Continuing our discussion of the Gifts of the Spirit, we come to one that is probably the most misunderstood of all. Many people read “discernment” and stop there. Discernment is NOT a gift; it is a skill one develops as one matures spiritually. As you read the Bible and hear teachings about God and discuss Jesus with fellow followers, you will start to be able to discern things better. You may not know why something sounds wrong, but red flags and sirens will seemingly go off in your head when you hear or read something that is not quite right about God. That is discernment – an important skill to develop, but not a spiritual gift.
The “discernment of spirits” IS a gift and the subject of much discussion. What spirits? Good and evil spirits? Human spirits? Friendly spirits? Paul is not clear in this context. And so the speculation ensues.
The literal meaning of this Greek phrase is “judgment of the spirits.” While it could mean “determining whether something is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit,” (Thiselton, NIGTC, p.967) there is really no textual evidence to support such a definition. Paul does not mention “evil spirits” anywhere in any of his letters.
Most likely the discernment of spirits has to do with determining whether a gift or manifestation is really from the Holy Spirit or the spirit of the individual. For example, when someone “prophesies,” is it a message from God or just a nice encouragement from a well-intentioned Christian? Or when a miracle takes place, was it from God or from a magician?
Exodus 7:10-12 is a good example of this. When Moses and Aaron first appeared before Pharaoh, “Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” Anyone seeing this would have known instantly which miracle was from God so the discernment of spirits was unnecessary.
But what if Aaron’s snake was no different than any of the other snakes? The discernment of spirits would be crucial, wouldn’t it? One could easily be fooled and follow Pharaoh’s wise men and sorcerers rather than God’s prophets Moses and Aaron.
Unfortunately there is no description or criteria to judge manifestations as to whether they are from God or not. Certainly it must be consistent with Scriptural principles and point to Jesus instead of exalting the person operating in the gift. I have heard some say they could see a glow or a mist around a person that no one else saw that was a sign to them that God was using that person. Another person told me they could smell a pungent odor when they were around a certain person who turned out to have evil intentions. Since I consider these people to be credible witnesses with no motive to lie and since I know these instances served as a confirmation of the move of God and helped all of us move closer to God, I think they might be examples of the discernment of spirits. I believe that God could use our senses to give us a kind of sixth sense to the supernatural, but it doesn’t have to be so spectacular. Perhaps it is only an instinct or a gut feeling. God will give us confirmation if we will only listen for it.
Many commentators group discernment of spirits with prophecy, but it appears it is meant to be a “gift of discerning in various cases (hence the plural) whether extraordinary manifestations were from above or not” (Robertson and Plummer, First Epistle, p.267). In other words, it is discernment for all of the gifts and not just prophecy. Thiselton agrees, defining it as “a critical capacity to discern the genuine transcendent activity of the Spirit from merely human attempts to replicate it” (NIGTC, p.967)
Don’t we do this? Even when we are trying to be genuine, sometimes we strive to relive a past encounter with God rather than allow God to move in a new or different way. “Discernment of spirits” sometimes helps us recognize that what is happening is not from God, but is our misguided attempt to experience God. I have been in churches where some of the people had just come from a spiritual retreat or a “revival” and tried to duplicate the experience in their own church. It felt forced and fake. I made the mistake of not discussing this with my leaders. Perhaps my concerns could have helped the church move closer to God. Or maybe my objections could have been laid to rest and brought me even closer to God. Learn from my mistakes; don’t let it fester or become divisive.
God wants to guide us on our journey closer to Him. May we be slow to speak and quick to listen to His voice and allow Him to help us discern where His Spirit wants us to go.