“Discretion is the better part of valor.” – William Shakespeare
I’m not sure when I learned the meaning of this phrase. I think it was some point during my seemingly endless attempts to beat Dr. Clyde Smith, of the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, at chess. Back in high school I was known as the player who never saw an attack he didn’t like and the player who could find an attack even in a retreating position. This worked great against players who could be shaken psychologically, but did nothing against Clyde. Clyde would wait for me to overextend on an attack and then bring the game to a quick, merciful end. Chess, like life, teaches you that the right way isn’t always on the attack.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples, he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. – John 4:1-3, ESV
Jesus hadn’t done anything wrong. As a matter of fact, we know He had only acted righteously. However, because of circumstances around Him, He was beginning to attract too much attention for the moment. He had a lot to teach His disciples. Getting into a confrontation with the Pharisees would cut that time short. Therefore, Jesus left the area.
In our lives we have to know when to back off. We have to know when a confrontation will do more harm than good. Sometimes this means backing down even though we are right. Sometimes this means keeping our pride in check and letting happen what will happen. Godly men and women throughout Scripture demonstrated this capacity to use discretion rather than press the offensive. And of course, our Savior did, as we see in the verses I’ve quoted.
The knowing when can be hard. When should we? Relying strictly on our own wisdom, we are going to get it wrong too often. Good thing through prayer we have the option of asking God Himself. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us if we are willing to listen to Him and obey Him. God doesn’t leave us in a quandary without His help. However, He often doesn’t force us to accept His help, either. We have to intentionally seek it.
Those times when it is appropriate to back down, we will experience greater success for the Kingdom of God than if we defend ourselves, attack the situation, or otherwise push the issue. I do mean greater success for the Kingdom. It may be a setback for us personally. But we don’t exist to glorify ourselves. We exist to glorify God. We are here to further the Kingdom. And that means taking the personal loss, when called upon, for the Kingdom gain.
Sometimes we do experience personal gain, too, whether we are talking chess or life. Four years later, when I had learned how to use better discretion in life, I finally beat Clyde at chess. I didn’t overextend. I waited. And when the opportunity came, I seized it. In a few short moves, I had torn into Clyde’s defense and it was only a matter of time before his King fell. Clyde, with a big smile on his face, congratulated me on the win and also for having learned something he had waited years for me to understand. I imagine God is like that, too. He wants us to learn when and how to use discretion, and He is proud of us when we do.