The Apostle Paul described a “discerning spirit” that could penetrate into the depths our being and there reveal the “thoughts and intents of the heart.” In recent years I’ve learned to apply this in very human terms as I’ve become more attuned to the whims and fancies that pass through my mind/heart. For example, about a year ago I was listening to an early campaign rally of Donald Trump and felt an urge to yell out, “Atta boy, Donald! You tell’em!” His rhetoric, the cadence of his speech , and evangelical fervor appealed to faint emotional imagery from my early youth and I immediately told my wife, “I know why so many people find him appealing.” Here I exercised “discernment,” paying attention to a subtle impulse of my heart to which I gave no energy as I recognized it for what it was, opting instead for more mature, rational discretion. Earlier in my life I would have taken what he was saying, “hook, line, and sinker” and would have been an enthusiastic supporter.
And I find myself exercising this discernment often in my life in areas of race, gender orientation, and even physical appearance. Part of me still has the very human impulse to respond with great intensity to my first impression but now I have that discernment, related to what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason,” and realize that the distinctions that my ego wishes to carve the world into are not as clear and distinct as they first appear.
My mind brings to my attention one of my favorite anecdotes from the life of Jesus, the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. This woman was a well known local prostitute and a contingent of local Republicans…so to speak…(wink, wink) were demanding that she be stoned to death, according to the law. Jesus responded, “Let thee who is without guilt cast the first stone” after which he told her to “Go and sin no more.” Now, Jesus knew well what the law was and that it did indeed call for him to pick up one of the rocks from one of the local rock-vending kiosks nearby and start pelting her himself. But he exercised internal discretion, i.e. discernment, and knew that often grace and forgiveness was in order rather than strict enforcement of the letter of the law.