Exercising discernment when every choice is a good choice
It happens more often than I like to admit. My husband and I will be comparing our schedules, synching our calendars for the upcoming week, when we realize that we’ve got (at least) two important events happening at the same time. Maybe our son’s basketball practice overlaps with a youth group activity or I’m out of town when he’s planned to go hunting. Between his work as a pastor, mine as an author and speaker, and three children with active social lives, we regularly find ourselves facing the dilemma of choosing between good things.
In some respects, our family’s scheduling woes are no different from any others family’s. But I’ve also found that being a ministry family can complicate the process of choosing which opportunities to pursue and which to refuse. Attending a child’s birthday party might enable us to build relationships in the community, but staying home together would allow us to quality time as a family. Starting up a new ministry at church might extend our missional reach. Or it might overextend the congregation, drawing resources from other ministries. It’s one thing to face the dilemma of picking between the lesser of two evils, but how do you pick the better of two goods? Ultimately, learning to choose what’s best requires discernment.
For many of us, discernment carries a somewhat negative connotation, conjuring up images of an unhappy, critical church member who feels called to exercise her “gift” in the direction of the pastor and his family. For others, discernment means identifying all that’s wrong with the world and staying away from it. But in more common use, discernment simply means having an appreciation for excellence. We say that a museum curator has a discerning eye or a celebrity chef has a discerning palette. What we mean is that these people have a refined sensibility that’s been cultivated over years of testing and experience.
This eye for excellence is also the way the Scripture speaks of discernment in Philippians 1:9-10. The Apostle Paul prays that the believers’ love would “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” He reiterates this point at the end of the book when he calls us to seek “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and of good report” (4:8). Discernment means growing, not only in our ability to see what’s wrong with something, but in our ability to spot what makes something good—and what makes something else better.
So what does this look like in practice?
To begin with, discernment teaches us to be selective about the things we take into our lives. At some point, everything—good or bad—has a cost. Whether it’s engaging in a new ministry, enrolling our kids in afterschool activities, or starting or ending a relationship, all of these things require something of us. In order to discern whether something is worth that price, we must have a clear sense of what God is calling us to and trust that He’s working everything in our lives for good.
For me, this means seeking God through prayer, getting perspective from spiritual counselors, and identifying the clear signs of Providence in my life, i.e. do minor details, opportunities, gifts, and timing seem to align, leading me toward a certain choice. I also ask myself the following questions:
Does this opportunity fit my specific calling or could anyone do it? Should someone else do it?
Can I justify the time, effort, and energy? Is the exchange fair to everyone, especially to those who are closest to me?
Do the people near me also sense God calling me to this opportunity?
Would I be saying yes for wrong reasons, like people pleasing, fear of missing out, greed, pride, or celebrity?
Would I saying no for wrong reasons, like laziness, insecurity, timidity, or fear of responsibility?
“Discernment,” C.H. Spurgeon once famously quipped, “is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” Tweaking that ever so slightly, discernment is knowing the difference between what is good and what is better. And sometimes, seeking what is better means trusting God enough say no to good things. But to do this, we must cultivate a mindset of abundance, remembering that God is the giver of all good gifts.
Whenever we find ourselves facing a choice between two good things, my husband and I try to remember that our biggest problem is not enough goodness in our lives but too much goodness so that even if I don’t take the opportunity in front of me, God will still provide for me. If His providence provided this opportunity, it can provide another. My God shall supply all my needs in Christ Jesus, and because He will, I can be content. I can trust Him enough to walk away from good things because I know that there is no shortage of goodness in His world, and as a good, good Father, He will provide exactly what His children need.
Hannah R. Anderson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where she spends her days working beside her husband in rural ministry and caring for their three children. She contributes to a variety of Christian publications, and regularly writes and speaks about faith, culture and spiritual formation. She is the co-host of the Christ and Pop Culture Podcast, “Persuasion.” She is the author of “All That’s Good” (Moody, 2018), “Made for More” (Moody, 2014) and “Humble Roots” (Moody, 2016). You can connect with her at her blog www.sometimesalight.com and on Twitter @sometimesalight.