In over twenty years of ministry, I’ve run into a lot of confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to the spiritual gift of discernment. I don’t claim to be an expert on it, by any means. Most of what I have learned about it has come the hard way, by making mistakes along the way. I hope this brief article will provide some clarity.
The gift of discernment is listed in the spiritual gifts list found in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, where it is referred to as “discerning of spirits.” It is also mentioned in Hebrews 5:14. Both of these verses use the same Greek word which literally means, “to separate, discriminate; to learn by discriminating, to determine, decide, a judging; judicial estimation.” In 1 Corinthians 14:29, it is used of “discerning” what is of the Holy Spirit in a gathering of believers where prophecies are spoken. It’s primary purpose is to discern what God is doing and/or saying in a meeting or situation.
In 1 Corinthians 11:31, the same word is used in judging oneself, “For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.” This refers to discerning whether we are operating in the Spirit, in our soul, or in the flesh. This is its second purpose. This includes discerning if other people are, as well. However, this is not for the sake of making a character call of anyone. Discernment can tell you what someone is operating in, whether Spirit, soul, or demonic spirit, but it doesn’t tell you how they got to that place.
It’s third purpose is for discerning the operation of demonic spirits. In Acts 16:16-18, we see Paul operating in this kind of discernment. “Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future… This girl 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 troubled 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.” Though the spirit speaking through her was telling the truth, Paul’s spirit was troubled and he recognized it as an evil spirit and set her free from it.
When God reveals something through the gift of discernment and we mistakenly use it to judge or accuse someone, we are partnering with the accuser of the brethren, Satan. This grieves God’s heart greatly, for His purpose in revealing it, especially if it’s negative, is so we will partner with His heart in intercession for that person to be set free. I have ministered to many believers who have been deeply wounded by brothers or sisters who used their “discernment” to call them out and judge them. Others have been ostracized and slandered because of gossipers who often share what they believe they discerned as a “prayer request” for a backslidden brother or sister.
Discernment is not suspicion; there is no spiritual gift of suspicion. If we are operating in suspicion, we need healing and possibly deliverance. Discernment is not judging for the sake of condemning. In Hebrews 5:14 we are told discernment comes with maturity. “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” It is God’s way of sharing His heart with us for those who are wounded and trapped in bondage. Our response should be the same as His, mercy and compassion that fuels our prayers that He would heal and deliver them. If we are found faithful, we may be privileged to be the one He uses to set them free!