The spiritual gift of discerning spirits is the supernatural ability given by the Holy Spirit to recognize lying spirits, identify operating spirits, and distinguish between truth and error. This gift enables believers to discern the spiritual forces at work around them and protect against deception and false teaching.
The Source of the Gift
The spiritual gift of discerning spirits originates from the Holy Spirit. As one of the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, it is given by God’s grace to believers for the edification of the church and advancement of the gospel. Like all spiritual gifts, discerning spirits should be exercised in faith and humility, recognizing it as an empowerment from the Spirit for ministry.
Purposes of the Gift
There are several valuable purposes and uses for the gift of discerning spirits:
- Detect demonic spirits – This gift exposes demonic spirits that may be oppressing or possessing individuals. Examples in Scripture include Jesus detecting a demon in a synagogue (Mark 1:23) and Paul discerning a fortune-telling spirit in a slave girl (Acts 16:16-18).
- Identify angels – The gift may reveal the presence and activity of angels. For example, Paul discerned that an angel of God was aboard the storm-tossed ship he was sailing on (Acts 27:23-24).
- Discern false prophets – Those with this gift can determine whether “prophets” or teachers are speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit or a lying spirit. This protects the church from deception and false doctrine (1 John 4:1-3).
- Expose hypocrisy – Like Jesus often did, discerning spirits may detect when someone is pretending to be godly but is not practicing what they preach (Matt. 23:13-36).
- Confirm God’s Spirit – The gift affirms when the Spirit of God is genuinely moving and directing in various situations, including miraculous healings, prophetic declarations, and decisions in the church (1 Corinthians 12:3).
- Identify root issues – Discerning of spirits can identify the underlying spiritual influences causing certain problems in someone’s life, relationships, or ministry. This allows the root issue to be directly addressed through prayer, inner healing, and deliverance.
- Guard teaching – Those with this gift can discern truth from error and guard against false doctrine infiltrating the church. They serve as watchmen helping to preserve sound biblical teaching (1 Timothy 4:1, 6).
- Avoid spiritual deception – This gift detects lying spirits and protects believers from deceptive spirits, false prophecies, and demonic delusions (1 Timothy 4:1, 1 John 4:1-3).
In essence, this gift serves as a vital supernatural “spiritual radar” system for the church.
Examples in Scripture
There are several examples of the discerning of spirits gift in operation throughout the Bible:
Peter and Ananias
In Acts 5:1-11, Peter confronts Ananias and Sapphira about lying to the Holy Spirit regarding money they had pledged. Peter supernaturally discerns the deception in their hearts, exposing the lying spirits behind their actions. This leads to judgement from God against their lies.
Paul and the Fortune Telling Slave Girl
In Acts 16:16-18, Paul is annoyed by a slave girl following him and proclaiming he and his companions are “servants of the Most High God.” Paul discerns this is a demonic spirit of fortune-telling and casts it out of the girl in Jesus’ name, setting her free.
Jesus and the Woman of Samaria
When Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:7-30, He demonstrates supernatural knowledge of her situation that shocks her. While not explicitly stated as discerning spirits, Jesus had a gift of “seeing” into people’s lives that exposed truth.
Jesus and Nathanael
Upon first meeting Nathanael in John 1:45-51, Jesus startles him by declaring “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Then when Nathanael doubts, Jesus reveals his earlier location under a fig tree. This discerns Nathanael’s true heart and convinces him Jesus is the Son of God.
Other possible displays of discerning spirits include Elisha’s servant seeing angelic armies (2 Kings 6:8-23), Jeremiah exposing false prophets like Hananiah (Jeremiah 28:1-17), and Paul recognizing the high priest Ananias illegally commanded his beating (Acts 23:1-5). Jesus also exhibited constant discernment of people’s thoughts and hearts throughout His ministry.
How the Gift Operates
There are various ways the gift of discerning spirits may supernaturally impart discernment to an individual:
– Heard inner voice or impression
– Vision showing truth about a person or situation
– Physical sensation such as heat, chills, unease, or peace
– Bible verses illuminating spirits at work
– Dreams and visions exposing spirits
– Ability to “see” or perceive spirits operating
Those with this gift may need to step out in faith at times, trusting the Holy Spirit’s promptings when discerning spirits. They can gently but boldly declare what God reveals, operating under the Spirit’s control and timing.
Cautions for the Gift
When operating the gift of discerning spirits, the following cautions should be kept in mind:
- Judge spirits, not people – Our battle is against spiritual forces, not flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). Focus judgment on lying spirits, not the individuals themselves.
- Act in love – Without love, gifts can be misused and abusive. Any exposure of demons or deception should aim to free and restore (Gal. 6:1).
- Confirmations bring wisdom – Important discernments should be confirmed by mature believers, Scripture, and/or results over time to ensure accuracy (Prov. 11:14).
- Maintain humility – Pride over supernatural manifestations can lead to negative results (2 Cor. 12:7). God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Pet. 5:5).
- Right timing and tact – Declaring discernments should only be done when clearly led by the Spirit. And they require wisdom in how they are shared.
- Watch for projections – Our own biases may color how we interpret words of knowledge or discernment about others.
- Test the spirits – Weigh discernments against Scripture and godly wisdom (1 John 4:1, 1 Thess. 5:19-21).
- Look inward too – An important aspect is discerning our own heart issues and deception apart from others (Ps. 139:23-24).
When handled appropriately under the Spirit’s control, this gift provides vital protection and direction without being overly critical or judgmental.
Discerning of Spirits vs. Other Gifts
The gift of discerning spirits has some overlap with but remains distinct from certain other gifts:
Word of Knowledge
While both may receive supernatural revelation about people or situations, word of knowledge focuses more on facts and details, whereas discerning spirits exposes the operating spirit(s) behind those details.
Prophecy declares God’s heart, purposes, and truth to build up others, while discerning spirits identifies the presence and activity of various spirits. There can certainly be overlap when a spirit is prophetically exposed.
Wisdom & Knowledge
Wisdom and knowledge provide understanding of truth, doctrine, and facts – especially concerning God’s Word. But discerning spiritsparticularly detects spiritual influences and forces behind the natural realm.
Interpretation of Tongues
This gift interprets the meaning of a supernatural tongue or message to
edify the church. Discerning spirits interprets the type and source of the operating spirit behind a tongue, message, or manifestation.
Distinguishing of Spirits
First Corinthians 12:10 in the King James Version uses the phrase “discerning of spirits” while some modern translations render it “distinguishing between spirits.” The gift discernsthe presence and type of spirits, distinguishing between those from God, angels, humans or demons.
So while gifts like word of knowledge offer valuable revelation and prophecy declares God’s heart, the gift of discerning spirits focuses specifically on exposing the spiritual forces driving people, situations, manifestations, teachings, and supernatural activity – whether divine, demonic or human in origin.
Developing the Gift of Discerning Spirits
For those desiring to grow in the gift of discerning spirits, here are some recommended ways to develop and strengthen it:
- Pray for the gift – Ask the Holy Spirit who distributes gifts to operate discerning spirits through you (1 Cor. 12:7-11).
- Study spiritual realities – Learn about how the Spirit realm operates from Scripture to recognize patterns.
- Know God’s voice – Become intimately familiar with God’s voice and Word to better discern other spirits.
- Expose demonic influence – Practice identifying tactics, strategies, and doorways for demonic spirits at work (Eph. 4:27).
- Test revelations – Submit discernments to other mature believers and Scriptural truth to confirm their accuracy.
- Wait on the Spirit – Don’t force or jump to conclusions. Carefully follow the Spirit’s timing and promptings.
- Step out in faith – Exercise the gift and trust the Spirit’s empowerment as you gain experience and sensitivity.
- Seeks confirmations – Prudently look for affirming factors that verify the discernment given.
- Stay humble – Pride and self-reliance will undermine this gift more than most others.
- Soak in God’s presence – Drawing close to God enhances sensitivity by the Holy Spirit to see, hear and perceive spiritually.
As we submit to the Holy Spirit’s training and leading, He cultivates discernment in our lives that can profoundly equip us to confront spiritual deception and bless the church.
Discerning of spirits is a supernatural “screening” gift enabling believers to correctly identify and respond to the spiritual realm. It serves as protection and direction to avoid deception while advancing the Kingdom of God by the power of His Spirit. When this gift is utilized properly and humbly, it becomes a tremendous blessing that enhances the health, integrity, and growth of Christ’s church.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the gift of discerning spirits:
Can both Christians and non-Christians have this gift?
Since discerning spirits is a gift of the Holy Spirit described in the New Testament, it is specifically given to believers in Jesus. However, there are examples in the Gospels of Jesus discerning spirits in nonbelievers like the Samaritan woman and Nathanael before they believed in Him. So God may occasionally grant some discernment to reveal truth to those not yet saved. But the ongoing gift for ministry is normally only present in born-again followers of Christ.
Does every Christian have this gift to some degree?
While all believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit and hear God’s voice in some capacity, Scripture indicates discerning spirits is a distinct supernatural gift given only to some, like the gifts of healing or miracles (1 Cor. 12:7-10). However, simple discernment of truth from error is available to all Christians without necessarily having this gift.
Can this gift be dangerous or lead to spiritual pride?
Yes, like all gifts, it can lead to pride and misuse if not exercised carefully with wisdom and humility. That is why spiritual gifts must be used in love, why confirming discernments is wise, and why we must guard our hearts from self-exaltation when God operates through us. Any gift can become dangerous apart from the fruit of the Spirit such as self-control, gentleness, and kindness.
Do demons or Satan “give” a similar counterfeit gift?
While Satan can bring deception through false signs and wonders, the discerning of spirits is a sovereign gift of the Holy Spirit who distributes spiritual gifts among believers as He wills (1 Cor. 12:7-11). So there is no true “counterfeit” gift since evil spirits have no ability to give believers spiritual gifts. However, Satan obviously can give deceiving spirits to nonbelievers, such as mediums who operate in divination.
What is a simple way to exercise this gift?
We can ask the Holy Spirit questions anytime about a person or situation we perceive may have deceptive spirits at work. Taking captive thoughts and imaginations and submitting them to Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5) is also key. As we draw close to God and gain experience, discernment can become more automatic and “second nature” to us.
Can discernment ever be wrong or off target?
Yes, no one operating spiritual gifts does so perfectly. That is why humility, wisdom and confirming discernments are so essential. We only “know in part” now and see indistinctly as through a mirror until full revelation comes in eternity (1 Cor. 13:9,12). But as we mature and submit to God’s Spirit our accuracy improves in exercising gifts like discerning spirits.
So in summary, discerning of spirits is a supernatural empowerment from the Holy Spirit that allows a believer to discern the presence, type and activity of various spiritual forces. It serves to identify deception and lying spirits, expose demonic influence, affirm divine activity, and provide wisdom and protection. As this gift is wielded in humility and love, it truly makes “the spirits of prophets subject to prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32) for the blessing of God’s people.