In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines (Proverbs 18:17, NIV).
Lie to Me was a TV show on the FOX network that was on between 2009-2011. The main character was Dr. Cal Lightman, who possessed an extraordinary talent for reading what he called “micro-expressions” and body language that made him an extremely accurate human lie detector. You couldn’t lie to him and get away with it. While there were obvious benefits to his talent (such as making a very good living by teaching and consulting with various clients and authorities who needed to know if a person was lying or telling the truth), there were great downsides as well; the chief being that he was an arrogant jerk who enjoyed using his talent to fool with and test his family, friends, and colleagues. His gift gave him exceptional discernment that helped him separate truth from lie and fact from fiction. But his character possessed no discretion with which to control the use of his gift and that made him unlikable. Personally, I think that is one of the reasons it barely made it three seasons. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you have great actors who give great performances of well written scripts; if the viewers can’t connect with the main character, it won’t last.
Discernment is a great gift. As a pastor, I find myself asking God for discernment more than almost anything else. When I meet someone for pastoral care, for mentoring, when I meet with a family about a loved one who died that I will be officiating a funeral for, when I meet with a couple for pre-marital counseling, one of the first things I pray for is discernment. Having discernment into a person’s life, circumstances, and character is to me essential if I am to be an effective spiritual father to them and a good and faithful servant to God. Discernment is not only essential for telling true from false, right from wrong, and truth from lie, but also for understanding the reason and motive (the root cause if you will) behind the thoughts, challenges, and sins that people struggle with. It is a powerful gift and tool that God gives us.
But one of the things I have been learning is that discernment without discretion ends up going in the wrong direction. Having the gift of discernment without it being guided by compassion, grace, mercy, and humility transforms discernment from a very powerful gift into a very dangerous weapon.
I think we have all met people at one time or another who have what seems to be an almost supernatural knack for seeing what is wrong, finding fault, or sinful habits, who feel compelled to speak up about it. Often this compulsion to “tell the truth” is justified by saying things like,
It would be wrong to withhold this information.
The Bible says sin is to be brought into the light.
If I don’t say anything, I would be guilty of letting sin slide.
My honesty brings glory to God.
Have you heard stuff like this? In my experience, these are said to rationalize the misuse of discernment. And we remember the definition of rationalize, right? If you are a new reader I will give it again: to rationalize is to tell yourself rational lies! Constantly or compulsively pointing out the sins, faults, failings, and bad theology in others is not a sign of spiritual health. When people complain and moan and writhe because of your honesty, it should not be taken as a badge of honor or as suffering for Christ. It isn’t. If, for example, my Christian brothers and sisters are feeling more cursed than cured by my discernment, I am not building up God’s kingdom or bringing Him glory, no matter how convinced I may be to the contrary; in fact I would be guilty of doing the opposite.
Jesus says we are to love one another as He loves us (John 13:34-35). Jesus is not at all opposed to showing me my sins, faults, and shortcomings. It happens on a daily basis with me in point of fact. But neither does Jesus reveal all my sins all the time. How would it be if Jesus were like Cal Lightman, constantly showing how I lie to myself, how I don’t measure up? Is that how Jesus treats us? No, His love is as full of grace as it is with truth (John 1:14). Love is not only truthful, but kind, patient, joyful, and protective; nor does it dishonor others or keep records of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Oswald Chambers wisely noted that “God gives us discernment in the lives of others to call us to intercession for them, never so that we may find fault with them.” We need to be learning that the direct “here is what you are doing wrong” approach is not the only approach or even the most effective in every circumstance. You not only need discernment to see the problem, but how God wants you to handle the problem—if He even wants you to handle it at all!
Discretion helps us effectively wield discernment. God may simply direct you to pray for the person and say nothing. He may want you to talk about another issue than the thing you have honed in on. He may want you to sit and listen to the person. He may want you to intercede and help them and model grace and mercy instead of pointing out how they ended up face down on the floor. He may be giving you discernment into them so that you have greater discernment into yourself and your own need for grace and forgiveness. If God does want you to talk to them about what you have seen, how does God want you to do so? Directly? Gently? Quickly? A longer conversation over a cup of coffee or even a meal? Does he want you to share how you have struggled with the same thing? Does he want you to do so now or later, publically or privately?
When we combine discernment with prayer and discretion and let the Holy Spirit chose the direction to go, then the gift of discernment is a powerful life giving encouraging gift. People who thus use that gift are looked for, sought out, and esteemed by those within and without the Church. There are plenty of Lightman’s in the world and in the Church. We don’t need more of them, we need more people like Jesus who had perfect discernment into the heart, and yet attracted the lost, the broken and the sinner to Him so that they could experience not only His truth but His grace.