The art of discernment evokes long-term images. Mulching. Steeping. Brewing. Soaking. Infusing. All are sensory. All involve long-term good. All demand time. As Chesterton remarked, "one cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." Some things take time. How is it that knowledge and wisdom become something different tomorrow than they are today? We are in a continual sorting process of absorbing new ideas and experiences, discarding old theories, and flushing them out in practice. When one breaks down, another is found to replace it that works in life and logarithm.
But the wisdom writers of yore also spoke of action. A contemplative that gazes inwardly for too long becomes a stump. When a man working in a field found treasure, he quickly covered it up and went and bought the field. He didn't wait for the assessor to show up - he couldn't afford to. A word spoken in due season is lauded in Proverbs. One might note that action is involved in that advice. When the season comes, speak. But know the season, so that you might know when to speak. A youngster wanted to follow Jesus but said, "wait, there's something I have to take care of first." Jesus demanded immediate action.
It's interesting to see Christ himself displaying the both/and nature of knowing and doing. The disciples probably had an inside joke going by the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. "Where is he NOW? I just saw him and now he's gone again." They were constantly on the search for him - why? Because he had retreated to pray. To discern. To contemplate. To talk to his Father. The result of these sessions - their flip side, and sometimes, perhaps, their cause - were his moments of fast-foward action, where he trips over one miracle after another, confronts, heals, restores, chases, and travels.
In 'discerning' discernment, I have realized that there are three things that I should take into account: timing, technique, and telos.
Timing involves knowing oneself and knowing others. It means employing wisdom as to the consequences of future actions, and recognizing the seasons and contexts in which one finds
oneself. I have found that I am listened to more when I gauge when to speak something. A good piece of advice given at a bad time makes it bad advice. Not because the content is skewed, but because the speaker is. Testing seasons recognizes one's place in communal time. Timing in working with others is just as valuable as wise timing in your life individually. I remember sitting across the desk from a pastor I was working with, expressing profound frustration with some dynamics in the church lay leadership. Everything I was saying was true. But whereas I
wished it to be dealt with immediately, he had the perspective to grasp the importance of the community timetable. Sometimes timing involves correctly guessing the outcome of your actions. Do you have a realistic picture of what the results may be? Courage also meshes with timing. Lenny Skudnik was awarded a medal by Ronald Reagan because, standing on shore beside motionless firefighters watching people drown in a frozen river, he threw off his coat and dashed in.
Discernment requires technique, too. What are the sources from which you draw your guidance and information? Bad sources - poor theology, immature comrades, etc. - will yield only bad input.
Technique acknowledges that whatever outcome you're driving at, there will always be certain ways that are always inappropriate in arriving there. The technique cannot contrast with the content, or else your behavior is as mismatched as a Christmas sweater with workout shorts.
Do you consult all people your own age for advice? Do you consult people from other cultures in your decision making process? What are the fruits of the lives of people you seek wisdom from? Are you listening to people who differ from you on some issues and can reflect back a different perspective than the one you already have? Do you allow both quiet and action to reveal truth to you? Does the liturgy of the church calendar inform the way in which the collective community of faith marks your thinking and activity? Are you continually attempting to learn more about the Scripture that you depend on for clarity? Do you demonstrate an appreciation for the sciences, arts, and fields of learning and knowledge that provide a sensible approach to decisions? Do you balance worship and joy with the (potential) stress of a discerning season? Does your prayer for guidance reflect both personal dialogue with God and classic prayers of the church that provide the stability of centuries? Do you balance thinking through issues with acting through them - that is, do you look for truth and guidance in the midst of chores, hobbies, ministry, work, recreation, and service?
Discernment finds its home in its goal. Telos - Greek for goal, or perfection, or completion - communicates the end to which things are ordered. And the telos of discernment is always Jesus Christ as the picture of Triune God. To what end are your actions ordered? It may, in the short term, be in a particular career, relationship or project. But the content of a decision, and the method of deciding, must always match the telos, or goal, of the decision. If the target behind your decision is always to grow in relationship to Christ, becoming more Christlike, then that will help pull into alignment the smaller decisions you make. It can be as small as whether to stop and visit an ailing churchgoer for a few minutes, or as big as whether to invest in a ministry in a smalltown or a distant country.
Which brings me to a counterpoint: discernment implies testing a situation that is not inherently right or wrong. One doesn't stop to contemplate whether kicking a small child is a good action. But within the Christian faith, we as believers have times in which God smiles, steps back, and says, "now, this time, do it without the training wheels." Is it so difficult to believe that God enjoys watching us exercise our free will and creative impulse? After all, these are two ways in which we show the image of God in us. On occasion, we resemble those students who miss the joy of creativity for the fear of failure: "How long do you want the paper to be? do you want Times New Roman or Courier New? Single space or double space? Chicago Handbook grammar rules? How many sources should we include?" We miss out on actually learning for fear of failing due to a missed dotted i or crossed t.
But where, oh where, does Grace enter? If you really, down deep, believe that God has your best interest at heart, then where, o Christian, is there room for fear? Are you living rightly? Are you steeped in prayer and text? Are you letting others speak truth into your life? Do you accept God's grace when it manifests in acts of service to others? Then take a deep breath. Relax. Be at ease. If we truly listen to Jesus, and pursue obedience to him, then there is not a situation that we can drop and "break" that he cannot fix and make better than it was before. I am not speaking of cheap grace here, where we sin when we know better. I am speaking of prevenient grace that permeates our thoughts, feelings and actions, gently steering behind the scenes when we are attempting to discern the best course of action within an obedient Christian life.
When you find yourself in a position of exercising discernment (a phrase that implies active reflection), remember to consider timing, technique, and telos. And then sit back, when you have been labouring over your own knowledge, and know that just as you are steeping in your resources, the Holy Spirit is steeping you in his grace. You may think you're mulching discernment. But you are also being mulched in grace.