Throughout my youth, my father had many teachings and expressions that we came to call “dad-isms.” They were memorable little sayings packed with truth. One of them I recall him saying to me in the aftermath of a disappointment I had experienced regarding a friend. He simply said, “Charlie, people disappoint.”
Yes, they do. We need not be cynics to understand and accept that people cannot always come through for you. Sometimes they let you down and even shock you. It is a hard but freeing truth. Human beings struggle, are imperfect, and even have mighty falls. But that doesn’t mean we should be fearful or refuse to trust others at all. However, we do need to be sober because “People disappoint.”
The recent allegations against Bill Cosby seem to have been confirmed now, even by him. Disappointment, shock, and anger have been common responses.
But allow a moment like this to cause us all to reflect on our own national (and personal?) tendency to size people up based on very little real information. We often ask public figures to fulfill our idealistic (but unrealistic) notions and be the people of our dreams.
Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments. Idealizing our “heroes” can cause us deep hurt. Some of these hurts and shocks can be prevented, or at least lessened, by prayerful and careful discernment as we go through life.
Discernment is a spiritual discipline that is important for us to develop in our Christian walk. The word “discern” is derived from the Medieval Latin word cernere, meaning to sift, separate, or distinguish. Hence, discernment is a discipline that counsels us to make careful distinctions and to avoid rash conclusions.
Yes, it is an often-troublesome human tendency to “size things up” too quickly, before we really have all the information and can carefully sift, separate, and distinguish. There is also the tendency to make conclusions that are too sweeping or simplistic, given the limited information we have. We do this in the case of both people and situations.
Regarding people, too often we like to assess them quickly and put them into one category or another. For example, we may conclude that “Jane is a really wonderful person!” based on just a few interactions with her or on very limited information.
We do this a great deal with the famous personalities and “heroes” of our culture, seeing them in broad and simplistic ways. In fact, we usually know very little about them at all other than what we see in a rather cursory and public way. In lionizing and idealizing people, we are often setting ourselves up for deep disappointment. And this disappointment is rooted in our rushed and simplistic judgments about people.
The fact is, people are generally a mixed bag, often possessed of great gifts, yet afflicted by human weaknesses and flaws. Scripture says, No one is good but God alone (Mk 10:18 inter al). It also says, For God regards all men as sinners, that he may have mercy on all (Rom 11:23). This the human condition: gifted but flawed.
Hence, we do well to carefully discern, to sift, sort, and distinguish when we assess one another. Not all things or people are as they first appear. And no one should be regarded simplistically. We are usually a complicated mix of gifts and struggles.
In Scripture, there is the story of Samuel, who was sent by God to find and anoint a king among Jesse’s sons. Arriving and seeing the eldest and strongest of the sons, Samuel was quick to conclude that he must be the one to be anointed:
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:6).
Samuel was eventually led to anoint the youngest and least likely of the brothers, David.
Here are some other references from Scripture:
- Call no one blessed before his death, for by his end shall a man be known (Sir 11:28).
- Paul cautions Timothy, Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure … Remember, the sins of some men are obvious, leading them to certain judgment. But there are others whose sins will not be revealed until later (1 Tim 5:22,24).
- Sometimes we fail to note the gifts of others. Scripture says, So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! (2 Cor 5:16)
Discernment regarding people ought to proceed with careful deliberation, so that we resist the urge to quickly size them up or categorize them. We should exercise careful discernment that is ongoing, charitable, and sober.
Regarding situations, the rush to judgment is also to be avoided. Often we do not have all the facts and so our judgment can be both rash and wrong. We often think we know the whole story when in fact we do not.
Likewise it is often easy to take sides quickly in disputes and to assess blame in simplistic ways. In marriage counseling, for example, I have learned to resist the urge to be too sympathetic toward one spouse or the other. In the past I would tend to be more sympathetic to the one who had called to make the appointment, and whose side I had heard the most of already. But a one- sided pancake is pretty thin; there’s always another side. Very few marriages are in trouble because one is a saint and the other is the devil. There are usually issues on both sides; there is both bad and good in each of them.
Thus, as with people, the assessment of situations also requires discernment, the careful sorting, sifting, and distinguishing of many things.
Disclaimer – Discernment should be seen as a middle ground between quickly claiming we know everything, and claiming we can know nothing at all. The need for discernment does not mean that there is no truth to be found, or that we are locked away in a purely subjective and relativistic world where no judgments can be made at all. Rather, it is a caution against making sweeping, simplistic, or rash judgments that are not based on things we really know; it is a call to sobriety. People and situations are usually more complicated than we first grasp, and it takes time to make proper assessments.
Some (including me) have criticized the Church for not operating at the breakneck speed of the modern world. We often want quick and bold statements to be issued. We want rapid responses and bold initiatives made in response to every issue that emerges. Of themselves, these desires are not wrong, but they need to be balanced with an appreciation that discernment is often accomplished at slower speeds than we would like. A quick response may sometimes be desired and even necessary, but there is something to be said for following the priority of the important rather than the urgent. Careful discernment is important and has its place.
To discern: to sift, separate, or distinguish.