To discern means “to perceive or recognize the difference.” 

According to Webster’s Dictionary, discernment means keen perception or judgment; insight; acumen. 

When we talk of someone as a discerning person, we usually mean someone who can see a situation clearly, someone not easily fooled, someone who sees the truth or falseness behind the words. 

When we talk about spiritual discernment, we are talking about the same qualities, deepen and quickened by the Spirit and applied to spiritual things.

What is Discernment?

Seeking discernment is really a matter of seeking wisdom.

The book of James gives us directions about how to ask for godly wisdom and spiritual discernment.

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

James 1:5-8 (NIV)

When dealing with the working of the Holy Spirit, as well as the flesh and the devil, in our own lives, the church and the world we all need to pray for wisdom.

Discernment is critical when there is an awakening by the Holy Spirit and an increase in power ministry for the glory of God.

If we are to trust the guidance that we believe the Lord is giving us in ministry, we need discernment to be sure that it is indeed the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and not some other source of inspiration.

The gift of discernment is a vital necessity for the Church:

  • Without discernment the body of Christ is vulnerable to the assaults of Satan and to the poison of false teachers and teaching within the Church.
  • Without discernment we are unable to minister Jesus’ healing and freedom to those oppressed by evil spirits.
  • Without discernment Christians are unable to move forward boldly trusting the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Because of fear, deception, and abuse, the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit have been shut down or not welcomed fully in the Church. This has resulted in a loss of the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance for missions and ministry. (This has been the case in many evangelical, as well as liberal, mainline churches).

On the other hand, where there has been an uncritical acceptance of spiritual gifts, manifestations, and guidance without sufficient discernment as to what comes from the Holy Spirit and what comes from the human psyche, other problems have resulted such as emotionalism, deception, schism, or heresy.

Oftentimes, we find this comes alongside a dishonoring of the gospel.

Discernment is a Process

Discernment involves human reason and observation, in which words or behaviors may be measured against the standard of scripture.

However, it is the eye-opening work of the Holy Spirit that reveals the source of some word or behavior.

  • Discernment is a supernatural gift given by the Holy Spirit.
  • Discernment is given through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and helping us detect truth from falsehood and the presence of evil spirits.
  • Discernment coming from the image of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all people, there exists a general awareness of spiritual realities that spring from the image of God.

There seems to be a natural human, intuitive awareness of spiritual realities such as good and evil.

This awareness springs from the shattered remnants of the image of God that remains within us. Paul confirms this and suggests that the capacity to discern is in the human conscience.

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

John Calvin said,

There are two principal parts of the light which still remain in corrupt nature: first, the seed of religion that is planted in all men; second, the distinction between good and evil that is engraved on their consciences.

This “seed of religion” is an innate general awareness of God and the realm of the Spirit. Christian discernment goes beyond this general awareness of spiritual things into focused separation of what is with Jesus Christ and what is opposed to or outside of Jesus Christ.

This comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as described by John in AD 90.

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.

1 John 2:27 (NIV)
Discernment enables people to learn from the anointing of the Lord

We have perhaps all had the experience of listening to someone teach in which something felt wrong, but we were not sure what it was. This could have been the Holy Spirit within us alerting us to some false doctrine or to the presence of evil spirits.

Discernment is Real

Discernment is not all supernatural: It also includes reasoned observation, a process which may be guided by the Holy Spirit. For this process to work, there are certain preconditions that must be met.

These are basically the same as those given in Chapter 4 about receiving guidance, and may be summarized as follows:

  • Being born again— John 3:3, 1 Corinthians 2:14
  • A will set on doing God’s will— John 7:16-17
  • A foundation in Scripture— 2 Timothy 3:16
  • Being a member of the Body of Jesus Christ, where the Word is truly preached as the context for discernment. 1 Corinthians 12-14

Also important in the discernment process is knowing oneself and knowing others. These others are people you trust and who are filled with the Holy Spirit. Alone we are easily deceived, but we must be careful that those in whom we put our trust are truly grounded in Christ.

All Christians have Some Discernment

All Christians have some discernment. We have the ability to distinguish between good and evil.

You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.

1 John 2:20 (NIV)

Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:14 (NIV)

The Role of Spiritual Gifts in Discernment

A person who has the spiritual gifts of knowledge and/or wisdom will often be referred to as “having discernment.”

A word of knowledge can be a fact revealed by the Holy Spirit, to help us in our ministry. For example when Jesus “knew” that the Samaritan woman “had had five husbands.”

A word of knowledge can also be an insight or a God-given understanding of problems, circumstances, or situations. 

Group of people processing discernment

Words of knowledge can come in many different forms including a scripture reference, an impression, a word or phase, an image, or a physical or emotional feeling. 

A word of wisdom helps us to apply knowledge we have been given in an appropriate way.

Scripture also speaks of another specific spiritual gift – “the discerning of spirits” – which refers to an ability to distinguish between the human spirit, the Holy Spirit and demonic spirits.

This may simply mean that an individual has the ability to sense the presence of each of these and distinguish between them. 

Or this may mean their gift could extend to having the ability to name a particular spirit and articulate its characteristics. This is a very useful gift in deliverance ministry. 

What is the Place of Discernment in Intercession?

1. Follow God’s Agenda

When we come together to intercede as a group, we seek to understand God’s will and direction for a situation, event, or person we are praying for.

We all have our own ideas and agendas about how we could pray for any given subject, but in intercession we desire for the Lord to lead us and show us how to pray.

Through a process of observation of circumstances, application of scripture and listening prayer with others, the Lord so often graciously guides our praying.

This isn’t just a one-time exercise at the beginning of a prayer time, but a continuing process throughout the whole time of prayer.

2. Evaluate a ‘Word of Prophecy’ or ‘Word of Knowledge’

Paul speaks of various gifts which are meant for the building up of the body.

But when someone gives a word of prophecy or word of knowledge, how do we evaluate its validity? 

Here are the 4 questions we use to discern:

  1. Is it consistent with the Word of God as well as with His character as revealed in Scripture?
  2. Does it give glory to God or to someone else?
  3. Does the Holy Spirit give confirmation of the word to others in the group?
  4. Are there objective, verifiable facts that confirm the word, or what fruit does it bear?

3. How Do You Experience a Confirmation in Discernment?

Often the way we experience guidance through gifts like a word of wisdom or word of knowledge is quite subtle.

The words can sound very “spiritual,” and sometimes even sound like scripture, but what impression are you left with?

Different people sense a confirmation in different ways.

This is not asking people if they have the same opinion or like the word given.

Discernment provides us a sense of righteousness in understanding what is from the Lord.

Discernment is a sense of “rightness” in your gut, as opposed to a sense of uneasiness.

In some groups, when a word is given that feels “right on” people say “amen,” in affirmation, not of the person, but of the rightness of the word given.

There is also the element of timing.

For example: If a group is focused on praying for a group meeting and someone suddenly shares a word about a national political situation, it would take strong confirmation by others in the group that this is actually a word from God calling them to change their prayer focus as opposed to a distraction from a human or demonic spirit. 

But feelings alone are not the key. There are also the other three questions in our rational discernment process mentioned above.

Together, the four questions and that sense of intuition when you examine the guidance or direction, help you practice discernment.

Creating Space for the Lord

Part of the mature exercise of discernment is making space for it to happen. 

Intercessors must be:

  • Willing to listen,
  • Allow words to be received, and
  • Allow evaluation of direction or words given.

Even the way these things are presented to the group helps to make this space.

People in a group practicing discernment

Phrases such as “I believe the Lord is saying” or “I have an impression” are more helpful than “God is saying” or ‘The Lord told me that you need to…” 

Keep the interpretation of what you have received separate from the word, picture, etc., that you have been given.

Don’t try to guess what it means. Instead ask God for clarity

Often the Lord will give the “information” to one person and the interpretation to another person. 

The team needs to then discern whether these things are from the Holy Spirit and what to do with them.

Exploring Intercession

Once people begin to move forward in intercessory prayer, there are often questions that arise, such as:

  • “There are so many needs, how do I know which I should pray about?”
  • “How do I know I am praying God’s will in a situation?”
  • How does the Holy Spirit guide us in prayer?

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