Recently my brother-in-law visited my house. He’s a fan of old westerns. So to be sociable I sat with him and watched an old Roy Rogers film. It’s amazing that in this movie, the good guys really did wear white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. It made it easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Almost no one ever wore a grey hat. That would be confusion.
To me, it seemed silly and simplistic. But then I remembered that these movies weren’t made for grown-ups, but children. White hats and black hats made it easy for children to understand. This simple differentiation taught children a necessary lesson—how to tell good from bad. We sometimes forget in our grown-up world that this doesn’t come naturally to us. Stories with heroes and villains are education of the most basic kind—the teach us childhood discernment.
“Discernment” comes from a word meaning to separate or divide. Discernment spurs us to action–either run from something or someone or towards it. It calls us to avoid or trust. If you see fire, stay away. Arsenic is a poison, don’t drink it. Go to church, it’s good for you. Stay away from drugs, they’re bad for you. That’s all you need to know when you are a child. Know the white hats from the black hats, and if you have any doubt about it, ask your parents, your teacher, or your preacher.
Some people never outgrow childish discernment. For their whole lives, they only see the world as white hats and black hats—no grey hats. To be sure, there are times when that is all we need to know. Roy Rogers westerns were most popular in the Forties and Fifties when America faced serious in the twin ideologies of Fascism and Communism. These dangers were real. To defend against it the schools, churches and governments promoted the image of a black-and-white world. Americans were the good guys. Communists and Nazis were the bad guys. Stay away from Communists and Nazis and support God and country. It was a simple, easily understood world where only the simplest discernment was necessary. Childish discernment was enough. It also didn’t take much thinking to know which was which.
Once we get used to childish discernment, it gets hard to give it up. The world is much simpler with white and black hats. In the churches of my youth, it was pretty easy to discern good from bad ideas. Conservatives were always good. Liberals were always bad. Christians were good. Atheists and relativists were bad. Discernment is easy– look at the hats!
But if we keep growing, we have to put aside childish ways–including childish discernment. For grown-ups, complete separation from people with different ideologies, races, or moral standards doesn’t work. Everyone wears grey hats. People can be good and bad, depending on the situation. Preachers and teachers may do bad things. Humanist and atheists will sometimes do the right thing. We can’t put a label on a person and know all about them.
As adults, we still need discernment–just not childish discernment.
Adult discernment isn’t about separating from people so much as from attitudes, actions, and ideas. People in our own family may misbehave, but we can’t avoid them, even if we want to. A co-worker who shares our office could be a crazy liberal or a Klansman, but we still must work together. We have to be part of the world around us, even when we don’t agree with it.
The prophets of the Bible practiced mature discernment in hostile environments. Daniel was stuck in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court, which was rife with intrigue and immorality. Yet he supported his king and thrived in a hostile workplace. Queen Esther was stuck in the king of Persia’s harem, yet she kept her moral compass. Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court and came out fine. They couldn’t live separate from their world, and neither can we. Discernment becomes a matter of learning to be in the world, but not of the world.
Mature discernment requires tolerance and boundaries. We have to be willing to tolerate the sins of others, without judgment, condescension or contempt. We can’t go around with our noses in the air or a “holier-than-thou” attitude. We have to allow people to follow their consciences and to what they believe to be right, even when we think they are wrong We have to look for things in non-believers that are good and decent and praiseworthy, and not just focus on the things they do wrong. If we disapprove the gay lifestyle (and I do!) we can still be friends with gays and recognize what is praiseworthy in them. When we deal with non-Christians, we are allowed to have relationships not based on evangelism and conversion. The image of God, and therefore some of His goodness, is in them, and if we look we can still see His image in all people.
At the same time, we must also have boundaries. Nothing says we have to adopt the lifestyle of others. We are free to make our own choices about what we do, watch, and encourage. For the Christian, God comes first, and His opinion matters more than our peers. We don’t have to go along with the crowd, either at church or in the office. We are free to exercise personal integrity. The stronger our sense of connection with God, the more we can interact with others without fear of pollution. If we practice discernment we can still live in this world and keep ourselves pure for God.
But if we do live in the world, there’s one more thing we need to avoid, and that is diagnosis.
Diagnosis means “to know thoroughly.” Diagnosis is something that doctors or other experts do when they are solving a problem. Because of their training and experience, we permit doctors to know us thoroughly, to poke and prod inside of us, and discover how we can get better. They do this by permission, based on their expertise. We do not give this permission to everyone, but only to experts.
We Christians tend to diagnose instead of discern right from wrong. Everyone needs to discern, but only experts should diagnose.
Let’s say you have the sniffles. You visit your mother and she says “I can tell you have the flu. Here, take these pills the doctor gave me when I had the flu last week!” You would be a fool if you do! Your mother may love you, but she’s not a doctor. She is only guessing you have the flu, and assuming the pills the doctor gave her will work on you. She has made the mistake of diagnosing your condition without any expertise. Because of her love for you, she wants to make you better; but instead of encouraging you do go to the doctor, she plays doctor.
For many Christians it is not enough to live in the world–we want to fix it. Instead of leading people to the Great Physician, we decide to become physicians ourselves, taking things we read (or more often misread) from the Bible, combining it with folk wisdom, and set out to fix others. We become busybodies in peoples’ lives, meddling with things we do not understand. We take the pearls we cherish and give them to swine in the hopes that they will become less like barn animals. This never works.
Instead of trying to tell the people around you how to live, take their problems to God. Talk to God about people before you talk to people about God. Don’t try to figure out what is wrong with your friends and relatives, simply love them and pray for them. Take them to the Great Physician, and ask Him to make them well.
The color of the hat doesn’t matter so much as the conduct of the heart. A person can change their hats, but only God can change the heart. So quit judging people on trivialities, but live with them in tolerance and lift them before God. You’ll be amazed what He can do.