Monday, June 22, 2009

The gift of discernment

If there is one thing we dearly need in many parts of our confused and deeply insecure society, it is leaders with the gift of discernment. This gift presents itself as that rare ability to know and to do the right thing at the right time; or in terms of biblical imagery: to read and interpret the signs of the times, then to act responsibly and appropriately to the challenges they offer. Ignatius of Loyola defined it even more poignantly when he said: discernment is about recognizing and choosing not only the good, but the better.

One of our most celebrated modern Christian leaders who became renowned for his ability to discern, to read the signs of his time and to act accordingly, was the German theologian of the 1930s and early 1940s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. More than most of his contemporaries he was able to foresee certain events with almost prophetic clarity, to fathom their meaning and to predict their outcome. To illustrate: he was the first theologian to note that Germany’s fate during the second world war would eventually be determined by the so called Jewish problem. He was also one of the first who, long before anyone else gave it a thought, predicted that Hitler’s policies meant war. So how does a person attain this ability? Where does it come from?

From his writings it is clear that for Bonhoeffer this ability to discern, that is, to see clearly and act soundly, is founded in good information, in keeping up to date, having an ear to the ground. Discernment relies on trustworthy sources, on following regular news reports, and even more importantly, it develops when people do not shy away from direct exposure to and first hand experience of critical, sensitive issues of the day. For a Christian, however, according to Bonhoeffer, there is always an additional, perhaps deeper more crucial source from which true discernment flows and that is a personal encounter with God’s love and forgiveness as it was revealed in Christ.

Such encounters, Bonhoeffer and Ignatius teach us, usually come through constant prayer and by attending to the movement of the Spirit in one’s own life; they always inspire new, courageous acts of love which in turn bring new insight and knowledge. In Bonhoeffer’s words: “The person who is enlightened by Christ, lives a truly earthly life. He or she is grounded in love, and this love brings insights which few other people see and which inspires to new action. He who loves most, also discerns and sees deepest.”

To an outsider these simple guidelines to acquire discernment may sound overly pious and unrealistic. Even to Christians, this is not an easy assignment or a quick fix. Nevertheless, for the Christian who has honestly, unreservedly tested God’s spirit in faith and has discovered the unique insight and fruits of love, this is the real stuff of life. No wonder that Paul in Phillipians 1:9-11 implores us: “I pray that your love may 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 until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God”.

Can there be anything more important to try, to develop, to experience and eventually to share in our own time, even today?

Carel Anthonissen

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