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by Pastor Bruce Sikes
Spiritual discernment cannot be bought or taught, but it can be sought. It is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as listed 1st Corinthians chapter 12. It is available to all believers who have been born again through the indwelling of Christ Jesus. Sadly, however, it perhaps the most overlooked and woefully underused of God’s gifts to His Church.
That’s why I must admit from time to time in moments of inconsolable discontentment I have cried out in distress for the Church, “Discernment, discernment, our kingdoms for discernment!” In Act V Scene IV of Shakespeare’s KING RICHARD III, the King is surrounded by enemies bent on his destruction. In fear and agony he cries out, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Moments later the king was knocked from his horse and he was slain. His desperate cry speaks volumes of how something which is so simple and taken for granted in peacetime becomes the thing most needed in a time of war. The King’s recognition of that need came too late to save his crown and kingdom.
In an age of increasing deception, Spiritual Discernment is the thing most needed in our time.
Oh how I wish we would trade some of our little church kingdoms, our buildings, programs and positions for some honest God-given spiritual discernment! These heart rending moments come when I feel tremendous disappointment over supposed “mature” Christians, both in church leadership and in the pew, who demonstrate a continual lack of, and negligence in, exercising God’s gift of spiritual discernment. In particular, when their failure to exercise spiritual discernment leads to the principles, ideals and holy standards of God’s kingdom being mixed with those of the kingdom of the world.
What specifically? Let’s just say one major example is Christians who support persons and causes that have an appearance of “goodness” and even Godliness, but whose true inner beliefs and purposes are anything but Godly. Frankly, it’s one of those things that makes you want to stand up on a chair and shout to them, “Why are you supporting him, or her, or it! Can’t you see where they are really coming from?” And the answer is, no. They can’t. They are operating in a state of spiritual blindness. They may be quick to back their positions with scripture, however, they are not utilizing the Holy Spirit’s gift of spiritual discernment. They are making judgments and arriving at conclusions about people and things based on their own human perceptions; perceptions that are based on their experiences, education and even “church” and Bible knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, those are all very useful things. In this world, we operate and interact to a great extent via our perceptions. However, human perception alone, no matter how astute it may be, is not the same as spiritual discernment.
Perception can fall prey to deception. Deception by its very nature is designed to fool our perceptions. On the other hand, spiritual discernment cuts through deception. At times, it may even contradict our own human perception by cutting through the surface of what we see and know to reveal the very heart of the matter, that is, the spirit of the person, or situation. Simply put, is it of God or not?
This is the point where many Christians get into trouble. The Holy Spirit, who is always looking out for us, will give us a little prompt telling us to take a closer look. However, we quickly brush the prompting aside because the person, group, idea or thing seems to be “good”, so no need to overly scrutinize it. To do so, may cause us to “judge” them which is an accusation that every good, sensitive and politically correct 21st century Christian wants to avoid at all costs. The ironic part is that they have already made a judgment about it and given their seal of approval. By the way, I’ve noticed that people are quick to give their approval if he, she, or it already has a lot of popular support. Everyone else likes it so it must be good!
Still, more than that, failing to exercise spiritual discernment can be the result of many things: from a lack of understanding about the gift of discernment, to not exercising it due to fear and lack of courage, or to simply ignoring it. Naturally, if there is sin, arrogance, pride, self-righteousness or a spirit of rebellion in a person’s life, the exercise of discernment is often willfully avoided. Why? Because the Holy Spirit reveals not only the motives of the spirit being discerned, either good and bad, but that of the discerner as well. So instead of becoming a well-used tool on the belt of truth, spiritual discernment is kept locked up in the closet just in case it’s needed for an emergency. Ironically, most of the emergencies and troubles in a Christian’s life are the result of not having the gift of discernment as a well-used part of the believer’s spiritual equipment. In which case, we are little better than non-believers when it comes to avoiding deception.
“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
Notice it says “spiritually discerned” not “scripturally” discerned. Having knowledge of the Bible and then interpreting how to apply it to people and situations is not spiritual discernment. Let me repeat that. Having knowledge of the Bible and then interpreting how to apply it to people and situations is not spiritual discernment.
Certainly God can be, and should be, involved in every step of that process, but applying the Bible to people and situations is, unfortunately, often done without His Spirit. We may get it right from time to time because the word of God says that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16)
But it is still far better to have the Lord guide all our interpretations and applications. I like this direct statement from Luke 24 showing how the Lord helped His disciples understand His resurrection and He can help us.
“Then He [Jesus] opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45)
Without the Lord’s continued guidance, we can easily and subtlety fall into legalism or the “convenience” of applying Bible verses selectively.
Many Christians are continually looking for a pragmatic panacea to live out their Christian lives. Meaning, they selectively adopt certain Bible verses and “Godly principles” so they might apply them as broadly as possible to cover whatever intellectual challenge is presented to them by persons, groups or situations. One simple example would be when it is said of unsaved persons, that, “He, she, or they “are trying to do the right thing”. Therefore, they conclude, “We must affirm and support their well-intended efforts.” Why? Because, they say Jesus stated, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40) Even though Jesus also said, "He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30)
Regardless, it’s the “Whoever is not against us is for us” verse that becomes the panacea for people seeking to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations that might lead to conflict. It also eases up on his or her spiritual workload, i.e.: having to discern each situation and individual‘s true spiritual condition. They cap it with the pseudo proverbial phrase, “It’s not my place to judge. We’ll just trust the Lord!” The results are that the Christian can then absolve him or herself from having to delve any deeper into the matter and place themselves in the perceived position of a loving and understanding non-judgmental Christian. In this case “Trust in the Lord” becomes a cop-out for spiritual laziness. It’s a laziness that the Church cannot abide, especially in these last days. It aides and abets the Enemy and hurts those who are being led astray by the spirit of deception. Thanks be to God! It is something every believer can overcome today! Let’s keep reading and see exactly what spiritual discernment is and how we can get it.
Firstly, spiritual discernment is often neglected because it’s one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that is thought to be too ambiguous, too nebulous, too difficult to understand. Others shun anything that hints of the supernatural fearing that it might be of the devil, or that only the ignorant and superstitious believe such things. Some even believe that the gifts of the Spirit were exclusive to the apostles and no longer exist.
All of this has led to it being less taught and studied, which has only contributed to the misunderstanding about this precious gift. No wonder that when in 1st Corinthians chapter 12, the Apostle Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit, he says that he doesn’t want us to be “ignorant”. These verses let us know that there are different gifts and services but they are all from the One same Lord. The scriptures state, “…to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” and that God, “… gives them to each one, just as He determines.” And before someone can say, “Well, I didn’t get the gift of discernment,” Paul precedes the list in verse 6 by saying, “There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”
So, we can’t complain that we lack anything from the Lord. We have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us; ergo we have access to all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This includes discernment! Gifts, such as preaching, teaching, administration, etc… including discernment, are manifest by God to individuals to provide for every church’s need. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us...let him use it in proportion to his faith.” (Romans 12:6) However, unlike certain position-related tasks such as pastors and teachers for example, discernment is not confined to a church specific job, task, or position. By that I mean one congregation doesn’t need 200 preachers on a Sunday morning! I shudder to think about that one! On the other hand, we believers are not exempt from doing the work of a preacher, teacher, etc., whenever and wherever the need presents itself. These include situations and opportunities among friends, at our schools, workplaces, and marketplaces as the Spirit of God moves us. We are ever accountable to God when we say the Lord has moved us to do this or that in His Name. Thankfully, we can rest assured that when God has moved us, He will give us the ability to do whatever we are asked, if we remain obedient.
Specifically, the Gift of Spiritual Discernment is listed in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and is translated in various ways:
“The discerning of spirits” KJV
“distinguishing between spirits” NIV,
“the ability to distinguish between spirits” ESV
“the discernment of spirits” NRS
“the very knowing of spirits” Wycliffe
“the ability to judge between spirits” CJV (Complete Jewish Bible)
What is the common factor in all those different translations? It’s the word “spirits.” It’s not outward appearance or outward actions; it’s the inner spirit which is discerned. This is beyond the ability of our five senses to know. It’s as though one might perceive there is a person standing next to them in a dark room, but knowing whether they are friend or foe is a completely different matter!
Wycliffe translates it as a “knowing” from God. This “knowing” is more than simply a feeling. Feelings can be misleading.
Take for example the many times in the scriptures where angels appeared to men. Even when the angels came to deliver good tidings, more often than not the men and women to whom they appeared were at first very frightened. If they had relied only on their feelings, they would have run away or hidden themselves and missed a blessing. Likewise, the Bible warns us that Satan and his messengers can appear as “angels of light” (2 Cor.11:14). This could certainly be appealing to us, attractive, exciting, and making us “feel good”. Once again, if we relied only on our feelings, we would be deceived and in a very dangerous situation.
Feelings are natural, perception is natural. Discernment is spiritual. Our feelings and perceptions, no matter how keen they may be, can be deceived. Discernment cannot because it comes from God Himself via the Holy Spirit.
In John 16, Jesus describes the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. “He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” and that, “The Spirit of truth… will guide you into all truth…, and He will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”
Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century preacher, said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right."
The “knowing” Spurgeon speaks of doesn’t mean that we “know” the answer because we have read the Bible and compared it to what we have seen or heard and determined it to be wrong or right. That is not spiritual discernment, that is an intellectual process. One need not be a Christian to do that. Nor is discernment a “knowing” based on our perceptions and conclusions arrived at through our collected information, experiences and observations of the situation and or persons. Why? Because spiritual discernment can sometimes contradict the empirical information we have accumulated.
This brings us back to the point we mentioned earlier, the point where many people choose to ignore the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit and do nothing about it. To resolve an inner conflict, they attempt to minimalize the revelation brought through the Holy Spirit or suppress it and just leave it as an unresolved doubt. It puts them back into a position of demanding physical evidence before they are willing to believe. This is more apt to occur when what the Holy Spirit reveals threatens to upset our apple cart so to speak. We may have come to personally like the individual, the cause, or idea, and thought it sounded good yet the Holy Spirit is warning us.
You have to love it when you are merrily walking down the road, all full of confidence and then suddenly God gives you a gentle little tap on the shoulder and says, “Are you sure about this?” “You might want to look a little deeper at it.” “Talk to me, I’m here for you.”
“But God,” we say, “everybody else is going this way! I listened to that popular minister who wrote all those books and they said it was ok. If I stop now or change directions, they’ll all look at me funny and think I’m a troublemaker or something.”
And God says, “Like my servant Paul?”
You see, God gives us the discernment, the knowing, but what we do with it is another matter. We can know the truth in our heart of hearts, but still do nothing about it and just continue along with the crowd, hoping for the best. The Lord is patient with us, but He doesn’t waste time. If we sense God prompting us in our spirits to take a closer look at something, then we should stop, look and pray. There’s an old military saying, “A superior officer’s desire or request is your command.” Certainly a prompting from the Lord of Hosts would rate our immediate obedience!
We are given the gift of spiritual discernment for a reason. It is for detection and protection for the individual and for the church as a whole. It warns us of error disguised as truth, of false teachers disguised as holy ones - wolves in sheep’s clothing, and it can guide us away from following wrong paths, or plans, or ill-intended individuals. Yet we must not view discernment merely as a one-sided “danger” detector. Discernment does not exclusively seek out error or evil. It simply reveals the truth; does the spirit of this person, situation, or idea have the Spirit of God or not? Exercising discernment means not taking anything for granted, this person bad, this person good. It’s not looking with suspicion, but looking with spiritual discernment. It’s not a preoccupation with looking for sin or evil, but simply looking with spiritual eyes, not human eyes which can be so easily fooled. It’s looking at everyone and everything through the eyes of Jesus. Joyfully, discernment helps us identify fellow believers wherever we go! I have met brothers and sisters all over the world and they have become instant family, not because they claimed to be believers but because I knew they were at first sight.
Conversely, discernment can help reveal to us unsaved individuals claiming to be Christians. There are more than a few of them in the church and what a terrible deception for a person to live under! Too often these people are overlooked because they attend church and do what we expect Christians to do. Discernment helps us help them by cutting through the façade to reveal their need for true conversion. We can then direct our conversations and actions to helping them to do more than just play church, but be the church, to experience genuine repentance, salvation, and the inner joy from knowing the Lord. It always begins, works, and continues in prayer.
Spiritual discernment is a powerful, powerful gift, and as with any powerful tool it must be coupled with wisdom. The exercise of wise judgment is a necessity when using discernment, particularly when it comes to acting upon the who, what, where, and when of what God has revealed to us through His Holy Spirit. It may very well be that God’s purpose is for us to focus our prayers on what He has revealed to us and not to physically act upon it. In this event, there are two very important considerations for the honest believer. The first is asking oneself, “Am I not saying or acting on what God Has shown me because I am afraid of the consequences if I do speak up? So, I’ll acquiesce to prayer alone.” The second is a tendency that many of us have to, “want to do something or say something.” I think this stems mainly from a tendency to view prayer as something less than “real” intervention and action. We couldn’t be more wrong!
This brings up another criticism of the modern church: a lack of true heartfelt prayer, a two-way communicating to God and not just throwing words at Him hoping He’ll listen. It’s praying until you know He’s listening, pausing, even for a second, until we sense His Holy Presence before we speak. It’s a common every day courtesy for us when calling someone on the telephone to wait until they say “Hello” before we begin speaking to them. We don’t want our prayers to be like one of those annoying telemarketing calls, where as soon as we pick up the phone a voice recording starts trying to sell us something. I wouldn’t blame God if He occasionally just “hung-up” on us while we were busy launching into our prayer request monologue. No wonder at times we’re unsure if God hears our prayers. Far too many of our prayers are pitiful trite babel that can’t even penetrate the church ceilings much less escape the gravitational pull of the Earth’s atmosphere! Next to discernment, prayer is the most underrated and underused of God’s s gifts to His people.
The point is that prayer, honestly and properly done, is a powerful God-given weapon with which to fight sin and evil and bring people to healing and deliverance. Even if God moves us to speak and act on discernment, we cannot fail to pray continuously every step of the way. Discernment, like any gift of God is, “the manifestation of the Spirit… given for the common good “(1 Corinthians 12:7).
It is not something to be desired like a “superpower,” lest we fall into the trap like Simon the Sorcerer of Acts 8. He envied the apostles’ ability to lay hands on people and do miracles, so he offered money to get the gift of God. Paul severely rebuked him and told him to repent because his “heart was not right before God.”
On the other hand, desiring to be all we can be for God by exercising the gifts of the Spirit, in all humility, for the “common good,” is a heart that is right before God!
How do you receive spiritual discernment?
As was mentioned earlier, Spiritual Discernment cannot be bought or taught, but it can be sought. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit made available to all believers who have been born again through the indwelling of Christ Jesus. We should and we must seek the wisdom of God that comes through the gift of the Holy Spirit that is Discernment.
It is difficult to receive and to use if our focus is on self, our personal likes or dislikes, our personal needs and wants, or if we remain focused on social and cultural preferences and perceptions. So we begin by asking:
“Lord God, cleanse me from pride and self-righteousness, along with any and all unrepented sins that linger in me. Lord, give me a heart that desires to serve you and the common good. Open my eyes that I may see beyond the outer garments be they rich or poor, to see the inner man, the spirit, to see people the way you see them, that I may help protect and build up the body of Christ, and to help set the prisoners free. Lord, I ask you to enable within me your Holy Spirit’s gift of Spiritual Discernment and provide me the wisdom and boldness to exercise it according to your purpose. May I bear it with humility and courage, shunning self, being ever prayerful and obedient. May my focus always be reconciliation of man to God, motivated by the love of Christ. Today, I open my eyes and ears, my heart and spirit in service to you. Guide me, teach me, mold me, and use me. In Christ’s Name I pray.”
“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” (2 Corinthians 5:16)
Let the scales fall from our eyes us. Let us see the world anew, boldly and unafraid, trusting and fully embracing His precious gift of Spiritual discernment that we might overcome the deception of these last days.
For Christ and His Remnant,