Guest Column

Edward Donnelly Edward Donnelly pastored Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, before his retirement in 2011. He died in 2023.
01 April, 2004 4 min read

‘Ask! What shall I give you?’ said the Lord to young King Solomon (1 Kings 3:5) and David’s son asked for ‘an understanding heart’ (v. 9). Not the highest gift, nor what his father would have requested (Psalm 27:4), but valuable – shrewdness, common sense, nous, the ability to read people and situations, practical wisdom ‘to judge your people, that I may discern between good and evil’.

And we read, ‘the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing’ (v. 10). Discernment is what too many Christians seem painfully short of.

Why seek an understanding heart?

Solomon’s reasons for wanting it are still valid. His responsibilities were heavy – ‘Your servant is in the midst of … a great people, too numerous to be numbered or counted … who is able to judge this great people of yours?’ (vv. 8,9).

He was aware of personal limitations: ‘I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in’ (v. 7). As the case of the prostitutes’ babies illustrates (vv. 16-28), he had to make decisions about bewilderingly complex issues.

Christian leaders, similarly, discharge significant responsibilities in complicated pastoral situations, conscious of their own inadequacies. How do we know when to compromise, when to stand firm?

How do we discern in a specific case how much is due to sin and how much to ignorance? How do we meet people where they are and bring them to where we want them to be?

Every Christian, in fact, needs understanding – as a parent, in the workplace, in the life of the church – and to realise our need of it is a good beginning. Beware the person with no self-doubts! (Proverbs 28:26).

As Matthew Henry comments: ‘Absalom, who was a fool, wished himself a judge; Solomon, who was a wise man, trembles at the undertaking and suspects his own fitness for it’.

How can we obtain an understanding heart?

One of my theology professors used to begin the college year with a warning about the limits of the curriculum: ‘Gentlemen, we can teach a man Greek, but we can’t teach him gumption’.

It’s true. Some people are endowed with shrewdness while others leave a trail of havoc in their wake – hurt feelings, misunderstandings, blunders. They don’t mean to, it’s just the way they are. But, whatever our native gifts, we can all become more discerning.

How? Ask God for an understanding heart. His offer to Solomon was not, in essence, unique, for we have the promise ‘Ask and it will be given you’ (Matthew 7:7).

James is even more specific: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him’ (James 1:5). We should pray earnestly to our heavenly Father for ever greater measures of discernment, that we might work with people more effectively.

Much ‘common sense’ is provided for us in the Bible, for ‘the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding’ (Proverbs 2:6). The section of Scripture described as ‘Wisdom literature’ is aptly named, and a Christian who regularly absorbs the book of Proverbs, in particular, draws from a treasure-house of practical shrewdness.

Valuable teachers

Experience – our own or that of others – is a valuable teacher for those who are willing to learn from it. Its lessons may be hard – mistakes are made, sufferings endured. But they are uniquely valuable.

Some of the most discerning men or women I have ever met have, at some stage in their past, been broken. And the time of trial has made them wiser.

We learn much, also, by listening. The words translated ‘understanding heart’ mean ‘a heart with skill to listen’. Are you a good listener? The undiscerning rarely are. Bursting to speak themselves, they are too self-absorbed to listen carefully to others.

Zeno, the stoic philosopher, was not a Christian, but neither was he a fool. ‘We have two ears and one mouth’, he said, ‘so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’.

Perhaps the most fruitful path to discernment is a willingness to put yourself in the other person’s place.

This was how Solomon arrived at his brilliant solution in the case of the two babies, one dead and one living. What a difficult judgement he was called upon to make! Unreliable witnesses, conflicting evidence, no clear way of proving which child belonged to which woman.

Until, that is, he stepped imaginatively into the true mother’s place. ‘How would I feel’, he asked himself, ‘if I were the mother of the living baby?’ And he devised a harsh but effective test to discover where the maternal instinct lay.

Another’s place

This is the way towards that understanding heart which enables us to discharge our responsibilities effectively. Husbands, put yourself in your wife’s place as you come home from work. What do you think she wants from you?

Mothers, remember what it was like to be a teenager before you talk to your daughter about clothes or friends.

Pastors, as you make that difficult disciplinary call, pause prayerfully and imagine the feelings of those you are about to visit. Will they be frightened, apathetic, angry, defensive? What do your knowledge of them and your experience tell you?

Preachers, as you prepare your sermon, keep before your eyes that elderly widow, the pressured businessman, the confused teenager – all who will listen to your message. If you were in their place, what sort of sermon would help you?

Put yourself in the other person’s place. This is how to develop discernment. We often call it the Golden Rule: ‘Just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise’ (Luke 6:31).

It is fruitful because it is, in effect, substitution – and substitution is at the heart of eternal reality. It is a healing, redeeming force because it is modelled on the one who once stood in our place – ‘the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).

Edward Donnelly pastored Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, before his retirement in 2011. He died in 2023.
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