Not Everything is as it First Appears: On the Discipline of Discernment as an Antidote to the Deep Disappointments of Life

The video at the bottom of this page is a humorous and also stunning illustration that things in life are not always what they first appear to be. Life can have its little surprises that make us say, “Wow!” It can also have its shocking and deeply disappointing moments that rock us back on our heals and cause up deep hurt. Some of these hurts and shocks can be prevented or 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, as we can see, discernment is a discipline that counsels us to make careful distinctions and to avoid rash conclusions. While most people tend to place discernment in the realm of spiritual issues, spiritual direction, and vocations only, discernment has a wider application in how we understand the people and situations in our life. (It is this second area that I want to emphasize in this post).

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 human tendency to make conclusions that are too sweeping nor simplistic, given the limited information we have.We do this regarding both people and situations.

Regarding people,  too often, we like to  assess them quickly and put them into one category or another. Thus, we may conclude that “Jane is a really wonderful person!” based on very few interactions with her or 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 of them, 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, and also afflicted by human weakness and personal 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, that is to sift, sort and distinguish, when we assess one another. Not all things are as they first appear. And no one should be regarded simplistically. We are usually a complicated mix of gifts and struggles.

In the Scriptures 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 he must be the one: 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.

Scripture also says:

  1. Call no one blessed before his death, for by his end shall a man be known. (Sir 11:28)
  2. And 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)
  3. Sometimes too, we fail to note the gifts of others. Here too 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 therefore ought to proceed with careful deliberation wherein we resist the urge to quickly size up and categorize people, and exercise careful discernment that is on-going, charitable and sober.

Regarding situations, here too, the rush to judgment is to be avoided. I have, in the past, been prone to criticize some of the judgments and decisions of the Church, and in particular, my diocesan leadership and religious superiors. Yet, in some of the matters about which I was most critical, I have come to discover that I did not have all the facts, and that my judgment was both rash and wrong. We often think we know the whole story. And often 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 to one or the other. In the past I would tend to be sympathetic to 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, and there is 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, bad and good.

Thus, again, regarding situations, discernment, the careful sorting, sifting and distinguishing of things, must take place.

Disclaimer – Discernment should be seen as a middle ground between quickly claiming we know too much, and claiming we can know nothing at all. Discernment is not an affirmation 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 from making sweeping, simplistic or rash judgments that are not based on things we really know. It is a call to sobriety, for people and situations are often more complicated than we first grasp, and it takes time to make proper assessments.

Some (including me) have often criticized the Church for not operating in the fast speed zone of the modern world. We often want quick and bold statements to be issued. We desire rapid responses and bold initiatives made to every issue and crisis 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 demand or wish. A more rapid response may sometimes be desired and even necessary. But there is something to be said about following the priority of the important rather than, merely, the priority of the urgent. And careful consideration and discernment is important and has its place.

To discern: to sift, separate, or distinguish.

Photo Credit: St Ildefonso (in prayerful discernment) by El Greco

Consider this video. I pray you won’t take offense at it and maintain a certain “sense of humor.” For while it may seem to make light of a serious spiritual matter, I am making use of it merely to illustrate that not all things are as they first appear. Even in the matter illustrated, the Church demands long investigation before concluding the worst and proceeding with the rites.