Discerning of Spirits. Have we have relegated this gift and changed its remit to fit our own agenda?
It is does appear to have transitioned into a ‘gift of discernment’, a discernment that can basically cover any given topic; what we ‘feel’ about people, events, church worship meetings, people’s character. It has also become synonymous with ‘having a hunch’ or a ‘suspicion’, usually about another person’s agenda or motives. The gift may include some of these things but it may well be that we have lost our way with this gift, and it is my conviction that the Holy Spirit wants to restore it to the Church.
To see the way forward we need to look at the gift in the light of scripture and reconnect with this amazing gift of the Spirit.
The various translations of scripture refer to this gift found in 1 Corinthians 12:10 as:
- the ability to distinguish between spirits – ESV
- the ability to discriminate in spiritual matters – J.B. Phillips
- distinguishing between spirits – NIV
- the ability to distinguish between spirits – RSV
- discerning of spirits – KJV
Everything within the realm of knowledge – facts, purposes, motives, origin, destiny; human, divine or demonic – all come within the range of the three ‘illumination’ gifts of the Word of Wisdom, the Word of Knowledge and the Discerning of spirits. The discernment of facts other than dealing with discernment of spirits is the work of the other two gifts of illumination.
The word translated ‘discerning’ is diakrisis and means a thorough judging, discerning or distinguishing clearly. In this passage it is in the plural, meaning it is the discernings of spirits. It is the power, or enabling of the Spirit of God to distinguish between the operation of the Spirit of God and an evil spirit or the spirit of man. God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33) or ambiguity, and this gift can be seen as the Holy Spirit enabling an individual to see what God is doing, and what He is not – and it is a gift for the Church given to an individual.
This gift of the Holy Spirit, as mentioned previously, is not a discerning of persons or a ‘gift of criticism’. That is easier to see when we understand that the Greek word for criticism carries the idea of judgment. We are not called by God to judge or criticise one another or the church, but to encourage each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13) – and this applies to prophetic gifting and ministry too. The gift of ‘fault-finding’ or criticism does not require the assistance of the Holy Spirit, indeed it needs no spiritual gift to uncover human failings, but it needs a good deal of Christly love to cover them (1 Cor 13:7).
Neither is this gift a keen penetrative insight into human nature. Some people have this natural gift but this gift is a supernatural one, given to build and encourage the church and certainly, along with the gift of prophecy, is not a kind of spiritual thought or mind-reading. It is not the unveiling of men’s thoughts or “spirits” in a metaphorical sense when we say a man has a “critical spirit”.
When Samuel told Saul all that was in his heart (1 Sam 9:19) he did so by the gift of the word of knowledge, not by discernment of spirits. Similarly, when Jesus said that Nathaniel was an Israelite in whom there was no guile, (John 1:47) he discerned simply a state of heart but it was not a statement of a good or evil spirit in him. Jesus knew what was in the heart of man.
It is a supernatural gift, bestowed in sovereign will of the Holy Spirit. God gives this gift, and we are encouraged to seek it. No human insight into spiritual things can be the explanation of it. It is a gift that is the power given directly by the Holy Spirit to discern the spirit, or spirits, prompting an act or utterance. i
A powerful example in the use of this can be seen in the ministry of the prophet Micaiah. When asked by Ahab to tell nothing but that which was true Micaiah said,
“Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.” (1 Kings 22:19-23)
It can be seen that behind the utterances of man that there are often the promptings of evil spirits who seek to frustrate God’s purposes. This gift reveals the wicked deception of the enemy. Human spirits are rarely free from the influence of supernatural spirits, men and women are either influenced by God or by the evil one. The devil is persistently trying to counterfeit God’s workings; counterfeit healings, spirit-guides and revelation. This gift guards us from such deception.
God has not left us to our own devices to fend for ourselves. True, the church are urged to be aware that, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) yet God has also given this gift to guard His Church.ii (Consider the work of this gift in Rev 16:13-14)
This astonishing gift, given by the revelation of the Spirit of God is to some degree like the prophetic ministry when it comes to being likened to the eyes of the Church. The Church should be enjoying constant experience of the supernatural in the daily life of its members and in its meetings for worship. In the life of the early Church there were converts who had recently been steeped in heathenism, spiritism and ‘demon-possession’ and there was therefore a real danger of evil spirits operating supernaturally and thus deceiving even the elect. For them, and for us, with this gift in operation in the Church we are able to detect the presence of evil spirits and take measures to restrain them from manifesting their deceptions.
It’s a great gift – but how do we get it? It doesn’t come by virtue of being in the ministry for years, or even because we have been to so called ‘activation’ meetings. It comes, like all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, because you eagerly desire spiritual gifts.
If you are eagerly desiring the gifts of the Spirit it will be reflected in your behaviour – you will be praying and asking for them, reading about them, discussing them with others who are also zealous for God’s purposes and plans in encouraging the Church. It is a tragic myth that we are to seek the giver not the gifts, especially when God asks us to seek them! But the key word here is ‘eagerly’, and the encouraging thing is, God is saying He gives gifts, and if you eagerly desire them, you will get them! God gives you gifts for others. They are never just for you. For the sake of the Church ask God for the gifts of His Spirit. They have not ceased – we just haven’t been that eager about them! Encouragingly, things are changing!
The element of faith comes into play too. All of the gifts of the Spirit, even our salvation – is contingent on faith. God loves to be trusted and responds to faith. Never presume anything! Faith will also always be tested. We walk by faith not by sight, so be prepared for a few knock-backs.
When God reveals something to you, you will know it. Imagine having very poor eyesight that required strong prescription glasses to see normally. When God reveals something to you it will be like suddenly putting those glasses on. You will know that you have really seen something. Remember, it is God who is giving you revelation and He is doing it for the benefit of the Church. If in doubt, talk to your Church leaders and tell them what you sense God is revealing to you.
Let’s leave the final word to the Message translation of the Bible that brings us this wonderful admonition;
God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful:
healing the sick
distinguishing between spirits
interpretation of tongues.
All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.