we urgently need Christians who cultivate habits of discernment. Discernment can be challenging to define and practice at the best of times, but it is absolutely vital at certain moments. And within the practice of discernment lies a quiet habit that may seem like a rabbit trail leading off from the main thing; it may even seem lacking in appropriate pious fervor. Of course, I mean deliberately pursuing the practice of curiosity.
Our urgent need for Christians who hone discernment as part of spiritual growth drives us home to what it means to be curious. And if this doesn’t yet seem convincing, consider the difference right now between an American Christian who can describe the general region where Ukraine is located vs an American Christian who cannot. Is geography essential to spiritual growth? No.
But humility is.
History isn’t essential to spiritual growth, either; but interest in the broad, simple strokes of a geopolitical context can increase the understanding you bring to your intercession.
A simple text continues to float to mind this week: “wise as serpents, gentle as doves.” The call to be savvy and kind describes both perspective and posture.
We aren’t allowed to stop our ears and close our eyes and hum and ignore evil; a savvy perspective recognizes and discerns evil – and does not underestimate it. (This was a characteristic of G.K. Chesterton’s priest-detective, Father Brown.) We are allowed however to be savvy in when and where and how we confront evil. In the midst of this perspective, a gentle or kind posture means that in recognizing or confronting evil, we are not allowed to dehumanize ourselves or others.
You do not have to be a top student or Rhodes scholar or trivia champ to cultivate curiosity and grow in deeper discernment. You don’t have to be able to speak five languages or have a trust fund to show compassion. Somehow though, a creeping habit has begun to let us off the hook; the habit of winking at a lack of curiosity or even disinterested ignorance.
Yet many churches of all sizes throw open a window to the world, when members tack a map to a lobby bulletin board with pins marking missionary locations, or medical teams are formed to travel on medical mission trips to countries with critical health needs.
When my mother was a child, she sat on the lap of her Grandmother, who knew a very narrow slice of life experience, confined to a small number of square miles. But her Grandmother passionately supported her denomination’s missionaries through ladies’ fundraising efforts – and prayer. One day, her Grandma had a bound world atlas on her lap. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you I’ve never been anywhere,” she told my mother. “I’ve traveled all over the world through this book.”
A woman with limited money, education, and life experience was hungry to learn, and for her, learning about her world was a way she could better practice her faith. Decades after she could no longer hold an atlas, my feet found Chinese soil, Mongolian soil, Scottish soil. I visited places she read about, places she saw in flickering black and white reels, places she saw on the small fuzzy square of early television.
Humility allows us to be teachable – to be unembarrassed by curiosity. We don’t have to hide our lack of knowledge by behaving as though we don’t have anything to learn, and we don’t have to hide our lack of knowledge by brushing away topics with flimsy excuses: “I let the so-and-so’s worry about that” or “that’s above my paygrade” or “I’ve just never been good at that” or even “I just leave that in God’s hands.” All those statements may be partly or mostly true. But the implied second half is the problem: “…so I don’t bother with it.”
There comes a point when lack of curiosity begins to border dangerously on lack of love.
If I love my neighbor, I will go to the effort. I will bother with it. I may not understand well, I may make blunders, I may get stuck on a DuoLingo level or have terrible pronunciation of even one basic word of their language, I may get their holiday or festival slightly wrong. They will see I tried.
But there also comes a point when lack of curiosity begins to seriously impair discernment.
What I don’t bother with, I don’t reckon with. What I ignore, I fail to factor into my thinking; I fail to factor into my prayers.
“Well, God knows it all anyway.”
Yes; and I don’t bear responsibility for world events or sustaining gravity. But I do bear the basic responsibility of citizenship, and the greater responsibility of Christian love.
The Apostle Paul didn’t write to all those scattered groups of early Christians, “well, I’ve never been good at letter-writing and God knows how you’re doing anyway, so I’m not going to bother keeping up with what’s happening in your neck of the woods.”
No: Paul urgently wanted to know how they were doing; he told them how he was praying for them; he let them know what updates he’d had about their welfare; he longed to see them and see for himself that they were alright. He updated them on what was happening with himself and others; he prayed for them, drew from informed examples to encourage their spiritual growth, and navigated among a variety of cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds and differences.
Sometimes, with the help of the Holy Spirit, he even used the ignorance of others strategically. (“When they found out he was a Roman citizen…”) By walking around and looking at the cultural and religious practices of a place, he was able to discern an introduction into conversation (even Paul kept silent, observed, and stayed teachable and curious sometimes).
By absorbing the events around him, learning about others, and engaging strategically, Paul paid others the dignity of notice. And consider the marvelous power of the Holy Spirit at work in his life! Young, zealous Saul had been in the thick of it, watching coats as Stephen was martyred; he noticed, listened, and traveled in his zeal to track down, root out, and arrest – “terrorize” – early Christians. God used these same characteristics and traits that had been directed toward persecution, and anointed them and redirected them to fuel the spread of the early church.
The difference, of course, smote the earth in his cataclysmic encounter with Christ.
The difference, of course, was love.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I can discern through the fog of our times to see places God may be at work. By intentionally growing our curiosity about our world, by refusing to flinch at hard things, by trusting God with the depth of our lament or overwhelmed brains or confusion, the Holy Spirit can synthesize the bits and pieces of your life that seem disparate or random so that you can see – really see – into the truth of a moment; so you can sense the Spirit’s prompt of, “wait – wait; now!”
Savvy as serpents, gentle as doves. We must refuse to underestimate evil; we must discern; we must not dehumanize.
Is geography essential to spiritual growth? Of course not; neither is literacy, for that matter.
But humility is.
God, give us the grace to be curious; give us the courage to face whatever we find; and give us practice in seeing and seizing moments, by listening for and following the rhythm of the Holy Spirit. And all for love’s sake.
Featured image courtesy Karl JK Hedin via Unsplash.