The gift of discerning between spirits

The gifts of the Spirit are, as it says in the bible — gifts.  However, they differ from a birthday present, or a Christmas present, that we can enjoy for a little while and then discard.  These gifts from the Holy Spirit are given as and when He chooses, to help us at the required time, that He gives them.  They are not something that we can keep in our utility belt for use at some later stage that suits our liking;  they are also not something which is available on demand that will make us look or feel more powerful, special, or clever.  They are tools given to us by the Holy Spirit with which we can fulfil the will of God, in His time, and in His way.

As you have heard, it is possible to divide the gifts of the Holy Spirit into three groups, so we may understand a link between them.  The gift of discerning between spirits, (which is my subject for today) is a revelatory gift, in the same category as the gift of knowledge and the gift of wisdom.  Seeing that these three gifts are revelatory should help us understand that they are not natural to us — they are spiritual, and we should not try to use them in a natural way.  However, we should naturally use these gifts when we have them.  Put another way, we should become accustomed to receiving these supernatural gifts from the Holy Spirit, with which we can do the Father’s will.

Hold on!  You might say,  “These are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given when He chooses to give them.”  Yes, this is true.  But, the commandment to us is that we should follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.  Whilst they are not available on demand, they are available to those who, through a relationship with the Father, make themselves available to receive them.

Let me put it this way.  If you were a father, would you give a powerful electric tool to a young child?  The answer is no!  You would not, because of the obvious danger.  Would you let a child of 7 ride their bike on a busy major road?  Again, No!  The very thought of this is fraught with problems.  I believe it is the same as this with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Do you really think He would give you information as powerful as this, if you could not handle it?

These gifts are tools given to us, by the Holy Spirit, that require some level of our understanding.  It is unlikely that the Holy Spirit would enable you to discern a malevolent spirit, if that knowledge would have you fleeing in abject terror.  Even with some training, that knowledge could still fill you with fear.  However, with the right level of relationship with the Father, your reaction to that revelation, balanced by the certainty of His protection.  That fear would quickly disappear and enable you to discern an appropriate level of response required by the Father.

It is the will of God that each one of us should reach a level of maturity in our relationship, that we can eagerly desire these gifts.  Look at what it says in 1 Corinthians 13:11,  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.   The instruction to ‘eagerly desire’ gifts of the Spirit is based on our attaining this maturity.

It is true, there is a lot that you can do for yourself which Paul talked about in Hebrews 5:14.   “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”  However, educating yourself to understand what you discern through your five senses is not the same as a revelation from the Holy Spirit.  Ephesians 3:20, tells us that, He is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.

So what is this gift of distinguishing between spirits?  

Another name for this gift is, discernment.  When you have a feeling about something, or something is revealed to you,  — what is its provenance?  Where has it come from?  What is its focus?  Is it from a spirit of:

  1. God;
  2. An angel;
  3. A demon;
  4. Man.

The truth is in Ephesians 6:12.  Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.   The gift of distinguishing between spirits is a tool which enables us to:

  • Lift the veil that covers the unseen world (as Derek Prince put it);  
  • See the move of God more clearly;  
  • Be protected from deception;  
  • Understand the root of some problems which other people are facing.


The apostle John, when he wrote his first epistle as a companion to the gospel, began with a profound statement:  “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”  From this opening, you can see that John’s statement was not directed to a specific individual, but to all believers.  It was his obvious intention to address something important to all believers.   There are many false prophets who will lead you astray, and it is our responsibility, as believers, to discern what is right and what is wrong.  We, as believers with the gift of distinguishing between spirits, can discern what is right and what is wrong.  

Using this gift, we can spot the phoney teacher before others do.  This gift does not operate on the basis of emotions, sentimentality, or the love of symbols; this gift operates on the basis of the truth of God’s word.  Everything is judged by the word of God and if it is not 100%, it is false.  98% right is not good enough, because there is a compromise with the word of God.  Dr Michael Youssef put it this way,  “Deception wears the clothes of authenticity.”

In the gospel of Matthew 7:15, we find Jesus warning us to watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  In comparison, in Isaiah 56:11,   they are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain.”

When Jesus spoke to John in Revelation 2:2 He said, “I know your deeds, you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.”  The book of Acts 17:11, also tells us how important this testing is.  “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”  Also, in Paul’s epistle to the church in Galatia, he wrote,  But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!

In Paul’s first epistle to his faithful spiritual son, Timothy 4:1, he set out a framework that we should be aware of.  The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits, and things taught by demons.  Let me make it clear to you.  Jesus is the only saviour of your life — if you have room in your mind for another, you are not of God.  Look at what the prophet says about this in Isaiah 26:3, “You, (that is God), will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.”

Look at what Paul said, in 2 Corinthians 11:14: “for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”  It is imperative that we discern these things.  If we allow the devil to impact upon what we do, we will always live in reaction to the powers of darkness.  This is not the plan that God has for us.  We are to live in a direct response to the love of our Father.  If we spend our lives reacting to the powers of darkness, our prayers become prayers of fear and not statements of authority.  Our prayers need to be statements of truth, based upon the intimacy of a relationship with God when we ask Him to do His will, not ours.

So where do we see this gift in action in the bible?

In Matthew 3:13-15, we see the story of John discerning the Spirit of God, whilst baptising Jesus.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John.  But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”  Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this, to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

In Matthew 17:5-6 we see the story of Peter, James and John, witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus and discerning the Spirit of God as He spoke.

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.

In Acts 27:21-26 we can read about Paul discerning the spirit of an angel.

After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss.  But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.  Last night an angel, of the God to whom I belong, and whom I serve, stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’  So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.  Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

When I read that story, I am convinced that if I had been tossed around in the storm, for that long, I would have needed a gift of the Holy Spirit do discern that it was an angel talking to me and not just my wishful thinking brought on by fear.

In Acts 16:16-18, we can see the story of Paul discerning an unclean spirit in a girl who was telling the truth.

Once, when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling.  She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”  She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to come out of her!” At that moment, the spirit left her.

In Acts 5:1-5, we see a simple story of Peter distinguishing the spirit of a man.  It is true that the instigator of this man’s thought was Satan, but the actions of this man’s thoughts were his own.  The sin of this man is not in holding back the money, but in lying to God about it.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.  Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings, but to God.”  When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.

With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Paul could discern both: where that thought had come from, and whose spirit it was operating through.  Please be aware the gift is in discerning the spirit, and not in the outcome of the event.  

In Acts 13:6-12, we see another simple story of Paul distinguishing the spirit of a man.

They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God.  But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith.  Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said,  “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?  Now the hand of the Lord is against you.  You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”

Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand.  When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

In John 1:47, we can see Jesus discerning the spirit of a man.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

So how can I get this gift?

The first step is in developing an intimate relationship with God.  I know! That sounds so simple.  But, the truth is, it is not as easy as that.  If you try to build a relationship, which is based upon, what you can get out of it, you are failing.  The only way to build an intimate relationship with God, is out of what you can put into it.  God has already shown you the level of love that He has for you.  It is now your turn to show God the level of love you can give back to Him.  Look at what Jesus said to His disciples in John 14:14, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”  It has been a common Christian goal for many years now that we should serve God.  However, that is not the instruction given to us by Jesus;  He commanded us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

The second step is to be eager in your desire to receive the gift.  However, that too, is a failing point.  In a way — if you want the gift from the Holy Spirit, you can’t have it.  I know this seems to be wrong, since we are instructed to eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit.  However, our desire has to be based upon our eagerness to see His Kingdom come.  If our desire is based upon ourselves, — there is the problem.  Just think about what Jesus was saying in Matthew 6.  He was defining all the things that we want until he concluded saying, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

In truth, God has already given you all that you need.  Paul said this in his epistle, 1 John 4:4, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  Be focused on Him and it will come.

So how should I use this gift?

I guess, if you have to ask this question, you haven’t understood the gift.  Let me put it this way.  If you enter a darkened room, you can’t see much at all.  If you use the light switch, the light comes on and you can see everything.  The light switch isn’t revelatory; it is the light which reveals.  The switch only connects the lamp to the power source.  And that is the only action that you need to take.  Once you have enabled yourself to see, now you can look and walk about freely.

In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

When you have discerned what God wants to be revealed to you;  Then you must allow God to work through you.  What are your good deeds that Jesus talked about?  They are the same as His.   To do the will of the Father.