The Gift of Discernment

japan_street_photo.jpgI say that discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is most needed today and the least utilized. The spiritual gift of discernment, in fact, has become the enemy of the church and our religious life as we know it. Here’s why:

Discernment is defined as the ability to see something that is not very clear or obvious; to understand something that is not immediately obvious; or to be able to tell the difference between two or more things. It is keenly selective judgement. That’s a gift of the Spirit that is for the church to use. It is for the benefit of the church. Why? Because the church is inundated, even plagued with all kinds of spirits, some good, some bad. Even demons masquerade as angels of light, and they do this especially in the church, among her members, pastors, leaders, committees, theology and practice. Rampant! So it is important to acquire and practice this gift of discernment to tell which spirits are true and which are false, that manifest themselves finally in good or bad theology and good or bad practice.

Why is it the moment then that someone critiques what someone says or does or what the church says or does, he or she is labeled a sarcastic, depressing, critical rebel? I think the false spirits are having a free-for-all right now because criticism within the church is strongly discouraged and even penalized, and criticism from outside the church is simply ignored. Religion and the church, like any other human institution, is militantly self-interested and self-protective. Criticisms, admonishments, judgments… anything that calls into question anything a religious person, a religion or a church says or does… is met with violent repercussions.

Here’s a call for people to pray for, acquire, accept, embrace and practice the gift of discernment. Put that together with the gift of prophecy and look out! Things will get really hot then! But we need it. The church needs it. And we need it now before this foolish plague becomes epidemically impossible to reverse.

The fine art photo was taken by my friend Mark Hemmings.

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  • I agree man.

  • I have found (as being one who speaks out and one who is a part of the “charismatic” church) that discernment is well received when Christians from within the institution of church are “discerning” the “evil” out there, in “the world” but not very welcomed when the discernment is related to the institutional church’s own practices.

  • lor

    The nature in which discernment is communicated, and the motive behind it, matters a great deal as to how it will be received. I absolutely agree with you that it needs to be done, but I think we need to slow down, examine our own hearts and motives and make sure we’re acting in the right way for the right reasons. When the gift is used appropriately, it’s communicated and received in the manner in which God intended.

    But I have visited many online “discernment ministries” who seem to exist solely to whack other Christians over the head for not thinking, acting or speaking exactly as they think they should. And, in person, how many of us have heard gossip “did you hear what happened?” under the guise of “let us pray for them” or “I heard what (…happened, …you did, …etc). Shame on you. Let me speak “the truth” “in love” to you right now!”

    There are too many times that we go to take a swing at one another and call it “discernment.”

    I have maybe three people in my life that I trust to have my best interests at heart and communicate the true motives in my behavior when they call me out… they not only possess the gift but know me well enough to know when I’m screwing it all up for all the wrong reasons.

    I don’t think we can just pass judgement on something we may disgree with and call it “discernment.”

  • “When the gift is used appropriately, it’s communicated and received in the manner in which God intended.”

    I disagree with this, I think it takes human choice too far out of the equation.

    but I do agree that we cannot just pass judgment on anything and everything and call it discernment.

  • Rod

    Right on David! Discernment is lacking; however, I believe that we’ll find it very difficult for discerment to be appreciated within the institutions that man creates. And we’ll beat our heads against the wall wondering why what God established just doesn’t work in some places.

  • rod… could it be because what we often call church is simply not what god established?

    “When the gift is used appropriately, it’s communicated and received in the manner in which God intended.”
    i too disagree with this… this is why outrage exists, because sometimes people don’t listen regardless and it’s pretty darned annoying! jesus was crucified for saying stuff in an appropriate way!
    when people are unhappy with discernment they’ll pretend or feel they’ve been harshly judged! it’s just peoples natural fear of change and hanging on to their idols of comfort. churches do it, governments do it, even educated fleas do it! (i feel a song coming on!)
    i’m very grateful for a bunch of discerning friends and consider myself very fortunate… sometimes i’ve felt judged, only to work out later they were right all along. discernment can be very uncomfortable to people too proud to be humble. me and my wife are always discerning things in one another… even though we love each other to pieces it still doesn’t always run smoothly… normally humility and the desire to be better wins the day in the end and the discernment wins through… but the idea that people simply hear the voice of god when you speak to them with a good and appropriate heart, is i think too simplistic. even the best of us build up walls for the soul purpose of shutting god out. say it ain’t so.

  • lor

    i have seen discernment applied and received as God intended it… when people’s motives are true and people are humble enough to accept the truth in what was being offered. I’m not saying that’s how it works every time, but it does work. otherwise, why would any of us bother?

  • Rod

    jonbirch ~> Your first statement is exactly right. It’s quite often not what God established.

    I believe that God builds relationships in His body. Sorry if this sounds critical, but a lot of what happens when man institutes his ways that people think relationships are being built up – but what is being built up is a social network. That’s not a horrible thing, but the body of Christ depends on relationships, not just people coming together to perform reliigous motions. Again, I apologize if that sounds hyper critical.

  • lor – of course it works, I’m just saying that it’s not necessarily a benchmark for “rightness”.

    luther got kicked out for his discernment…and of course we all know what happened to Jesus 🙂

  • this is absolutely true. A while back, I started up my website ( with the tagline “a healthy criticism of the modern day church,” and it served as a “criticism from within” platform. it has since turned into a “criticism of everything” blog since then, but the religion section of my blog deals with the same thing.

    Are you, by chance, a Campolo fan? His book, “We have met the enemy, and they are partly right” is spot on about this sort of thing.

  • It seems to me that sometimes we need discernment to know when a particular criticism is really discernment, or really judgmentality . . . but of course either way it often hits too close to home at first, to really, um, discern which it is.

    No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. I fully agree that this is a vital gift for the Church!

  • i’m with you on this rod. you don’t sound hyper critical, just discerning.

    i understand your point now lor… remember though, many people actually HAVE stopped bothering because their concerns were not listened to, they got labelled as trouble makers and now no longer attend church… and i mean ‘many people’.

    some leaders hate challenge of any kind… they love to challenge though.

  • jonbirch – I know many of them personally, several are in our faith community now

  • yikes. they walk among us!

  • yeah, I AM “one”

  • randy

    NP, sadly, this post gives me the impression that you, as a minister, are really not much different than any other Christian minister I have ever met, read, or listened to, from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist on.
    Some statements that influence my opinion:

    I say that discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit…
    Then how did I, as a non believer, get my ability to discern?

    …church is inundated, even plagued with all kinds of spirits, some good, some bad. Even demons masquerade as angels of light, and they do this especially in the church, among her members, pastors, leaders, committees, theology and practice. Rampant!
    My gosh! This is the type of language I heard from militant Pentecostal ministers before and after they cast demons out of their congregants as they were writhing on the floor. But ya know, in all my years in the church, Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, non denominational, I never once recognized any evidence of any demonic activity, in anyone. Evidence of mental and emotional problems, but no demons ever made themselves known.
    NP, in my view, you are simply making statements based on your reading of the bible, independent of any mental reasoning, and all those who are agreeing with you, are simply agreeing with you, independent of mental reasoning.

    Please forgive me if anyone finds this insulting or antagonistic. I know this is a Christian blog, and so many of you have been gracious and understanding of my occasional questions and comments, especially Dave. I guess at times I forget where I am, until posts like this wake me from my dream.

  • I kind of wonder if maybe discernment and criticism should be considered on separate terms. Discernment is the ability to see the truth about a situation while criticism is simply “the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything; the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.” Most people who truly have the gift of discernment don’t need to tell people they have it; it is obvious to (almost) everyone that they do. As for criticizing the church, I see both sides. We need to be able to look honestly at the church and note it’s shortcomings, even by highlighting the errors that are happening it. On the other hand, the church is the Bride of Christ. Be careful about condemning the bride who Christ died for! She is still his precious bride and is worthy of respect and dignity. It is the critique that misses the respect element that I react to. Sure, tell me what the church is doing that is in error, messed up, and even sinful. But be respectful, this is His bride you are talking about.

  • randy:
    i’m going to respond on the blog, but it’s down right now for some unknown reason. just to clarify, when I speak of spirits, I’m not talking about the typical hyper-pentecostal foaming at the mouth stuff. i’m talking about deception and lies, abuse and manipulation, greed and violence. i see these as having roots in what Paul calls principalities and powers that are sometimes demonic in proportion… that is, very evil and destructive to humanity… so, no, i agree about the tv-evangelism kind of demons…. i’m talking about subtler and more sinister manifestations that the church is afraid to get honest about… i realize you may dismiss the spiritual dimension to these things whereas I don’t.. anyway, thanks for your comment. hope i can post this soon.
    mark: sometimes being nice isn’t helpful, but i get your point. respect i hope is always a given for who she is, not what she does. but let’s not forget the first three chapters of the revelation… not nice at all. in fact, down right nasty.

  • Darren

    Mark, I don’t think that a church is worthy of respect just because it is a church. Respect is earned, not given away. To my eyes, many, many churches fear criticism and change simply because they might be exposed for the wealth of lies and fantasies they are peddling. The core business of the church is to keep it’s adherents ignorant and credulous, so it cannot tolerate independent thought from it’s customers.

    Any institution that is not exposed to healthy criticism will soon become corrupt, whether it is a church, a charity or a government. If the rot has already set in, suppression of criticism becomes crucial to survival.

  • Rod

    Randy ~> You have a good point, discernment is not something reserved for only Christians. You certainly can and should have the ability to discern right from wrong. The kind of discernment that is being referred to here is what Christians refer to as “spiritual” discernment that really refers to truth and error as it applies to God. That’s a short answer, but felt I wanted to state that there is a difference and it doesn’t negate the fact the “non believers” have the ability to be discerning in their lives as well. I get what you’re saying and Christians should never imply that a profile or personality trait created and provided to humankind is in anyway reserved for them because they say they “believe” in God.

  • makeesha – me too!

    darren said, ‘Any institution that is not exposed to healthy criticism will soon become corrupt, whether it is a church, a charity or a government. If the rot has already set in, suppression of criticism becomes crucial to survival.’
    yes indeed.

    but rod, surely all good discernment comes from the same source, whether it’s exercised by christians or not. surely a christian believes all good things come from god and just because peoples worldviews are different they surely will still display great and good things. ghandi wasn’t a christian, but was wiser than me.

  • to a modern western world, notions of demons and spirits seem ridiculous… many psychological and physical problems which we now name, such as epilepsy, self harm or ADD etc. would have been called demons… demons can be named. so let’s name them where we have names. ‘demons’ seems to cover a massive range of things, surely if the persons ailment mystified you 2000 years ago you’d call it a demon. this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for the sick… it does however mean we should stop using antique language wherever possible. it may be helpful for a few, but it surely alienates the masses.
    just a thought… what do you guys think?

  • Rod

    jonbirch ~> But 1 Corinthians 2:14 tells us that the man without the Spirit does not understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

  • randy

    Rod: But 1 Corinthians 2:14 tells us that the man without the Spirit does not understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
    Rod, if you can, would you offer an explanation of this verse, and your use of it.
    What or who is the “Spirit”? If it is the Spirit of God, can I, a non believer, have the Spirit?
    Ask me anything concerning those things that a “man without the Spirit does not understand” and let’s see if I don’t understand. If I do understand, does that mean I, a non believer, has the “Spirit”, or does it mean that 1 Cor. 2:14 is false?
    Just curious.

  • Rod

    Hi Randy ~> Good questions. I’m not going to put you to a test though, because I feel like it would be rude on my behalf.

    When a person puts their faith in God rather than themselves or something else the Holy Spirit indwells in people of faith. It’s a seal if you will of being a new creation that has been resurrected from what we call “spiritual death.” Without being reborn by God in accordance with our faith in Him we are spiritually dead.

    A non believer is not filled with the Spirit of God, because as I said we are born into this world not connected to God so that we are able to make a choice to either put our faith in Him or not. So if we don’t want to put our faith in Him than than we do not become a personal Temple to which He would dwell as the Holy Spirit.

    I believe that we see a lot of people who come up with some form of answer to things of God and it certainly may be some spirit that they have – but not necessarily the Holy Spirit.

    People without the Spirit cannot understand how the body of Christ works; however, they could easily identify with what man institutes and calls church or religion. Nor can they understand how Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church/Great Shepherd ministers through people to others in His body/sheep. People without the Spirit don’t understand how He baptizes us with His Spirit, but they may understand the symbols and traditions of man’s baptisms. They don’t understand how the saints commune when two or more gather, but they may be able to understand the communion traditions of man.

    None of this is a put down to people who don’t have the Spirit. Every single person born has the capacity to choose to put their faith in Christ or not. God has made it possible for human to be the Temple – the physical one was destroyed in 70AD. If we choose to put our faith in Him than we have the ability for Him to dwell in us as His Temple.

    You have the same choices that I have to make. I’m not in some special place with God. I have to choose every day to put my faith in Him. The choice of faith in Him or faith in myself is constant.

    Being a non believer means that we’re not connected to God. So then we can’t be disconnected from Him and at the same time understand Him. It’s like having what we call a friend and never having anything to do with that person. We’re disconnected from them yet we think we know them from what we have heard about them. We can’t create our own intellectual connection with God.

  • i don’t think we can say who is or who isn’t connected to God. If there is a God, he is, indeed, as Paul said to the Athenians, “He is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.”… as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.” Since we are his offspring…” Paul lumped himself in with everyone and seemed to refuse distinguishing between those “in” and “out” of God.

  • Rod

    True enough it’s not our call to say who is connected or saved. We can certainly say what it takes to be connected because we know that we’re judged by our faith. If a person claims not to believe in God, than it would make sense that they’re not connected to Him.

    Paul did write in 1 Cor. 5:12, 13 “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.” While he lumped himself with all others in the Body of Christ, he did make a distinction between those inside and outside of the body.

  • Rod

    Randy ~> I said I felt uncomfortable testing you. This isn’t a test, just a question.
    Do you understand that Jesus Christ is the only source of eternal life and salvation?

  • randy

    Rod, running out of time before I have to head out. Will answer quickly.
    Rod: Randy ~> I said I felt uncomfortable testing you. This isn’t a test, just a question. Do you understand that Jesus Christ is the only source of eternal life and salvation?
    I understand that you believe Jesus Christ is the only source of eternal life and salvation. I just don’t believe in eternal life, the need for salvation, or that Jesus Christ was or is (a) God. But I do understand what you believe. I believed it for 25 years.
    As for you explanation above to my question, you pointed out many things that non believers can not “understand”. Perhaps we need to define “understand” because I understand all those things you mentioned because I can read about them in the bible just as you can. I just don’t believe in them as you do. I see many of what you believe in as simply religious tradition. I “understand” the significance they have for you, but perhaps disagree as to how that significance is arrived at. You probably believe they are significant because of the “Holy Spirit”. I see them as significant to you because you believe what the bible says. I do not think we have any different understanding necessarily, we just place different importance on the subject…I think 🙂
    Thanks for your thoughts Rod.

  • Rod

    Thanks for responding Randy. It’s diffiicult to respond it short snippets.

    I can see how someone could think that people come to their beliefs because of what a Bible says, or by religious tradition.

    I believe that people could have the testimony of the Holy Spirit in their life without ever having picked up a Bible. I believe there’s a big difference between understanding what the Bible says or what religious tradition says about God and how a person lives out what they believe.

    How does one reach these understandings without dependence on the Bible – but dependence on the Word – Jesus Christ? That’s what matters to me. I’m not moved by religious tradition. Religious tradition is designed and instituted by man. I don’t depend on man.

    There has to be a dictinction between the human intellectual understanding that we have apart from actually living out what we believe. I think that distinction has to be seen personally in relationship with others. Just because I say I believe something doesn’t mean much. I could adapt very well to religious tradition and I could like you say adapt to what the Bible says. But it’s really in how I live that would confirm the difference. I know a lot of people who know the Bible inside and out and they adhere to all the do’s and don’ts of their group, but it can’t be seen in the way they live their life. IMO it’s because their Bible beliefs and their traditions are really void of the Spirit.

  • randy… what do you mean by newborns being disconnected from god? i can’t buy into that… it sounds like original sin… i believe in original creation.
    of course there is a distinction between those inside and out of the church or those who profess christian belief and those without… but i distinguish between a lot of things. i believe i probably have more in common with randy than i do with my supposed redneck christian brothers and sisters… that’s a distinction i’m happy to make even though it apparently judges my ‘fellow’ christians… mind you, i probably have more in common with a monkey than those people (i certainly hope so!)
    as a christian, surely you must believe that whenever someone does something good it is of god… and very often people who do good have discerned what is right to do.
    i don’t know enough about the background of this passage to fully understand it, but i do know what i see in the world around me… i trust that, indeed it’s my job to discern that.

  • sorry… i meant rod at the beginning of my last post.
    i did mean randy in the middle of the post.
    and i certainly didn’t wish to say that randy was a monkey… i’ve just noticed it could be read like that! doh!
    clearly time for bed!

  • Rod

    jonbirch ~> I hope I’m neither a redneck or a monkey. 😉

    We’re born separated from God in the fact that we’re born given the choice to accept or reject Him. By putting our faith in Him we accept Him. Original sin doesn’t mean that you’re born being a bad person. Sin means separated from God. When Adam and Eve separated themselves from God that was the original sin. It was imposed upon mankind, not as an ugly burden to carry, but as a means of giving man the ability to choose God or not. I believe that original sin has nothing whatsoever to do with physical death, but with spiritual death. We are dead spiritually until the Holy Spirit resurrects us and gives us new life.

  • Rod

    P.S. Jon ~> I believe a lot of institutional churches teach a false idea of what original sin is.

  • fantastic post!

  • JDH

    Discernment is a difficult gift, if used fully to the glory of God. I never could put a name on what was going on with me, but all my life I’ve been an observer, reading people. Many times feeling things that was going on with a person I just met. In Service I often can distinguish several states of emotion of those around me are experiencing. Sometimes after meeting someone or in regaurds to those close to me, I will have a dream telling me something about that person. I always know its from God because I don’t usually remember my dreams. I often am afraid and unsure about speaking up about these things because I never want to speak of myself, only the oracles of God. I ask God, if it be your will and for a sign. Then even afterwards, Im looking for confirmation from Him. This is how I assure myself that this gift is always being used to God’s Glory. You always feel like people think your crazy or weird. I’m constantly looking for a better understanding of what I am experiencing. Ive been accused of being nosy and weird.

  • Naked pastor, I wonder if you could provide me some insight on this gift of discernment. I often believe I have it, but how can I know for sure? I just had a confrontation with a pastor and during the discussion I felt as though I understood every little intent of his heart as he berated me and refused to hear what I had to say since I had not been with the church “long enough.” I actually recorded it but then listening to it a second time I found myself weeping for I felt that his accusations were indeed correct and I was horrible for having responded in the ways I did. Now I’m reviewing it all in my mind again and I’m slowly coming back to the same conclusions I had at first. I fear actually hearing it again! How can I really know if I have discernment or if I’m just a cynical jerk who disrupts the peace??