Discerning the spirits: Six approaches

Many of us have had the experience of feeling driven to do something, barging off and doing it, then experiencing that sick realisation that it was not the right thing at all. Many of us have also had someone tell us that ‘God has laid it on my heart and …’; yet their words have left us feeling confused, anxious, coerced or manipulated. Many of us seem to lack confidence in discerning the spirits or testing whether a prayerful experience or prompt is from God; and as a result, many of us seem to mistrust or deny any spiritual experiences at all. And yet, we have faith that God works through the Holy Spirit and prayer: and so, rather than denying all such experiences, we must find ways to discern the work of the spirits, good and bad.

It is true that every godly tool in this world can be misused: rational thought, the Ten Commandments, other Bible verses, prayer times, silence, spiritual promptings. As we observed in our service a few weeks ago, even the Accuser (aka Satan) uses Scripture. At that service, we looked at how to test whether our interpretations are godly or otherwise; our conclusions are here. When it comes to spiritual experiences, I suggest that similar tests apply. So here are some suggestions for spiritual discernment:

1: Wonder together Christ has promised to be present when two or more are gathered in his name. Therefore, if you are seeking to make meaning of an experience, meet a friend or your pastor and pray in Christ’s name. Talk about the experience. Together, wonder whether it is good or bad spirit; and, if it is bad spirit, pray that Christ will overcome it. We have confidence that the Spirit of Christ is infinitely more powerful than the Spirit of the Accuser: but for Christ to get to work, he needs an invitation. So gather with a friend and invite him in!

2: Wonder about stance In general, I don’t trust anyone who speaks with arrogance or quotes God to support their own position or power. Our egos and the powers of this world are so seductive that we can be easily convinced of our own righteousness: but this is not true to the Biblical witness. For we worship a God who calls us again and again to “uncompromising love, perfect obedience, endless forgiveness, justice for all” and, because we fail at these things again and again, we are also perpetually called to repentance and our need for grace. It takes humility for us to acknowledge our need for forgiveness; it takes vulnerability to open ourselves to God’s Spirit and allow it to work in us. Therefore, it is in not in arrogance or power, but in humility, vulnerability and weakness, that God works and may be revealed.

3. Consider freedom vs entrapment Free will is a gift from God. God never coerces or forces us to do anything. A prompt from God will be an invitation, not a compulsion: we can always say no. So a prompt from God will never feel like entrapment. This also means that we should be wary of people who use God-language to try to control or coerce us. Quite simply, God does not do that. Instead, God’s spirit consistently leads to a greater exercise of human freedom, for ourselves and for others.

4. Consider your fear God’s Word can be terrifying; and God’s Spirit can ask us to do scary things (try moving to Warrnambool away from family, friends and support networks to plant a church: an impossible ask!). But there is a difference between the healthy fear which marks the presence of the holy, and the petrifying fear which shrivels people up. God does not use scare tactics to dominate and diminish. So if you feel called to something that is terrifying, you will need to look beyond the fear to what God is actually asking: and for that, you will need to pray with others. Together ask the Spirit to soothe your fear; together ask, What is the ultimate goal? If you’re sensing control, limitation or coercion, either for yourself or for others, then the prompting is not from God. But if you’re sensing the goal is healing, hope and wholeness, and your fear is the reasonable response to being asked to do what seems impossible, then pray, accept your calling, and ask and give thanks for the Holy Spirit’s constant presence, assurance and guidance as you act.

5. Consider community Ultimately, God is calling us into communion with God and one another. We are invited into communities of love and grace to band together, to build trusting relationships, to confess our brokenness and accept forgiveness, to listen for the Word of God, and to seek and work with the movement of the Spirit. We cannot do this alone; it takes community to administer grace, to counter the forces of death and destruction, and to nurture life, healing and wholeness in all our contexts. So anything which is of God will never isolate, but instead will draw people together, strengthen connections, consolidate networks, and build up love.

6. Seek the light In darkness, the ego thrives; in darkness, things fester and rot. Alone, we mull over our wounds and shore up our defences. Jesus said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12); the light is where Christ operates. This is why these steps suggest drawing others into your discernment. Don’t hide what you experience in prayer; don’t cover up your spiritual promptings; don’t try to discern alone. Secrecy is not your friend, and a prompting which leads to covering things up is not of God. So I end as I began: Gather with others in the name of Christ. Talk about your experience; invite trusted others to speak into your life and call you on your illusions; test your discernment with them; pray, pray, pray together; and allow the Holy Spirit to guide you into all truth.


Emailed to Sanctuary 10 April 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Some ideas and one phrase borrowed from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon ‘Famine in the Land’, found in Home by Another Way (Boston, MA: Cowley, 1999). Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

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