Spirit of discernment

The spiritual gift of discernment is also known as the gift of “discernment of spirits” or “distinguishing between spirits.”  The Greek word for the gift of discernment is Diakrisis.  The word describes being able to distinguish, discern, judge or appraise a person, statement, situation, or environment.  In the New Testament it describes the ability to distinguish between spirits as in 1 Corinthians 12:10, and to discern good and evil as in Hebrews 5:14.

The Holy Spirit gives the gift of discernment to enable certain Christians to clearly recognize and distinguish between the influence of God, Satan, the world, and the flesh in a given situation. The church needs those with this gift to warn believers in times of danger or keep them from being led astray by false teaching.
See also I Corinthians 12:10, Acts 5:3-6; 16:16-18; 1 John 4:1.


The gift of discernment of spirits is the one spiritual gift that has continually presented the most difficulties and challenges to me personally.

In the early days of our ministry, my husband Malcolm (aka ‘the Hunk’) and I would often travel and stay in many places in Asia and throughout New Zealand. It seemed that no matter where we were, my intrepid husband could sail through any situation, but it was a different story for me.

  • Staying in a place in Asia where strange spirits were worshipped? I would encounter them in my dreams.
  • Ministering in a region or church where there were trials or strongholds? I felt them acutely.

We were often led to wage spiritual warfare or intercede through my sensitivity to the spiritual realm.

It took me many years to realize that my encounters with the spiritual realm were one of the signs that I had a gift of discerning of spirits.

Now, because of my journey, I like to share what I have learned with others.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good… to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits…All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Cor 12:7-11)

Discernment of spirits is a gift of the Holy Spirit given to some Christian believers. It is a Spirit-given ability to distinguish whether Divine, human or demonic origins are the source of what is presented—whether it be in an atmosphere, encounter, event, or prophetic message.

Following are some signs that you may have the spiritual gift of discernment, from my personal study, observation and experience. You may not identify with all of them, but if you do have the gift, you will recognise some of these in your life:

1. Desire for the Gift

As with other spiritual gifts, desire is often the first sign of a gift of discernment of spirits (1 Cor 14:1).

  • You may have a longing to see people set free from demonic bondage.
  • You may want to be more effective in prayer and spiritual warfare
  • You may have a desire for holiness
  • You may simply be curious about the spiritual realm.

2. Love for God’s Presence

One of the benefits and signs of having a gift of discernment of spirits is a heightened awareness of God’s Presence and anointing. A true discerner will have a passion for the un-grieved Presence of the Holy Spirit.

This is because—and I will continually reiterate this—the highest use of the gift of discernment is not to see what the enemy is doing, but to discern what the Spirit of God is doing.

3. Sensitivity to the Spiritual Atmosphere

You may be more sensitive to spiritual atmospheres than most other people. In the early stages of developing the gift, you may be affected adversely by the presence of any demonic activity in the environment around you.

The reality is that we live in a natural world and a spiritual world concurrently. In the Bible, when Jacob came across a group of angels, he named that place Mahanaim, meaning ‘double camp.’  (Gen 32:1-2)

Like Jacob realised, we also live in a double camp where there is constant spiritual activity, and discerners have spiritual senses that are attuned to this.

4. Feeling Different from Other People

Most people, even in church life, experience life through their natural senses. However, someone with an emerging gift of discernment of spirits can see and sense things that others do not see.

This ability can result in us feeling different, lonely or misunderstood at times, especially when starting out. It is vital that someone with a developing gift of discernment finds a safe place to journey with others who are similarly gifted and accountable in the life of their church.

5. Unusual Signs

It is not uncommon for someone who is gifted in discernment to experience unusual events or manifestations.

People who are incubating a discernment gift begin to see or feel things that others are not aware of. This may include unusual visions, dreams and sensations that alert them to what is happening in the spiritual realm.

6. Childhood or Pre-Salvation Signs

It is not uncommon to experience things relating to your gift even before becoming a Christian. Our creator-God prepares us for our calling and gifts from conception. Even when a talent or gift is misused, God can redeem it and anoint it for His use to serve Him and love and minister to others.

As a child I ‘saw’ things in the night and as a teenager was sensitive to the spiritual realm, sometimes encountering demonic spirits in my room or dreams. Later, as a fully committed Christian, God redeemed this spiritual sensitivity as a gift of discernment. I know Christians who have a gift of discernment who were drawn to New Age counterfeit gifts prior to becoming a Christian.

7. Ability to Know What Lies Behind a Person’s Words or Actions

Someone with a gift of discernment has the ability to see behind what a person is saying and presenting. You may know whether they are telling the truth or not. You may also recognise if someone is manifesting a demonic spirit and be able to identify what that spirit is.

If a prophetic or revelatory message is brought, a discerner can often tell whether it is anointed of the Spirit or from the speaker’s own heart.

This is not always the case, and as with other revelatory gifts such as prophecy, you will sometimes get it wrong or have incomplete discernment (1 Thess 5:19-21, 1 Cor 13:9-10)

8. Confirmation of the Discernment Gift by Others and Leaders

You may have the gift confirmed through a prophecy given to you. My gift of discernment was identified through prophecy twice (perhaps this was because I was reluctant to accept it!)

However, the bottom line of the presence of any gift is that it is recognised and acknowledged by leaders in the church and that it is useful for its purpose—which is to help build up the church and bring people closer to Jesus.

When you submit what you are seeing or sensing, your leaders confirm your accuracy and your gift begins to be recognised for its effectiveness.

Whenever a gift is used to criticise or tear down a church, person or leader, you know it is being misused, or is simply a person’s hurt, frustration or agenda masquerading as discernment.

Because these kinds of abuses are common and have brought disrepute to the gift of discernment, I will take some time over the next couple of posts to share how the gift of discernment can bring value to church life.

Unlocking the Gift of Discernment eBook

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Available for purchase from the Enliven Ministries e-store.

The gift of discernment of spirits is a powerful weapon in times of spiritual warfare, and can be of great assistance when ministering freedom to individuals. And yet many who recognize they have signs of the gift of discernment, have difficulty knowing what to do with what they are feeling or sensing.

‘Unlocking The Gift Of Discernment’ incorporates wisdom from Enliven Blog as well as additional valuable material on how to be protected as a discerner in times of spiritual warfare.

To view ‘Unlocking The Gift Of Discernment’ in our e-store, click here

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Related Posts:

3 Levels of Discernment (and Signs of Each)

8 Ways To Grow Your Gift Of Discernment

© Helen Calder Enliven Blog – Prophetic Teaching
Enliven Ministries—in the David McCracken Ministries family.


As you well know if you are a regular reader of this site, I’ve written a book called The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment and that book was the result of spending almost a year studying the topic of spiritual discernment. As I hunted down all the references I could to discernment and as I studied what the Bible has to say about the topic, I was struck by how many people show interest in discernment as a spiritual gift, but also how the description of this gift rarely matches what the Bible tells us about it. Far too often the gift of discernment is said to be little more than a gift for making good decisions–for knowing God’s will when we need to turn to the left or the right. Yet the Bible tells us that it is more. For that reason I wrote a whole chapter interacting with gifting in general and this gift in particular. In just a couple of short articles I want to draw upon some of what I learned, sharing what the Bible says about the spiritual gift of discernment, showing what it is, how we can know if we have it, and what we are to do with it.

Unfortunately I can’t provide an exhaustive theology of the spiritual gifts to serve as a foundation for this series for that would make it go just a little bit too long. In my book I’ve done a more thorough job of discussing the basics of spiritual gifting, so you can always consult that when it becomes available (in January of 2008). For now, suffice it to say that the basic theology of spiritual gifts can be found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (and that this theology is consistent whether you are continuationist or cessationist–charismatic or non-). “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). We see here several important principles regarding gifts: there is a variety of gifts; they are empowered by the Holy Spirit; they are in all believers; they are a manifestation of the Holy Spirit; and they are for the common good of believers. We will leave it at that for the time being.

What is the Gift of Spiritual Discernment?

The Bible makes it clear that, even in the church’s infancy, there were many false prophets and teachers who claimed to speak God’s words with God’s authority. These men were strangers to God and yet claimed to speak for Him. Many Christians were drawn in by their words and were led astray by them. Because of this Scripture contains many exhortations for Christians to test all teaching. John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Just one verse earlier, in John 3:24, John has spoken of the fact that the Holy Spirit is given to us as evidence of God’s presence in our lives. And having spoken of the Spirit, John now ensures that his readers know that not every spirit is holy. We are tempted to believe and obey spirits, for they represent a spiritual realm that is outside of our experience, but many spirits are commanded by Satan, the father of lies. Because of this we need to test or prove the spirits to see if they come from God.

Some commentators draw a direct line from the spiritual gift of prophecy to the gift of discerning spirits, but I am not sure this argument can be sustained. When we combine the presence of this gift with Paul’s exhortation to “test everything,” it seems that the gift of discernment would be likely to extend far beyond prophecy.

All Christians are responsible to test words of teaching and prophecy. The Bereans were considered noble for hearing the teaching of Paul and Silas, receiving them with eagerness and “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). These believers tested the words of the apostles, examining the Scriptures to see if what they were being taught was consistent with what they knew of God’s revelation of Himself. In doing this they modeled the task of all believers. Christians are ultimately responsible for what they choose to believe, no matter whether or not they have been gifted with the spiritual gift of discernment.

While all Christians are responsible for what they believe, it seems clear that some people are especially gifted by God for this task. This is not merely a gift, but a responsibility. New Testament commentator Lenski says, “Certain difficult cases occur, for which more than common Christian discernment is necessary. False prophets love to use deceptive language. For the purpose of unmasking these prophets the Lord provides this gift and thus enables his church to turn from lying spirits to the one Spirit of truth.” The gift of discernment is the Spirit’s special defense against the lies that come from lying Spirits.

The power and influence of spirits can be discerned in word, deed, and appearance. Satan communicates in words that are inconsistent with Scripture and which convey information we know to be false. This happened when Satan approached Eve and directly contradicted what God had told her (Genesis 3:4). It happened when Jesus rebuked Peter for denying that He would die, saying “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23). Jesus discerned that behind Peter’s voice was the spirit of Satan. And so every word about God or that supposedly comes from God must be carefully tested and examined in light of the Bible.

As Satan and his spirits communicate in word, they also communicate in deed. Just as Jesus was able to perform miracles, so Satan and his minions are able to perform signs and wonders. 2 Thessalonians 2:9 warns that “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders.” In the last days, Jesus warns, “false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Deeds, no matter how extraordinary and how beneficial they appear, must be examined and compared to the Word of God.

Satan and his spirits can be discerned in appearance. Satan invades the Christian community with teachers and leaders who counterfeit the truth. These people will always introduce teaching that is foreign to Scripture. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are met by a slave girl possessed by a spirit of divination. Men and women with the gift of discernment are specially gifted in distinguishing between those words, deeds and appearances that are true and those that are falseFor many days she followed the apostles crying out “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Though her words were true, the spirit behind them was false and sought to lure people with a little bit of truth so that the opportunity could be used to heap reproach upon the gospel. Paul judged her words to be true, but knew by appearance that the spirits guiding her were insincere. He was not fooled by what might have been an appearance of godliness. And so appearances must also be carefully weighed against the Scriptures.

Men and women with the gift of discernment are specially gifted in distinguishing between those words, deeds and appearances that are true and those that are false. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians John MacArthur summarizes the implications of the gift of discernment in this way: “It can be said that the gift of discernment is given to tell if the other gifts are of the Holy Spirit, if they are merely natural imitations, or if they are demonic counterfeits. I believe God still empowers some of His people to unmask false prophets and carnal hypocrites. He gives them insight to expose imitations and deceptions that most Christians would take as genuine.” Those Christians who are gifted with discernment will be able to compare ungodly words, deeds and appearances with what God has revealed in Scripture and expose the fraudulent leaders and teachers for what they are. They are gifted with unusual ability in separating what is true from what is false and what is right from what is wrong.

In our next article we’ll look at how you can know whether God has gifted you in this way. And in the third article we’ll look at what you can do with the gift, what to do if you want it, and what to do if you don’t have it.


Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us.

Key Ideas About Discernment

Introduction to Discernment of Spirits
Good and evil spirits, consolation and desolation, and rules for discernment.

Discernment in a Nutshell
By Joseph Tetlow, SJ
The basics: spirits, feelings, and why they are useful.

Discernment of Spirits Video
A video produced by the Jesuits of the California Province.

Rules for Discernment
Ignatius distilled what he knew about discernment into 22 rules.

The Difference Between Consolation and Feeling Good
By Margaret Silf
The direction of our attention points out the crucial difference.

Using the Tools of Discernment

How Do I Know I’m Experiencing God?
By William A. Barry, SJ
Ignatius’s rules can help us sort out spiritual experience.

How to Know That a Choice Is Right
By William A. Barry, SJ
Barry discusses the most important criterion for confirming a good decision.

The Devil Comes Cloaked as an Angel of Light
By William A. Barry, SJ
Pitfalls and complexities in discerning spirits.

Some Ignatian Principles for Making Prayerful Decisions
By Warren Sazama, SJ
Provides help for those trying to answer the question, “How do we know what God wants us to do in life?” Included are seven qualities required for an authentic discernment process, three situations for decision making, and seven practical discernment techniques.

More Information about Discernment

dotMagis Posts About the Discernment of Spirits
From the category archives of the dotMagis blog.

Video: Discernment of Spirits
The first part of this video explains the basic ideas of Ignatian discernment. Narrated by John Brown, SJ.

Discernment: Consolation and Desolation
by Margaret Silf
This excerpt from Margaret Silf’s Inner Compass can serve as a “Beginner’s Guide” to Ignatian discernment. Silf points to many of the elements of discernment but will leave most people wanting to know more.

Praydreaming: Key to Discernment
By Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ
“God has placed his desire deep within the desires of my own heart. Praydreaming allows me to ponder those deep desires and to discover and say yes to God’s grace-filled path for my life.”

How to Survive Desolation
By Thomas F. Fischer
A succinct summary of Ignatius’s advice for handling desolation.

Discernment: Recognizing God’s Voice
By Brian Incigneri
A general survey on spiritual discernment based on Thomas Green’s Weeds Among the Wheat. Article discusses rules of discernment, ways of making a choice, and consolation and desolation. Article finishes with a note on St. Teresa of Avila and discernment.

The Affective Dimension of Discerning and Deciding (PDF)
by Franz Meures, SJ
Article exploring the place of the emotions in Ignatian discernment. Especially helpful for spiritual directors.

Obedience and Discernment (PDF)
By Francisco López Rivera, SJ
Reviews the steps by which obedience can be lived out and practiced in a discernment in dialogue that permits us to live in spiritual joy and perseverance with whatever has been commanded of us.


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