book love

Learning the Art of Discernment

{BOOK REVIEW}

“Are you pursuing what’s safe… or what’s good?”

This question is written in bold letters on the back cover of Hannah Anderson’s book All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment. At first, it seems a bit convoluted or technical. Safe? Good? Does it matter?

As it turns out, if we’re talking about being people of discernment, yes, it does matter.

Discernment is something we can all use more of. I know I can and that’s what attracted me to the book. I like the encouragement given on the book’s back cover: “What if [God] has a plan to restore the goodness of the world? What if you’re part of that plan? In All That’s Good, Hannah Anderson invites you to embrace discernment as part of God’s work of redemption. By learning to see the world as He sees it–in all its brokenness and beauty–you’ll learn to navigate it with confidence and hope.”

How inspiring to realize that God has a plan to help us see more clearly and desires to help sharpen our vision. It’s a particularly hope-filled reminder amid the fear and uncertainty of a pandemic world.

Although the subject of discernment interested me, I’ll be honest: it took me a while to work my way through this book. There are some beautiful insights in it, but it’s not light reading. Having said that, I don’t typically fly through any books of this type, so please don’t let that stop you from picking up a copy for yourself. The author does a thorough job of covering the subject and sharing relatable comparisons from daily life.

The book is divided into three parts, with individual chapters in Part Two covering each of the qualities listed in Philippians 4:8: (whatever is) true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. A 15-page Benediction for further study is included at the back.

INFORMATION VERSUS DISCERNMENT

At first glance, discernment may appear to be a talent or gift, perhaps especially for those in authority.

When I think of discernment, I think of the imagery in Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

Is it possible for the average person to learn to divide joint from marrow, spiritually speaking?

All That’s Good answers this question by giving us average folks an awareness of not only what discernment is and where it’s needed, but what it looks like in everyday life. As Hannah succinctly states, “the goal of discernment is not to simply avoid the evil in this life; it is to learn what is good so that we might embrace and enjoy it.”

In the first chapter, Hannah discusses the plethora of opinions, facts, and ideas we must sort through every day and points out that we may encounter more information in a single day than our grandparents did in a lifetime. Constantly figuring out what’s important and what’s not is exhausting.

Like it or not, this is the world we live in — a world chock full of information. Although we may wish to, we can’t go back to a simpler time. The only solution is to become people who can make wise decisions within the context of our world. We must be people who understand how information differs from wisdom.

All That’s Good encourages us to weigh the flood of information against Biblical standards, much like King Solomon did in 1 Kings 3:9 when He asked the Lord, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil.”

DISCERNMENT IN AN AGE OF TECHNOLOGY

We live in a world where information is increasingly tailored to suit our preferences. In All That’s Good, Hannah quotes author Eli Pariser who refers to this tailored information as “filter bubbles.” She continues, “Unique to the digital age, [filter] bubbles are informational comfort zones created when algorithms craft our online experience to suit us. By collecting information about our likes and dislikes–where we live, what we buy, what we search for–social media platforms and search engines offer, as Pariser puts it, “a unique universe of information for each of us.”

These “filter bubbles” essentially reinforce our already established preferences and opinions while simultaneously crowding out views we find uncomfortable or challenging.

Of course, this online experience is engineered to drive sales and increase usage, not provide a safe or mind-broadening virtual world. Digital “filter bubbles” certainly are not created to promote godly wisdom.

We need discernment to keep us from veering off course. Discernment must become the spiritual ‘filter bubble’ – based on God’s will, God’s word, and His plan for us – that reinforces His will, not our own preferences, and crowds out the surrounding noise and distractions.

And just how do we get this necessary discernment? In this age of information, we are accustomed to instant answers at the touch of a button or the swipe of a screen.

However, God’s will for our individual lives isn’t usually found neatly summed up in blog posts, lists, or search engine results.

Likewise, discernment is not learned in a webinar or thirty-day course. Our ability to discern is sharpened with use, as we learn to hold everything up to the light of God’s word and His unchanging wisdom.

WEIGHING OUR THOUGHTS AGAINST THE WISDOM OF PHILIPPIANS 4:8

To aid us in our search for goodness, God has given us timeless guidance through the words of Philippians 4:8-9. All That’s Good includes a chapter on each of the six virtues listed in this verse. Following are the points I particularly enjoyed.

In the chapter “Whatever is True”, Hannah unpacks the concept that we not only have too much information in today’s world but also too little shared reality. Since we don’t agree on who is an expert, we build our own version of reality without worrying whether or not anyone shares it with us. “Surrounded by a mass of people, we feel unloved and misunderstood, for the simple fact that we’ve created millions of worlds with a population of one.”

However, God has designed us to need the combined wisdom of others. Instead of blindly creating our own version of reality, Philippians 4:8 instructs us to first seek “whatever is true.”

All That’s Good aptly points out that true wisdom comes not from our own knowledge but from God, who opens the “eyes of [our] understanding.”

The author also draws attention to “image crafting” which she describes as “projecting a persona that appeals to our particular community.” When pursuing honorable things, we must find value in something besides other’s opinions. If we don’t, we run the risk of basing our actions on what we believe others perceive to be good, instead of whether or not God calls it good.

Another potential roadblock to discernment is the human tendency to develop a utilitarian mindset that allows money and productivity to determine worth. It leaves little room for whatever is lovely.

Hannah shares this striking thought, “Such a mindset could potentially arrive in heaven and wonder why God spent so much money on streets of gold when asphalt would have done just as well.” Indeed, the same God who simultaneously controls planets, organizes seasonal shifts, and directs the lives of millions–assuredly the most talented and busiest manager, has made space for lovely things: sunsets, tiny flowers, the intricacy of snowflakes.

Another particularly compelling observation the author makes is about our personal contribution to our surrounding culture.

She writes, “The stories we find important, the jokes we tell, the things we feel are essential to get off our chest–all of these things reveal our deeper motives, fears, and beliefs. And whether we share it on Facebook or over a cup of coffee, every one of us adds to and shapes the culture around us, the culture that we then live in. […] If we spend our days sharing trivialities, life will be trivial. If we spend our days focused on what we fear, life will be filled with anxiety. If however, we spend our days talking about good, worthy, glorious things, there is the strong likelihood that our lives will be filled with good, worthy, glorious things.”

Armed with this realization, we can better understand the command to think on ‘whatever is commendable’. It leaves us no choice but to take responsibility for the part we, often unwittingly, play in shaping the world around us.

DEVELOPING AN ABUNDANCE MINDSET

Another wise observation Hannah makes is from the story of Adam and Eve’s fall. She notes that besides disobeying God’s command, Adam and Eve also rejected everything God had already provided, deciding an entire world of God’s goodness was somehow not good enough.

Saying no to good things is hard. It was hard for Adam and Eve and it’s hard for us. If, however, we trust God to guide us to the best things for our lives, we won’t worry about passing up some good things. We will learn to echo Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 6:12 which “is not whether something is objectively good or not, but whether it is good for him–whether it furthers the work God is doing in his life or hinders it.”

I particularly love the encouragement the author shares by encouraging us to cultivate “a mindset of abundance, remembering that God is the giver of all good gifts.” Passing up a good opportunity doesn’t mean God’s allotted good opportunities for me are depleted.

An abundance mindset opens the door to freedom. We no longer have to hold on, miser-like, to our blessings and opportunities. With faith in God’s goodness, we know that the blessings we enjoy now are only a drop in the bucket of His limitless care and provision.

USING DISCERNMENT FOR THE COMMON GOOD OF ALL

The final chapter goes on to explain God’s beautiful plan for unity among believers, His marvelous design in creating each of His children uniquely, and how we are better together.

The author also wisely points out potential problem areas. One we tend to overlook when dealing with others is this: “We can see how other people are influenced. When they offer an opinion, we think to ourselves: Well, of course, you think that. Just look where you get your news. Look at what church you go to. Look at your family background… But when we have an opinion, somehow we believe we reached it independently, thorough nothing but sheer, unassailable logic.” In truth, our own circumstances influence our choices similarly.

As we work together with those around us, we must also use discernment to understand if we are conforming to expectations because we believe they are right or because we’re afraid of jeopardizing our acceptance.

CONCLUSION

Instead of leaping to conclusions, blindly conforming, or grabbing each opportunity that comes along, discernment causes us to stop, take a step back and evaluate our thoughts and ideas through Scripture and wisdom.

The subject of discernment is bigger and yet simpler, perhaps, than I first imagined. Although I didn’t find this book a particularly quick read, I appreciate the wisdom the author shared. If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read the book and share your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I received a free copy of All That’s Good in exchange for an honest review.

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