Distinguishing of spirits is identified as a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians 12:10: “and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.” This will serve as our base verse, but – as always – we will look at many, many others. :-)
Distinguishing of Spirits – Basic Definition
The first thing we need to determine is what constitutes a “spirit.” It is the Greek word pneuma, meaning wind, breath, or spirit (the Hebrew equivalent used in the Old Testament likewise has these multiple meanings), and except for 4 out of 384 occurrences of “spirit(s),” pneuma is used exclusively in the New Testament.
It can be a demonic spirit (as in Luke 6:18 and Revelation 16:14), a person’s spirit (as in Mathew 5:3 and Luke 1:47), an angel (as in Hebrews 1:14), a spirit of a prophet (as in 1 Corinthians 14:32 and Revelation 22:6), the seven Spirits of God (as in Revelation 3:1), the Holy Spirit (as in 1 Peter 1:12), and an external addition that makes a personal act a certain way, including spiritual gifts and emotional state (as in Romans 8:15 and 2 Corinthians 4:12)
Now, what does “distinguishing” mean? This is the Greek word diakrisis, meaning the act of judgement. It is translated as discern, distinguishing, and passing judgment, and its root, diakrino, is translated a large number of ways. The central idea of all these translations is to examine with a critical eye and make determinations about it.
One important place where diakrisis is used is Hebrews 5:14: “But solid food [deeper spiritual teachings] is for the [spiritually] mature, who because of practice have had their sense trained to discern good and evil.”
I believe this is appropriate context for the distinguishing of spirits – determining between good and evil.
Going Deeper - Specifics
John elaborates in 1 John 4:1-6 (read, don’t skim – this is critical!):
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;
3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now is already in the world.
4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
5 They are from the world; therefore they speak as the world, and the world listens to them.
6 We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
From this passage, we glean a number of important points about the distinguishing of spirits:· Some demons will masquerade as angels or the Holy Spirit (v1) – so just because somebody claims to be doing something under God’s direction, don’t believe it without applying some critical thought.
· Spirits that deny Jesus Christ’s physical life on this earth are demons (v2) – there are some cults that believe this, so this is easy enough – stay away from them.
· Spirits that deny Jesus are the spirit of antichrist (v3). Obviously anyone who denies that Jesus is God is not working for God. But I personally believe this verse has a broader application. Even a believer can fall into sin and give into the self-serving messages that demons try to convince all of us to believe. So, if a believer is acting in a way that temporarily denies Jesus’s lordship over their life – that is, that serves themselves rather than serving Christ – it is a spirit of antichrist (by the way, that term is actually never used in the Bible as a name for “The Antichrist” in the End Times – it simply means opposition to Christ, literally anti-Christ). So, even in a believer, something they’re doing or pushing (even in the ministry) that is intended to bring glory to them rather than glory to God is a spirit of antichrist. Remember, spirit does not exclusively mean demon – it can be “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (v6).
· We don’t have to be afraid of these spirits (v4) – we just need to watch out for them – stay vigilant!
· Another easy way to determine if a spirit is from God or from Satan is to examine what has influenced the action and what this action is speaking to (v5-6). For example, without naming names, I have seen books by “Christian” authors on how to get rich and how life is all about *you*. This is not serving Christ – this is pandering to worldly desires.
Conclusion and Personal Experience
So, what does all of that information boil down to? The distinguishing of spirits is the act of and ability to determine whether a person, action, or movement is being influenced by God or by Satan and his kingdom (the world).
This is another one of those spiritual gifts that I believe we all have a certain degree of (evidenced by the fact that we are instructed to in 1 John 4:1-6 and it is explained that we build up the ability in Hebrews 5:14), but some are clearly given a far heightened degree of it when God gives them this spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:10).
Also note that, as we previously discussed, it seems (both Biblically and from many believers’ personal experiences) that God grants people a temporary dose of a spiritual gift at certain times. I can personally attest that, while this is certainly not one of my primary spiritual gifts, God has given me this heightened ability in certain circumstances, during which I have been able to simply “sense” that some things were being influenced by demonic activity and that some people were acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The former is quite scary, I readily admit, but both are very helpful.
Do you think you have the spiritual gift of distinguishing of spirits (or have you experienced it temporarily)? Do you know anybody who has this gift? Considering the aspect that we all have it to a certain degree, when have you used it in the past?