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How Discernment Is like Thrifting

Julien-Pier Belanger on Unsplash

The smell is unmistakable and hits you as soon as you walk through the door. It’s not exactly unpleasant, but it is distinct: the smell of mothballs and dust, of worn textiles and decaying books. It’s the smell of time and humanity and a hundred thousand different lives assembled in one place.

It’s the smell of the thrift store.

I suppose the eclectic nature of thrift stores could be unsettling, even disorienting, for some people. After all, there’s no predictable supply, no reliable order, no telling what you’ll find or even what you’re looking at. Here, you might find a cut glass candy dish that looks exactly like the one your grandmother had, or a mid-century vinyl footstool that fits perfectly in your mid-century brick ranch, or a metal flashlight that makes you feel like Nancy Drew when you use it.

In many ways, life offers up its dilemmas and choices with about as much predictability as a thrift store offers up used goods. And because we can’t custom order our lives, we must become people who can spot goodness wherever and whenever we encounter it.

Perhaps that’s why in Philippians 4:8 Paul calls us to think about whatever is pure, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable and why he repeats this idea in the verse’s final phrase: “if there is any moral excellence, and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.”

If there is anything, anywhere that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable; whatever you can find that is excellent and praiseworthy; wherever you find it—focus you mind and attention on these things.

Because we can’t custom order our lives, we must become people who can spot goodness wherever and whenever we encounter it.

At the same time, Paul’s call to seek “whatever” and “anything” is not a wholesale embrace of all the world offers; it is a conditioned one. Because quite frankly, a lot of things the world offers are junk, broken beyond repair, and you’d be foolish to take them home.

Like I told my husband recently, the trick to buying clothes from Goodwill is to figure out how to not dress like you buy your clothes from Goodwill, the line between vintage and outdated being a fine one. Successful thrifting really depends on the eye of the purchaser—on whether she has developed an instinct for what’s worth buying and what’s best left on the shelf.

Does she know what is good by simply looking at it? Has she learned discernment?

Good Taste

Beyond calling us to seek goodness, Philippians 4:8 also gives us the principles we need to discern whether something is good in the first place. The virtues of truth, honor, justice, purity, beauty, and praise act as a type of shorthand we can apply to whatever choices we face.

But these principles also develop our “taste” for goodness, simultaneously guiding and shaping us. In other words, pursuing virtue makes us discerning people.

Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky explained this concept, as it relates to reading, in a 1988 lecture he delivered at a book fair in Italy. Speaking to the crowd, he addressed one of their greatest challenges: There are simply too many books and too little time. How can you know what you should read? Brodsky said we must develop the skill to know whether a book is worth reading within a few pages, and we do that by reading poetry.

According to Brodsky, poetry is “the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience.” By reading it, you will learn what good literature looks like in a shorter amount of time. You learn about the importance of detail, word choice, layering, allusion, and anticlimax. And then you can transfer this knowledge to prose, enabling you to decide whether a book is worth continuing or whether you should put it aside.

“All I am trying to do,” he tells his audience, “is to be practical and spare your eyesight and brain cells a lot of useless printed matter.”

By turning our attention to the principles of virtue in Philippians 4:8, Paul is trying to provide a similar approach to navigating the world around us. Just as reading poetry equips us to recognize good literature, pursuing these virtues helps us develop a taste for goodness by changing us and what we desire.

As we seek truthful things, we’re forced to confront our own falsehood. As we pursue justice, we must grapple with our own injustice. And as we search for whatever is lovely, we learn to reject the tawdry and pragmatic for things of eternal worth and beauty.

Soon we’ll be able to spot the difference between what’s good and bad because we are being made good. Soon we’ll be able to make wise decisions because we are becoming wise people. Soon we’ll know what to leave on the shelf and what to take home.

Lost and Found

My home is full of things I’ve gleaned from thrifting. Our kitchen table where we gather to eat. The matching lamps that light our family room. A small corner cabinet that I bought for $3 and painted red—it still makes me happy just to look at it. The dresser in our bedroom and the jewelry box that sits on top of it. The copper kettle on my woodstove. The chair I sit on as I write this. Pictures, art work, records, hats, glassware, books—a world of treasure and curiosity.

I think what I love most about thrifting is that, in some small way, it feels like an act of redemption. David writes in Psalm 113:7 that God “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the trash heap,” which sounds a lot like thrifting to me: something that was no longer wanted, thrown to the side, and deemed of no value is suddenly given new life.

It’s not a perfect metaphor of course, but there’s something there, I think. Not only have my thrift store finds been saved from destruction, they also have been made useful once again. They don’t simply sit in my house—they do what they were created for. They have purpose.

I can’t help but feel a particular affinity to these lost and found objects, these reminders of grace and goodness. And I can’t help but think that the work of cultivating discernment is part of the larger work that God is doing in the world. A work of rescue and redemption, of recovery and restoration. The work of making all things good once again.

Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Hannah Anderson’s new book, All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment (Moody Publishers, 2018). This book was a winner in our 2019 Book Awards; you can also read TGC’s review.

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