Discernment without Cynicism

In today’s world, it is a challenge to see clearly and judge between good and evil or the true from the false, while remaining hopeful and optimistic. It is easy to become cynical, discouraged, and feel hopeless.

Cynicism

The term cynic originated with an ancient Greek philosopher named Cynic who held virtue to be good. He became cynical of the rest of society and the material interests he saw. “Cynical” by definition implies a belief that people are motivated only by selfishness. It causes one to question the sincerity of people’s motives or actions. It implies disbelief in human goodness.

There is evil in our world – and people who have been corrupted by it. So many lies being spread that it is hard to know what is true. There are some who are simply misled, and may or may not be forceful in promoting falsehoods. Others have in effect “sold their souls” and embraced lies and evil. They manipulate and use others for their selfish purposes. We do need to be able to recognize such people and see them for what they are- not simply to condemn them, but to prevent them from gaining power that could cause harm to others and to our common freedoms. Too many people are easily deceived and mislead by such people, largely because they are able to present an acceptable face to the world, and often are very convincing.

I realize looking back that I have had a tendency to be cynical. Somehow it seems easy for me to see potential deception. I can be skeptical and doubt things that others might be more accepting of. In most instances I felt that I was looking at situations and people realistically.

Some people have a natural tendency to see good in people and I admit having assumed some of them were naive when I saw faults that they seemed to be oblivious to. I have gradually come to admire such people and seek to have more positive feelings and impressions of others.

There is a clear distinction to be made between the goodness or badness of people and the goodness or evil of their actions or words. The challenge is to learn to see the inherent goodness in individuals, while being able to discern truth or falsehoods in teachings, ideas, and behaviors.

Maybe it is best to seek first to see good in people and assume the best of motives – to start with the assumption that all are trying their best to do good, though they may have limited or wrong information or faulty perception which leads them to make errors in judgement. Good people convinced of false teachings are often very sincere, though misguided. We judge other’s motives from our own perspective. We see only their outward behaviors, but not their hearts or character.

Discernment

This does not mean we should automatically accept or condone false ideas, inappropriate behavior or intentional wrongdoing. We do need discernment to recognize false ideas and to protect us from those who would seek to lead us astray. If we mis-judge and trust those whose intent is self-serving or manipulative, we can actually be harmed.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught “Judge not that ye be not judged” and went on to talk about those who focus on removing another’s faults, while they have more glaring ones themselves that they do not see. (Matthew 7:1-5) I find it interesting that later in the sermon he says some things that might seem contradictory to that: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither case ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” (Matthew 7:6); and “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) This counsel requires judgement – to discern to whom it would not be appropriate to share spiritual things, and whom to trust to lead us right. We are reminded in Malachi 3:18 to “discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth not God”. Jesus told us how: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Is there a way to be non-judgmental of individuals – to give them the benefit of the doubt as being inherently good – while discerning the hardness or willingness of their hearts to accept good things and to act accordingly? Can we condemn sin and evil, while loving sinners? Can we recognize evil in ideas and actions while still viewing individuals as valued and loved children of God? Does this ability to discern have as much or more to do with our own righteousness and goodness as with the character of others?

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