Discerning of Spirits

Quite a while back, I had taken up the task of posting articles on the 9 giftings found in 1 Cor 12:8-10. I have looked at prophecy, tongues, message of wisdom and message of knowledge. But I wanted to follow up with some thoughts on a gift that connects quite well with the prophetic-revelatory gifts. It’s that of discerning of spirits, or as some translations call it distinguishing between spirits.

As I mentioned with other gifts listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10, this one also comes to us with the plural. It should literally be translated as distinguishings between spirits. This probably points to the fact that the gift has a variety of functions.

One of the more obvious uses of this gift will be in the weighing of prophecy. It might be that, in vs10, Paul has grouped the last four gifts together.

  • Prophecy is sharpened by distinguishing of spirits
  • Tongues is given value by the interpretation of tongues

Below is a passage where Paul could be making the link between prophecy and distinguishing between spirits, i.e. in weighing the prophecy:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (1 Cor 14:29)

But this gift also extends beyond the weighing of prophecy into the area of sensing whether various contributions or situations are from God, the human flesh or even a demonic spirit. We can see such examples in the life of Jesus:

  • Jesus sensed a guileless spirit in Nathanael (John 1:47)
  • Jesus sensed a doubting and questioning spirit in the scribes (Mark 2:8)
  • Jesus sensed a murderous spirit in some Jews (John 8:34-38)

We can also note the use of this gift with other gifts of the Spirit besides prophecy.

In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus was able to recognise the specific spirit that bound a boy. It was a deaf and mute spirit (vs25). This gift can be very helpful in discerning whether a sickness is connected to either a demonic spirit or a wrong inner attitude (yes, sin can lead to physical illness at times). And, here, the gifts was ultimately manifested to see the boy healed.

In Acts 5:3-4, we read that Peter was able to discern the specific spirit of Ananias and Sapphira. They had lied to God and the Holy Spirit. It is also possible that Peter was given a word, or message, of knowledge into the situation. While this was a serious matter, we see that God used it in the end to bring more people to himself (read Acts 5:11, 14).

In noting how this gift functions, I would also argue that this gift is more than simple observation or applying general wisdom into life’s situations. There is no doubt that such practices can be helpful across many spectrums. Even in pastoral situations, one can perceive things through general observation and wisdom. But with discerning of spirits, here is something that the Spirit of God makes clear himself.

I would also suggest that this gift and intuition are not synonymous. Intuition is the ability to understand or perceive something, but to do so independent of reasoning. You hear many people speak of ‘women’s intuition’. Again, I do not want to negate such practical realities. I just don’t believe these are the same things, just as I wouldn’t argue that the Spirit-gift of the word of wisdom is the same as having general wisdom in life as expressed in places like Proverbs. We can easily see the distinctions here.

Also, let’s please not see this gift as overly spooky, and definitely not of the enemy. Oh, yes. People can get insights from Satan and demonic spirits. There is no doubt of that. But I would say the enemy is only trying to copy what God does best. Just as with prophecy, or any other gifting of God, this is given for the edification and strengthening of the body, for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).

In the end, I might summarise distinguishing between spirits as this: A supernatural sensing of the spirit behind a contribution or action, all that the church can remain true in its character, direction and teaching.

If you would be interested in hearing my audio teaching on this gift, check out our podcast or iTunes.

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