To discern means to have the ability to see differences

Source: http://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/k/k-r-i-n-om.html

To discern

— Means to have the ability to appreciate differences —

Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The verb κρινω (krino) means to separate in the sense of to distinguish; to have the ability to see differences and particularly to use that ability and express it as an opinion, judgment or assessment: to discern or discriminate, both in an external sense (to distinguish one thing from another thing) as internal (to distinguish and recognize different parts of one thing).

Our verb comes from an ancient proto-Indo-European root krei-, meaning to separate, sift or sieve. This same ancient root also spawned the Latin verb cerno, and thus in turn the English verb "to discern," and the nouns "critic," "crisis" and "crime" (and most likely also "crumb"; not to mention the acronym CERN, the double-hilarious name of Europe's most prominent particle laboratory).

But crucially, where in English the verb "to judge" seems to emphasize the final verdict — and would even describe a careless flash-decision based on disinterest, bias or personal appetites — and the right to judge stems from formal authority rather than anything else, the Greek verb κρινω (krino) emphasizes the entire process that leads up to an ultimate and carefully considered complete assessment of the thing so painstakingly examined by someone intimately knowledgeable of the issues at hand.

In English, the emphasis lies on condemnation and a separation between judge and the thing judged. In Greek the emphasis lies on recognition and the judge's approach of the thing judged. The difference between the English and Greek verbs is demonstrated by an expanded version of our verb, namely the verb αποκρινομαι (apokrinomai), which is the common Greek verb for to answer, to reply or respond (see below).

Our verb is used 115 times, see full concordance.

Sift'em like wheat

Our verb κρινω (krino), to discern, assess or examine, ultimately means to sieve, and the significance of this is demonstrated by imagery such as used in Jesus' observation that satan had demanded to "sift" Simon Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31). This curious expression is rarely explained beyond the generous suggestion that satan was trying to find something wrong with Peter. But it actually appears that Jesus suggested that satan was trying to figure out who Peter and colleagues were and what it was that made them so special — perhaps somewhat in parallel with what Paul ascribes to the whole of creation that "eagerly awaits the identification of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19). It may go against satan's classical star status, but the Bible quite clearly maintains that satan is unable to physically reach the sons of God, so really all satan sees is people disappearing (Ephesians 6:16, Acts 26:18, Romans 16:20, 2 Corinthians 2:15).

The verb used in this particular scene is not our verb κρινω (krino) but rather its somewhat equivalent: σινιαζω (sinazo), which literally means to sieve. Since this verb looks a bit like our English word "sin," it may actually have helped to form the modern Christian definition of sin, namely a bad thing for which one will be condemned. Our English word "sin" is thought to derive from an ancient root for "to be" (compare the Dutch verb zijn and the German sein); supposedly as in the accusatory exclamation: "he's the one!". This in turn suggests that "sin" is a projected quality rather than an inherent or absolute one — the verb διαβαλλω diaballo, after all, means to accuse; hence diabolos or devil, meaning accuser.

The original concept of sin, however, comes from the verb חטא (hata), meaning to miss a target or way. "Sin" is not being what you are designed to be, what would fulfill you and make you happy, productive and useful. "Sin" is not achieving what you could achieve, i.e. training to be a ballerina when your gut tells you to be a rock star, or trying to be a squirrel when your genome is that of an elephant, or watching inane soaps all day while the world out there is desperate for your contribution. That means that in the Biblical sense "sin" comes when something (including yourself) is not properly recognized and applied. And that in turn means that the "final judgment" (1 Peter 4:6) or even the "judging of angels" (1 Corinthians 6:3) that the Bible so ominously speaks of, has nothing to do with court proceedings and condemnation but everything with having such a full and complete knowledge of creation (1 Corinthians 6:2) that you even know what to do with yourself, or with an angel when one shows up (Hebrews 13:2).

This verb σινιαζω (sinazo) comes from the noun σινιον (sinion), a sieve, which in turn has to do with the adjective σεννιον (sennion), winnowing, from σινιαζω (siniazo), to winnow (the noun σινις, sinis, describes a criminal plunderer). All this sheds additional light on statements like "His winnowing fork is in His hand" (Luke 3:17), although the word used here for "winnowing fork" is actually πτυον, ptuon, which comes from the verb πτυω, (ptuo), meaning to spit; hence "what comes out of his mouth makes him 'unclean'" (Matthew 15:11) and "they spat in His face" (Matthew 26:67), which are all references to the act of forming and expressing judgmental opinions.

The benefit of loving your enemies

In the classics our verb κρινω (krino) is used in the broad sense of to distinguish or separate. Hence it could be used in the sense of to select or choose, and from there it came to denote the picking of one side of a dispute, and hence to judge in a legal sense (Acts 3:13), or to bring someone into a court to be tried in a formal sense (Matthew 5:40). Our verb may be used in the sense of explaining or expounding something (Luke 7:43, 1 Corinthians 10:15), that is: to scrutinize something and find relations with established things, in order to compare or equate the examined thing with the familiar things.

The key to all this is that in order to execute this verb, one first needs to establish a standard. The most common standard by which humanity judges is of course one's own appetite and leanings, which in turn evolved into social norms and secondarily one's critical eye trained on the finding of rudeness and vulgarities. But as hallowed as these manners are, they're really nothing more than elaborate secret passwords to identify compliant familiars from contraries and foreign brutes and the likes.

In more advanced societies people will routinely defend psycho-diversity rather than any particular (their own) position, but this demonstrates more than mere tolerance. In the last few decades, much has been learned about mankind's innate confirmation bias and inattentional blindness, which causes a tendency to prefer what is already believed and even erase all else from conscious view. We also know that every position can only exists within a much larger sphere of diversity — human positions are like animals in the biosphere; you need all of them for any of them to exist (or, dare we say?: evolve). And that means that advocating diversity substitutes natural appetite (or religion) for a much more fundamental benefit.

Not intelligence but the eagerness to defend one's opponent's right to oppose marks man's transcendence of the animal realm. Animals go after what they want; enlightened people love their enemies (Matthew 5:44). And the stage upon which enemies can exist together, fully functioning and with mutual benefit, is that of convention. In other words: in order to disagree with someone, first a common language must be mastered (people who speak only English can't disagree with, or learn from, people who speak no English). Only within a common language, differences can become sources of great strength and joy. Take laughter, for instance. Human laughter is biologically identical to expressions of fear and alarm in other mammals and is triggered by the recognition of something uncommon. But where in the animal world something different equals a stranger and thus a potential danger, in the world of human convention, something strange is a jolly good hoot.

The common language in which mankind can celebrate and utilize all its differences is the same as the common language in which nature produces all its differences. And this is why enlightened people refer to the common laws of nature rather than to their own specific leanings and learnings (1 Kings 4:33-34, Romans 1:20, 1 Corinthians 11:13-14, and of course the whole of Psalm 19, which should be chiseled in stone over CERN's main entrance).

Sigourney in the mist

Our English verb "to judge" stems from the Latin noun ius, meaning that what is binding; a law or duty, and it's unfortunate that our English verb "to judge" has assumed a meaning of "to find guilty" or "to condemn." The Greek verb really only describes the close comparison of two entities in order to find out how similar they are (to try or test: Psalm 26:2, 139:23). Sometimes dissimilarity is preferred (when one distinguishes a juicy red apply from green leaves) and other times similarity is (when one searches for a mate, or behaves according to a social code). But, crucially, in order to test whether something is similar to something else, a very intimate familiarity of both is needed (John 7:24, 7:51, 8:15-16).

When Jesus says, "Judge not lest you be judged, because with the measure you measure you will be measured" (Matthew 7:1-2), He is not only saying "don't condemn or you will be condemned" but rather a more general "you are looked at with your own eyes". This has not so much to do with properly evaluating the goings on (which is a sure sign of prudence; 1 Corinthians 15:33), but rather with mankind's inability to properly recognize something that is not also a part of one's own mind (Romans 2:1). In other words: if you can check out, you will check out, and you will be checked out.

When people look at you, they see the same thing you do when you look at the world. A judgment on someone else is a judgment on yourself, because you can not recognize what is also not part of you, and what you bring up in conversation comes from no place but your own heart. And that means that if you want to get to know someone, listen to what they say about others. If you want to know yourself, study what you notice about the people you meet.

Healing the world from its obvious infestation with careless, thoughtless and brainless clowns begins, therefore, where we stop seeing other people as careless, thoughtless and brainless clowns. Or as someone once wisely advised: just think of them as gorillas in the mist and you're that lady from Aliens. We can't control what we feel, but we can control what we have feelings about, simply because the things we focus on are the things we'll grow feelings for. Or in the words of Paul, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things" (Philippians 4:8). And: "Be an expert in what is good and oblivious to what is bad" (Romans 16:19). Said even more differently: truly interesting and careful and thoughtful people live in a world full of interesting and careful and thoughtful people; true treasures sees treasure everywhere.

The enemy identified

When a person becomes disproportionally angry with someone else, it's often because they recognize in the other person a sign of something against which they themselves fight the bloodiest inner fight. They mean to "work on themselves" but in fact turn themselves into the meanest misers around. Jesus, of course, never preached the kind of political compliance and self-mortification his most miserable followers embraced. Jesus thought love across the board: love for oneself and love for the other guy, and that clarity of conscience comes from defense rather than offense (Romans 14:5, Isaiah 58:9-10, Hebrews 7:25, and of course John 12:47-48).

If one is as honest as glass, one does not recognize a cheat even if that cheat is performing his dastardly deeds right under one's nose. That's why so many of us get duped, and also why it takes a thief to catch a thief. It's also why noticing a speck in a brother's eye demonstrates you have a four-by-four sticking out of your forehead (Matthew 7:3-5), why someone who recognizes a prophet gets the reward of a prophet: simply because only a prophet can recognize a prophet (Matthew 10:41), and why calling someone a "stupid fool" says more about you than about him (Matthew 5:22). We are what we recognize, which is why only the divine can see God (John 1:18, 1 John 4:12).

This may sound like rhetorical mumbo jumbo, but it's in fact tapping into a massively important natural law: if there are no ways to establish a breach in symmetry (which is a fancy way of saying: a difference somewhere), there is no breach in symmetry (there is no difference anywhere). And the opposite works as well: as soon as a way to detect a breach in symmetry arises, a breach in symmetry arises with it. It's how the universe got its four natural forces (read our riveting article on the physics of this).

But the bottom line is that where our English verb "to judge" implies a divergence, the Greek verb κρινω (krino) in its New Testament context implies a convergence. Our English verb implies the finding of fault and sending the bearer away; our Greek verb implies the finding of a quality that is shared with the bearer.

Our verb κρινω (krino) yields the following derivations and compounds:

  • Together with the preposition ανα (ana), meaning on or upon, and which serves in this case as an empathic: the verb ανακρινω (anakrino), meaning to carefully examine. This verb is used 16 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
    • The noun ανακρισις (anakrisis), meaning a close examination (Acts 25:26 only).
  • As mentioned above: together with the preposition απο (apo), meaning from, because of, or due to: the verb αποκρινομαι (apokrinomai), which literally means "to discern because of something else" or "to make separate in consequence of the previous". It's the common Greek verb for to answer or reply: to state one's opinion in response to what someone else just said. It occurs 249 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it in turn come:
    • Together with the preposition αντι (anti), meaning over or against: the verb ανταποκρινομαι (antapokrinomai), meaning to answer against, or to provide a counter-argument (Luke 14:6 and Romans 9:20 only).
    • The noun αποκριμα (apokrima), meaning an answer; not the meaningful content (see next) but the reaction. This is also a legal term, denoting sentence or ruling, whether positive or negative (2 Corinthians 1:9 only).
    • The noun αποκρισις (apokrisis), meaning an answer; the content of what one replies. This word occurs 4 times; see full concordance.
  • Together with the preposition δια (dia), meaning through: the verb διακρινω (diakrino), literally meaning to through-and-through examine or rather to split down the middle and establish a difference where there may not have been one before or even necessarily belongs: to divide or to be divided, and in that sense to waver or be uncertain. But note that this word does not simply mean "to doubt" but rather "to fret"; to overly worry whether something is going right or whether folks (including oneself) are behaving properly. This nauseating attitude comes from being a slave to law, and is the polar opposite of the steadfastness that comes from the liberty in Christ (Matthew 6:25-34, Romans 8:1, Galatians 5:1).
    In the classics this verb is used for the parting of combatants, the parting of one's hair or to describe the condition of being divorced. In rare occasions it describes the setting apart of a holy thing or the appreciation of one's specialness (1 Corinthians 11:29-31). In the New Testament this verb often comes down to pedantic nitpicking or questioning a simple order or obvious truth. It's used in the sense of to frantically examine out of a sense of unwarranted scruples (Mark 11:23, Jude 1:22), an inability to swiftly comprehend the obvious (Matthew 16:3), or a desire to deliberately frustrate (Acts 11:2). It's the energy-draining quality Jesus famously ascribed to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:24), and which Peter used to describe what God typically didn't do to hypothetically separate Jews from gentiles (Acts 15:9). It occurs 19 times, see full concordance, and from it comes:
    • Together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning without: the adjective αδιακριτος (adiakritos), meaning not-nitpicking. It only occurs in James 3:17, where it is used as a substantive: don't be a nitpicker.
    • The noun διακρισις (diakrisis), meaning fretfulness or a nitpicking. This word is used only three times; in Romans 14:1 it describes behavior to be avoided, but in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and Hebrews 5:14 it describes not a pedantic but most virtuous ability to very thoroughly discern and keep separated.
  • Together with the preposition εν (en), meaning in, on, at: the verb εγκρινω (egkrino), meaning to reckon in or acknowledge as part of (2 Corinthians 10:12 only).
  • Together with the otherwise unused noun ειλη (heile), which describes the warmth of the sun's shine (the Greek word for sun is ηλιος, helios): the remarkable adjective ειλικρινης (eilikrines), which appears to be a term from metallurgy meaning unmixed, pure and without alloy. This word probably came about from the observation that heat separates contaminations from liquid metal (because of differing densities), and this word expresses a purity-as-if-made-by-the-sun. It's a word like "thunder-struck" or "crystal-clear" (or even more closely alike the German sonnenklar) in that it describes a proverbial effect of a natural extreme. It additionally brings to mind the familiar Hebrew phrase הללו־יה (Hallelujah: shine with Yah). This marvelous adjective is used only in Philippians 1:10 and 2 Peter 3:1, but from it in turn derives:
    • The noun ειλικρινεια (eilikrineia), meaning sun-clearness: purity without secondary motives, fully focused and wholly determined, with calm clarity and perfect hope (1 Corinthians 5:8, 2 Corinthians 1:12 and 2:17 only).
  • Together with the preposition επι (epi), meaning on or upon: the verb επικρινω (epikrino), which describes the making of a decision by an authority, concerning a matter that he resides over (Luke 23:24 only).
  • Together with the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down from, down upon: the verb κατακρινω (katakrino), meaning to judge against, to condemn. This verb is used 18 times, see full concordance, and from it derives:
    • Again together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning without: the adjective ακατακριτος (akatakritos), meaning without condemnation, un-condemned (Acts 16:37 and 22:25 only).
    • Together with the familiar pronoun αυτος (autos), meaning "self": the adjective αυτοκατακριτος (autokatakritos), meaning self-condemned or self-condemning (Titus 3:11 only).
    • The noun κατακριμα (katakrima), meaning judgment against; a condemnatory verdict, a condemnation (Romans 5:16, 5:18 and 8:1 only).
    • The noun κατακρισις (katakrisis), also meaning judgment against, but the action of doing it (a condemning) rather than the actual condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:9 and 7:3 only).
  • The noun κριμα (krima), meaning a judgment (comparable to but very much differing from the next noun, κρισις, krisis). It's the source of our English word "crime," and, as everybody knows, a crime is not a violation of the law but a declaration of such. A crime is a judgment, and one is only a criminal (i.e. someone who's been found to have committed a crime) when someone has been judged to be one. But it should be noted that this noun's parent verb describes a general discerning, and our noun does not necessarily mean a negative ruling or condemnation (that would be expressed by the noun κατακριμα, katakrima, see above).
    Our noun κριμα (krima) rather means assessment, reckoning or evaluation (Romans 11:33, Revelation 20:4), and in a formal sense, a hearing or investigation (1 Corinthians 6:7). It may perhaps spoil the fun of some, but in Matthew 23:14, Jesus didn't foretell the scribes a "greater damnation" (as generously offered by the King James) but rather a broad critical review by the very audience they themselves pressed so hard into paying attention (see James 3:1). In Luke 24:20 occurs the term krima-of-death, which suggests that death was a condition one was found to be in rather than sent into. These words appear to suggest that to the Jewish mindset, death was not something that followed execution but rather a condition (death-to-society) one was discovered to exist in, and which necessitated execution as a matter of housekeeping (Ephesians 2:1; compare Deuteronomy 23:12-14 with Romans 6:4-7). Our noun is used 28 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
  • The noun κρισις (krisis), also meaning a judgment (comparable to but very much differing from the previous noun, κριμα, krima). It's the source of our English word "crisis," and denotes the action of the verb: the crunching of the cerebral gears in order to come up with a position of ruling. But note that this noun too does not necessarily describe the journey toward a typically negative ruling (that would be covered by the noun κατακρισις, katakrisis, treated above). Our noun rather means assessment or scrutiny, in the sense of the act of assessing or discerning (Matthew 12:20, John 5:30, 7:24). Back when the church still felt it needed to scare its flock into submission, this word was often misrepresented; something a modern church doesn't do anymore. Of course, if one has something to hide then an audit can be quite unnerving (Jude 1:15), but if one doesn't, then such an audit is like love-making; an excellent way to get to know each other better and live happily ever after (1 John 4:17, and of course Matthew 7:12). Our noun is used 48 times; see full concordance.
  • The noun κριτης (krites), meaning a judge: someone whose job it is to formally discern between parties and sort things out. Judges are often depicted to be in the habit of condemning people, but since there are always two parties, a judge does precisely as much condemning as acquitting; it's ultimately the job of the judge to review the facts of a dispute and to tell the guilty guy apart from the innocent one. This noun is used 17 times, see full concordance, and from it derive:
    • The noun κριτηριον (kriterion), meaning "a means for judging" (hence our English word "criterion"). It covers whatever standards (rules, demands) a judge can try a situation or performance to, but in the classics our word is also often used to describe one's senses and mental faculties (a good hearing and keen mind are certainly criteria for a fair ruling). On occasion, our word may denote the whole judicial circus, or even a judge-like person himself. Our word occurs in 1 Corinthians 6:2, 6:4 and James 2:6 only.
    • The adjective κριτικος (kritikos), meaning judgematical or "characterized by good practical judgment" (hence our words "critical" and "critic"). In the New Testament it occurs only in the bafflingly powerful Hebrews 4:12.
  • Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the magnificent verb συγκρινω (sugkrino), meaning to compare. This verb describes the joining of things that have been assessed as going well together. In order to properly execute this verb, one would have to become infinitely familiar with many different elements, and have the mastery to coach them toward a symbiotic union (1 Corinthians 2:13). But folks that merely mush more of the same together into, well, more of the same, are not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12). This wonderful verb is used only three times in these two verses.
  • Together with the preposition υπο (hupo), meaning under or beneath: the verb υποκρινομαι (hupokrinomai), which describes behaving in such a manner as to cover one's true intent and motivations, so that these can't be discerned. This verb means to feign or pretend, and is in the classics also used for dramatic acting (whether on or off stage). In the New Testament it is used in Luke 20:20 only, but from it in turn derive:
    • Again together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning without: the adjective ανυποκριτος (anupokritos), meaning unfeigned; without pretence. This adjective is used 6 times; see full concordance.
    • Again together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the verb συνυποκρινομαι (sunupokrinomai), meaning to feign jointly. This verb occurs only once, in Galatians 2:13, where its passive voice suggests that the Jews became somewhat involuntarily overtaken by Peter's misplaced modesty rather than actively choosing to join him.
    • The noun υποκρισις (hupokrisis), meaning pretence. It's the source of our English word "hypocrisy", of which the Oxford Dictionary eloquently states: "The practice of falsely presenting an appearance of virtue or falsely professing a belief to which one's own character or conduct does not conform; dissimulation, pretence; an instance of this." The miserable behavior this word describes is heavily condemned in the New Testament, even though it occurs a mere 7 times; see full concordance.
    • The noun υποκριτης (hupokrites), meaning pretender — hence our word "hypocrite", "A person who falsely professes to be virtuously or religiously inclined or to have feelings or beliefs of a higher order than is the case; a person given to hypocrisy" (says the Oxford Dictionary). This word occurs 20 times — see full concordance — and although tradition usually depicts a red-eyed Jesus spitting this word out in hot spite (in evergreens such as Matthew 7:5, Mark 7:6 Luke 12:56), a somewhat composed rendering of this word in these cases could be "dude, as long as you're not being honest to yourself, you're not going to get anywhere."