The truth about discernment


“Discernment is not knowing the different between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” – Charles Spurgeon

When you boil it all down in the end, it is easy to identify the difference between black and white. However, when asked to differentiate between shades of gray, we often stumble.  I think Spurgeon’s quote above nails it! True discernment is knowing the difference between right and almost right, but I would add one more thing. I believe discernment has an action element to it, as well. So, once you know the difference between right and almost right, your actions must reflect that you know the difference. Many individuals may be able to see the difference, but it is the person of character that acts on that difference.

What are the facts about discernment? Are there components of discernment that should guide our work, home, community, and private lives? Let’s take a look at the facts, as I have learned about this not-so-simple thing called discernment:

  1. Discernment is a key attribute of character – Character is often defined as “doing the right thing, even when no one else is watching.” But, how can you do the right thing if you are unwilling or unable to know right from wrong, much less almost right? Being able to differentiate those shades of gray, then acting appropriately is the definition of character.  You cannot be a person of character if you cannot discern the right thing to do, then actually do it.
  2. Discernment can and should be predetermined – Most individuals have developed a built-in compass that differentiates right from wrong.  Not true for everyone, of course, but most individuals know when they are close to stepping across the line. It is much easier to avoid crossing that line when you have predetermined your actions. Let me illustrate… My wife and I tried to teach our three kids at an early age that they would be faced with temptations and options in life. But, if they made decisions about what lines they would not cross beforehand – before they were faced with the stress of an immediate decision – it would be much easier to just say “no.” For example, if they made a firm, early decision that, under no circumstances would they take illegal drugs, it would be much easier to walk away when faced with that decision with friends. Pre-determining what was wrong, or even almost right, made it easier to make the right decisions.
  3. Discernment can be learned, or at least sharpened – It is never too late to sharpen our discernment skills. Often, discernment is a matter of reflection before reacting. Our internal compass can often show us the direction if we will allow it. But, we can also begin simply asking ourselves this question, “If this right, wrong, or almost right?”  If we cannot say it is “right”, likely, it is an action that should be reconsidered.  Getting into this habit can change our overall discernment compass.
  4. Discernment may determine your ultimate pathway in life – Our ability to properly discern and act will definitively determine our path in life. I know of several individuals that have succumbed to “too good to be true” financial schemes. They relied upon advice from friends or colleagues on a “can’t miss” investment opportunity and lost everything. There are many ways to alter your life by choosing the “almost right” road.
  5. Discernment must not be confused with bias – Individuals often allow their personal bias to taint their own view of discernment.  Discernment has nothing to do with the outward appearance of people – it has everything to do with our own actions, some of which might relate to people.  Choosing to stay away from some people because of their actions or potential actions is discernment.  Choosing to stay away from other people because of their inherent differences from you is not necessarily discernment and may actually be bias.  Don’t confuse the two.
  6. Discernment must not become an excuse for perfectionism – Some individuals fall into the trap of perfectionism under the guise of “discernment.” Being a discerning person does not mean that you fear or avoid making decisions. It does not mean that you must avoid all risks. It simply means that you pause, consider the consequences, and act in the “right” way, whatever that means at the time under the circumstances. Don’t get caught in the perfectionism trap (see this link for more on The Perils of Perfectionism)
  7. Discernment can and should be taught – We need to help others understand the importance of discernment.  Certainly, we should impart this wisdom to our children and grandchildren.  But, leaders of any group of individuals must help guide their team to be discerning and default toward “right” and not accept “almost right”.

True discernment must be lead to positive choices. Otherwise, it is wasted. A person of character avoids “almost right” when “right” is possible and the better choice. It is knowing the correct choice to make, then making it… even if there is a cost or personal risk.

Life is not necessarily easier for the discerning person, but it brings an internal peace and satisfaction that cannot be found otherwise. Are you a discerning person?  Does your character reflect how you deal with the shades of gray in your life?

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