Practicing — really practicing — love and discernment is not merely about winning an argument or being on the right side of history, but about being right before God for eternity. If we want to glorify God in all we do, we cannot settle for discernment without real love. If we want to be more and more like Jesus, we cannot settle for love without real discernment. If we want to make a difference in dark days like these, we need real love filled with real knowledge and discernment in the very real pressures and complexities we have been given.
The last year has revealed much about us, for good and for bad. Trials expose us, confront us, and purify us, and God has given us trials of various kinds. Who knows what the next months or weeks — or even hours — may bring?
Should we gather as a church despite the virus, or not? Should we wear masks, or not? Was an officer’s use of force warranted? Was a shooting racially motivated? Should we march? What should we say (or tweet)? Should we say anything at all? Are we experiencing a climate catastrophe? What should we say, as Christians, about this presidency? Should we vote for this party or that party, this candidate or that candidate, or for someone who will never win?
The complexity of our challenges and sorrows — relational and political, medical and financial, mental and spiritual — uncovers two dangerous and rival impulses in us.
In difficult or confusing circumstances, confronted with conflicting reports and emotional pleas for help or compassion, we often either analyze and judge without love, or fling ourselves into love without careful discernment.
Even within one human heart — my human heart — we can feel ourselves swinging back and forth between these distant poles, each enough right to earn our trust and devotion, and yet enough wrong to distract our souls and undermine our witness. We need, as much today as ever, the strange marriage in an ancient prayer:
It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment. (Philippians 1:9)
Love and discernment. Discernment and love. We may rarely see the two together in real life, and yet wisdom hides in the wedding of the two. God has joined them, perfectly in Christ and now increasingly in us, so that we might shine — patient, courageous, humble, peaceful, hopeful, faithful, different — in especially dark, divisive, and troubling days like ours.
Love Without Discernment
The first failure, in the midst of crisis or upheaval, would be for us to try to pursue love while laying aside discernment. “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more,” Paul says, “with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9). Love without discernment deciphers reality and makes decisions (often subconsciously) based mainly on what others want and feel. It is a capitulating love, a shallow and often superficial love, usually a dishonest love. This kind of love has an allergy to hard questions, and a sweet tooth for the approval of others.
Far from making love less loving, however, true discernment only deepens and furthers love. As Paul says in his prayer, this love abounds not despite knowledge and discernment, but with knowledge and discernment. Knowledge and discernment are not just boxes for love to check; they are some of love’s strongest roots.
What is knowledge? Knowledge is an accurate awareness of reality, especially spiritual reality, acquired through education or experience. We know that spiritual knowledge is ultimately always a gift of God because of how Paul prays for it (Philippians 1:9; Ephesians 1:17; 1 Corinthians 2:13–14). But though knowledge is a gift, we still “toil” and “struggle” to grow in it (Colossians 1:29–2:3), in large part by submitting to faithful teaching (Ephesians 4:11–13).
So, the knowledge we need is supernaturally distributed by God through careful, even rigorous, attention to his word. We receive it, and we must increase in it (Colossians 1:9–10).
And what is discernment? Discernment is the ability to judge well, especially to judge the way God might judge in any given situation.
Though the two are intricately related, even overlapping, discernment is more elusive because it puts knowledge to work in real life. It is one thing to define right and wrong, good and evil abstractly, but it is another, more challenging task to distinguish them in reality — in real relationships, in real headlines, in real crises. And again, while our ability to discern well is ultimately given by God, we know that it is also “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Constant practice. If no other good has come from the events of the past year, it has certainly challenged us to do what God calls us to do at all times: to continually grow in discernment.