Judgment vs. Discernment

Reno Friends Meeting is currently taking a hard look at how we interact with each other. As part of this process, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of discernment in our Meeting life.  Discernment is a process dear to Quaker hearts, and an important tool to figuring out the proper path for both the Meeting and ourselves as individuals. But what does discernment entail, and how does it differ from judgment?

One of the Quaker queries on the topic of personal relationships is: “What barriers keep me from responding openly and lovingly to each person?” In my experience, judgment is one of those barriers.

Judgment often comes from an ego-based place and it tends to have a hard edge to it. When I’m judging, I notice tension in my jaws, tightness in my heart, narrowing of my eyes. It often comes out as criticism of another’s thoughts, actions, beliefs. “I can’t believe she could think that!” “How could he have done that?”  “Who could hold such a belief?” It is about condemnation from a self-elevated place. In this place I have forgotten “judge not lest ye be judged.” I want to change the other to be more like me, because—in that moment, I think I’ve got it all figured out. There is a strong element of righteous indignation that makes me feel superior to whomever or whatever I’m judging.

Judgment is also about force, forcing my opinion on someone else. The other thing I notice about judging is that I’m often judging something in myself that I have projected onto the other person.  “Remove the log in your own eye, before seeking to remove the splinter in your neighbor’s,” Jesus said. If I’m particularly riled up about something, I can be sure it is a reflection of something I’m doing myself that I don’t like.

Discernment is related to judgment, but it comes from a different place. Here’s a good definition I found online: discernment is perceiving without judgment and with the intention of obtaining spiritual direction and understanding. It is about seeing with the eyes of the soul. Discernment seeks the truth from a higher perspective and it is softer than judgment. When I am discerning, I am not tense, my heart is soft and open, I am curious about the other’s thoughts, actions, beliefs. I ask questions and listen for the answers, not to pounce on them in order to correct, but to better understand them. Meanwhile, I’m also checking in with myself, hopefully my Higher Self, and my heart and gut. I’m trying to better understand myself in relation to the other (I’m also seeking the log in my eye). Out of this practice, I may be influenced to change my mind, or to refine or reframe my thinking. I see the other’s way of seeing/being/thinking as equal to my own, not less than. I may also decide that my perspective rings more true to me and works better and that I’m sticking with it. But, I don’t go the extra step of judgment and try to force it on the other. Often this is a place of agreeing to disagree and moving on. It is about mutual respect and empowerment to make different choices and hold different beliefs, and still like each other. It doesn’t mean we go along with something we disagree with in order to please or remain connected to another. Sometimes discernment requires us to withdraw from an activity, group or relationship.

When I feel the hard edge of judgment in my body and hear it in my words and thoughts, I am learning that I need to stop and softly bring my attention to my heart. I like to hold the image of one hand on my heart and one hand on the heart of the other. From this place of compassion, I seek to understand both of us and empower both of us to be in our truths, whatever that may be. I give myself permission to be changed/influenced by the other. I also give myself and the other permission to decide to back away or disengage if that serves Truth. If I decide to disengage, I will do it with loving kindness and not harshness.

Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.)