The early evening breeze carried a hint of the sea, cooling us as we sat in the last vestiges of the setting Southern California sun. We sipped Terry’s own 2015 vintage Grey Hawk Cellars Syrah. Terry is what you could call a “wine person.” I am not. I’m boorish. My tastes are unrefined.
Before meeting Terry I had only tried wine a few times in college to impress a girl. It came from a box and she wasn’t impressed. But as I sat in Terry’s backyard I thought maybe even I could become a “wine person.” I swirled the lush, full-bodied, night-red syrah and sipped as a hooded oriole chattered and plucked at the nearby vines under the watchful gaze of a Cooper’s hawk. Its bright yellow plumage faded into the gold San Diego sky as it flew off with a grape. Terry poured another glass and explained more about the bottle and how to enjoy it.
Reading Hannah Anderson’s new book, All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment, reminded me of learning how to enjoy wine. Rather than offering a five-step process for becoming a discerning person, Anderson demonstrates what a discerning life looks like through anecdotes and a thorough exegesis of Philippians 4:8. There’s no easy process here. Instead, the book beckons readers to sip and see the hints of God’s glory that fill the world. For Anderson, the discerning person learns how to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable—even when it seems such things are unimaginable.
What Is Discernment, Really?
The book opens with three chapters defining discernment, both in terms of what it is and what it is not. So often “discernment” brings to mind hate-spewing blogs, worried moms lecturing their teenage sons on making better choices, or a small group member’s prayer request to know God’s good and perfect will for their life. But Anderson dispels those notions. She contends that “discernment simply means developing a taste for what’s good,” like enjoying the currant notes in a fine red wine. Anderson argues that discernment is not about reaching a type of doctrinal purity that allows us to decide who is in or out. Neither is it the ability to make good decisions or divining the hidden mind of God. Instead, discernment is developing the ability to, as the psalmist says, taste and see that the Lord is good.
“It’s not enough that a wine should have a great nose and taste delicious,” Terry explained to me. “It has to be ‘correct,’ true to its varietal profile. If I open a cabernet and it tastes like a zinfandel, the wine is a big letdown, even if everyone likes it.”
Discernment is not merely refined personal preference. Becoming a discerning person, like developing good taste, is not a private endeavor for the delight and well-being of the individual, but for the redemption of whole communities. Goodness is based on the objective reality of God and his acting in the world. If something is enjoyable without being true then it cannot be good. Anderson writes, “As humans, we long for truth to be established. We long for the peace that comes from a shared sense of reality. We long to be delivered from our own falsehoods, to live openly and vulnerably with each other. And the only way this can happen is if we do not forsake truth.” Learning how to discover truth gives people the ability to form a shared identity around something agreed upon as good and true.
A Needed Salve
All That’s Good soothes like a chilled sauvignon blanc on a scorching summer day. It refreshes and reminds that there is goodness worth pursuing even when goodness seems impossible to find. Anderson asks, “[In] a world of oppression, toil, and ugliness, why fight against it? Why go through all that work if bad things still happen?” Appealing to a latent form of goodness can seem trite or dismissive in a world marred by the ruin of sin. Yet Anderson writes with honesty that never downplays our shared brokenness and her use of metaphor illustrates her points powerfully. In one turn she likens our world to marble statues manhandled over the course of history like the armless Venus di Milo or the headless Winged Victory of Samothrace. Discernment means learning how to appreciate the artistic excellence despite the mangled form and trusting that the original Artist is restoring his masterpiece.
At a later point, Anderson likens our broken world to a thrift shop with its musky smells, unreliable assortment of products, and chaotic store setups. Making a purchase at the thrift store is an endeavor that requires serious skill “[but] if you stay, if you sort through the mess, you might find yourself coming home with treasure.” Searching for something commendable is not a futile effort, but it is an effort. Becoming a discerning person for Anderson is a serious endeavor that develops a critical skill. We can find good in the world even if the shop windows appear to be filled with only used candles and throwaway romance paperbacks.
I’m not a wine person, but with help, I’m becoming one. Learning to enjoy something that I previously found unenjoyable has only enriched my life. Developing a taste for good enriches our experience of what God has created amidst the difficulty of life.
Though it reads and comforts like a sip of wine for frequent ailments, as Paul advises Timothy, All That’s Good offers no quick cure for the sickness of sin. Rather, Anderson beckons readers to examine closely the world around them for that which is both true and lasting. “[What] ultimately makes something good is not whether it brings us momentary pleasure but whether it brings us eternal pleasure, whether it satisfies both our bodies and our souls.” Our cracked world is full of the goodness of God, Anderson promises, and if we look for that goodness we will drink deeply and be satisfied.
Cover photo by Scott Warman.