“The wise in heart are called discerning…” Proverbs 16:21
“Wisdom reposes in the heart of the discerning…” Proverbs 14:33
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Discernment and wisdom feature prominently in the book of Proverbs, often going hand in hand. Discernment is a virtue that our society does not spend much time pursuing. We are a people of snap-judgments, spur of the moment ideas, spontaneity. None of these are necessarily bad, but when they become our modus operandi, we lose out. Our lives move so quickly that we are becoming servants of instant gratification. We text a friend and want immediate replies. We order food out of our car window and by the time we pull forward we are being handed a bag. Successful businesses are run by people who can most quickly survey the situation, make a judgment and make things happen. This fast-paced frenetic mode of doing life comes at a cost. We are frequently decision-weary. And almost always just plain weary.
This is not the way of wisdom. Wisdom calls us to slow down, to ponder. Ponder is not a word we use much anymore. To ponder is to weigh our options carefully, to thoughtfully consider, mull over, meditate on, contemplate, reflect on, deliberate about. To ponder is to discern what is right.
Discernment takes time. It takes quiet. Discernment asks hard questions of trusted friends. Discernment requires prayer, reading, listening. Discernment means doing all of these things and listening for the still small voice – the gut feeling, the peace about a decision. I don’t do this enough. To sit still and just think is so foreign in my life that it can almost be anxiety producing. There’s so much to do. Laundry, school work, house work, spouse work, kids, bills, dinner, exercise, carpool, ad infinitum. I get tired just thinking about it, so the easiest thing is to DO not THINK.
Jesus had some friends who lived in a little town called Bethany, two sisters and a brother (who isn’t featured in this mini-drama). So Jesus went to visit these dear ones, and one sister – let’s call her Me – was so caught up in DOING – that she became agitated and angry and resentful of the other sister – let’s call her Who I’d like to be – who just sat at Jesus’ feet and listened, discerned, learned wisdom.
Me: Hello? Jesus? Could you please send Who I’d like to be in here to help me out? There’s a lot to do-oo! (pregnant pause, followed by a shrew-like shout) Like RIGHT NOW!!!!
Jesus (kindly, gently): Why don’t you come in here and sit awhile. The work will keep. Who you’d like to be has chosen what is better – to sit at my feet and listen.
Hmm. Who I’d like to be seems to have more wisdom, more scope for choosing the right thing than ME. More discernment. Simply by sitting, pondering, with Jesus.
Our society gives value to busy-ness. But that is not what is important in God’s economy. To sit and listen. To learn. To hear the voice of the Dear Friend giving us wisdom and insight and knowledge and discernment. So that we can learn what is true and noble and right and good.
Maybe one of my Lenten practices should be to be still. And when someone asks me what I’m up to is not to answer “Oh, crazy busy” but to say “I’m working on sitting. I’m learning how to be still and know God. I’m discerning.”
Back to our original question: Which comes first? Wisdom or discernment? Or must they go together, each constantly feeding the other? And how to get them both? It’s time to re-embrace being still as a virtue.
“Ponder anew what the Almighty can do.”
Joachim Neander (1630) translated by Catherine Winkworth (1863)