Q: #398. What is the spiritual gift of discernment?
By: Steve Shirley
A: A few weeks ago, I was leading a Bible Study on spiritual gifts. Eventually, we came to the spiritual gift of "discerning of spirits" (1 Cor 12:10). I have always felt that this is one of my strongest gifts (perhaps my strongest). However, as I tried to explain it to the group, I was not doing a great job. If indeed the Holy Spirit has gifted me in this way, I ought to be able to TOTALLY explain and understand everything this gift entails, right? Hence, we come to this study (which has been as much for me as you).
First, if we look at the word "discern" in the
Bible, several different Greek and Hebrew words are used. However, the Greek
word used in (1 Cor 12:10) when speaking of the spiritual gift of
"discerning of spirits" is diakrisis (taken from diakrino).
According to Strong's, this word means "to separate thoroughly." This word
is also translated in other places as "doubt, judge, contend, waver." When
this word is combined with "spirits," it is basically speaking of
"discerning" between what is from the Spirit of God and what is
from an evil spirit. For example:
Knowing who is teaching truth from God's Word, and who is a false teacher.
Knowing who is truly a prophet from God, and who is a false prophet.
Knowing if a miracle is from God, or from an evil spirit. (Satan can perform miracles too: Acts 8:9-13, Ex 7:8-12, Ex 7:20-22, Ex 8:1-7.)
It should be noted that ALL Christians are
called upon in the Bible to exercise some measure of discernment. For
example, in regards to false teachers and false prophets, the call to
discern (or judge) who is false is given to ALL Christians: false teachers (Rev 2:2)
(Rom 16:17)(Gal 1:6-9)(1 Tim 1:3)(2 Jn 1:10-11)(Titus 1:3)(1 Tim 6:3-5), and false prophets (Mt 7:15)(1 Jn 4:1).
Some other examples are:
Discerning between good and evil (Heb 5:14).
Discerning the Lord's body (1 Cor 11:29)(when taking Communion).
"Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil." (1 Th 5:21-22).
Checking to see if what people are teaching lines up with the Bible (Acts 17:11).
However, since "discerning of spirits" is mentioned as a spiritual gift, and different people receive different gifts, this must obviously mean that there is a level of discernment that goes beyond what is called upon for ALL Christians. The Bible seems to tie this to two things: a level of knowing and understanding God's Word far beyond what most Christians know, and a gifting from the Holy Spirit to supernaturally know when something does not line up with that Word. Here is an example that came to me which I feel illustrates the difference between ordinary discernment (which is for all Christians), and the gift of "spiritual discernment," (which is only for some Christians).
All bank tellers are trained to know the difference between counterfeit money (currency) and genuine currency. They are not trained to know what counterfeit currency looks like, but instead, they are trained to become so familiar with what genuine currency looks like (i.e. by repeatedly touching it and looking at it over and over) that they know when something is not genuine. If a counterfeit bill is FAR from genuine, the average person should know it is counterfeit (ordinary discernment), however, if the counterfeit is very close to genuine, it will take a person who is trained to know EXACTLY what the genuine looks like in order to expose the counterfeit (gift of spiritual discernment).
While I feel this example is a good one, it does not really include the added component of God's supernatural influence. Thoroughly knowing God's Word is crucial, because the Holy Spirit will work through the Word. He will show us when false teachings, prophecies, miracles, etc, do not line up with the Bible. Therefore, how can we understand why they don't line up if we don't know God's Word? However, I do believe that there is a component to "spiritual discernment" that goes beyond just extensively knowing the Word. There are times when the Holy Spirit just shows a person with this gift that something is not quite right. It might be called "intuition," or a "gut feeling," or "a knowing."
For example, as I have operated in this gift, there have been some times when I have heard a person teaching on something in the Bible, saying, "This Bible says this," and I have just known inside that something was not right about it, although I might now know exactly what. Later, when I look it up, I will find that the Bible doesn't say that at all. In another example, I have had people say to me "God told me this" or "God said this will happen," and I just had a knowing inside that God really didn't tell them that. This has been confirmed later when it didn't happen (therefore, a false prophecy). In one more example, I have had different people tell me they were Christian, but I strongly felt something inside of me telling me they were not. As I probed a little deeper, I have found that they really didn't know what it is to be a Christian, and I have lead a few of these to the Lord shortly after.
These are just a few examples from my own life. However, the Bible gives us what I consider to be some even better examples.
I love the story of Solomon in (1 Kin 3:5-15). God told Solomon that He would give him anything he wished, and Solomon replied, (1 Kin 3:9-10) "Give therefore thy servant an understanding (discerning) heart to judge thy people, that I may DISCERN between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people? (10) And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing." (parenthesis and caps mine) God granted Solomon's request (and gave him even more). Immediately after this, we see an amazing example of Solomon using this God-given gift (1 Kin 3:16-28)(for the sake of space, please read it for yourself).
In (Acts 16:16-18), we see a lady following Paul and Silas everywhere they preached, who kept yelling, "These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation." This was, of course, a true statement, but in spite of what might have seemed evidence to the contrary, Paul discerned that she was not from God, but instead was demon possessed. Eventually, Paul said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus to come out of her," and it did so.
In (Acts 5:1-10), Peter supernaturally discerned that Ananias and Sapphira were lying.
(Mk 2:8) says, "Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, "Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts?" I see this as saying that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit (who I believe lived in Jesus) knew the hearts of the scribes. Other verses also record Jesus knowing people's thoughts (i.e. Mt 9:4, Mt 12:25, Lk 5:22, Lk 6:8, Lk 9:47). (***Note: It is also possible that Jesus may have known these things because He was still fully God.)
Recapping what I have said to this point, let me close with a few things that might show that you have this gift.
Do you seem able to discern when people are being lead by the Spirit of God, and when they are not?
Are you able to discern when a prophetic word is from God, and when it is not?
Are you able to discern when people are teaching false doctrine?
Do you passionately desire to protect fellow Christians from being deceived by false teaching and false prophecies?
Do you have a passion to read and understand the truth of God's Word?
Do you intuitively seem to know when people are lying, and have a desire to get to the truth?
If these things apply to you, you may have this gift. The Bible tells us that as we approach the return of Christ, there will be an increase in false teachers, false prophets, and "deceiving spirits" (Mt 24:11)(1 Tim 4:1)(2 Tim 3:13). As such, this gift is perhaps more crucial now than ever. As with all spiritual gifts, use your gift to edify and build up the church (Eph 4:11-12)(1 Cor 14:26)(1 Cor 12:27-31)(Rom 1:11-12).