Ever since his failed coup upon God’s throne, the enemy has resented God’s glory and been hostile towards His children who are to manifest his glory as Imago Dei. His fury that we should be the undeserved recipients of God’s lavish love is at the forefront of his mission to undermine that relationship. The result is that there is a cosmic battle of two kingdoms, that will (spoiler alert) culminate in the prince of darkness being utterly defeated and Christ reigning over the new heaven and earth. In the meantime, Satan, the father of lies, is hell-bent on destroying and deceiving the children of God. Even within the church, deception will come that requires discernment to combat (Acts 20:30-31). For this reason, throughout history, the church has required godly, spirit-filled apologists to expose and refute numerous heresies. “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15) You don’t have to look far in the world to identify where the enemy is manifesting his power. However, as Paul warns, the devil also comes dressed as an angel of light and can perform very convincing, but counterfeit, signs and wonders (ever read about Moses going head to head with Pharaoh’s magicians?). Of greater concern is how readily a false gospel can be accepted when people do not have spiritual discernment. Paul certainly doesn’t hold back when he hears about the Galatians getting duped (Galatians 3:1-3) So if things look and sound righteous, how are we to tell what is counterfeit or a convincing ripoff?
A Wise Choice
In a strategic counter-move by the Father, we discover the ‘reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work’ (1 Corinthians 12:10). Jesus was followed by crowds of people who came to him with a range of mixed motivations. Through the Holy Spirit, He would discern what was behind their requests or questions and acted with wisdom to address the real issue. Sometimes that issue turned out to be the result of demonic activity. Jesus could clearly discern when the enemy was behind something and He taught the disciples to do the same. Paul wrote to remind the early church;
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
When writing to the Corinthians to explain how the Holy Spirit would help them, Paul pointed out that one of the many supernatural gifts the Holy Spirit gives us is the ability to 'distinguish between spirits'. (1 Corinthians 12:10). The discerning of spirits isn’t just the ability to ‘see’ a demon and call it out, but it is also an ability to detect the forces at work under all the veneer of religion and godliness. This was important for two reasons: 1 to be able to discern when someone was afflicted by a demonic spirit, and 2. to be able to discern when demonic forces were affecting a person or situation.
A spiritual realm that was inhabited by demons and angels was commonly accepted in Jesus' day and rabbis were often called in to perform exorcisms. This is not uncommon today either in many cultures that recognise the spiritual is as real as the physical. However, to the Jewish people, what was so astonishing about Jesus, is that not only were demon’s terrified at the sight of him but they obeyed (Mark 1:34). Then, to put any accusation of sorcery to bed, once Jesus set someone free, they appeared to be completely restored body and soul! (e.g. Matthew 8:28-34, Luke 8:35). For example, I love this particular account:
“Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.” (Luke 9:42).
Imagine the look on the father’s face when he realised he had his son back! Free indeed! Isaiah prophesied Jesus would ‘bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.’ (Isaiah 61). As his disciples, Jesus passed this authority on to us. My goal here is not to diagnose what problems can be attributed to demons, but to point out that when the Holy Spirit reveals to us a demonic presence, we can take action through prayer to set others free.**
Sometimes the enemy takes advantage of a weakness of character to entice someone to do his dirty work. In John 13 we see an interesting scene play out. At what would be his last meal with his disciples before his death Jesus senses something's amiss. ‘Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” In what should have been the company of friends, Jesus discerned that the enemy had been working on Judas’ weak character to entice him into betraying him (vs2). Jesus looked Judas in the eye and knew it was him. Judas had that moment to make the right decision, but instead, he gave his life over to the evil one and slunk out to do his work (vs27). Judas wasn’t the only one that night who was stirred up by the enemy, but there was a very different outcome. Zealous Peter almost always acted without discernment and it got him into regrettable situations (face-palm). After Jesus had told the disciples He was going to leave them, Peter protested. “Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:23) We’ll come back to Peter later, and why his story is different from Judas'.
What should we be looking for?
"Dear friends, do not believe every spirit,
but test the spirits to see whether they are from God."
1 John 4:1
There are a few warning signs that the Holy Spirit will give you to that suggests a wrong spirit at work (i.e. it’s not him). Remember, the first sign that something wasn’t right for Jesus, was that his ‘spirit was troubled’ (Part 4 explores this more). The Holy Spirit will alert you to something that is the work of the enemy with an internal warning, a sense of restraint, or a physical repulsion. You can follow that up with questions, asking the Holy Spirit to give you a word of knowledge and wisdom on how to proceed. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what is behind it and requires mature insight from others. Some other key indicators that a false spirit is influencing a person or situation:
There will be a denial of Christ's authority as the risen son of God (1 John 4:3, 2 John 1:7)
There will be a twisting of the gospel of grace through Jesus (Galatians 1:5-7)
There will be an encouragement of behaviour and attitudes that anti-Christ-like (John 8:44)
In contrast with the fruit of the Spirit, patterns of bitterness, hatred, self-righteousness, or immorality, among other things will be manifesting. (Galatians 5:13-22)
It will incite persecution against true followers of Jesus (John 15:20)
There will be a controlling and manipulative presence
On a personal note, I have learned that accusation and condemnation are two calling cards the enemy leaves that are instantly recognisable. It can leave you intimidated, wretched, and defeated. It leads to self-doubt and confusion and is a sure sign the enemy is at work. In contrast, the Holy Spirit will bring conviction that leads to godly repentance, which is always followed by healing and refreshing (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
What to do with what you discern
Spiritual discernment will help you detect any suspicious activity, but spiritual maturity knows what to do with it. We need wisdom and grace when we discern spiritual opposition from the enemy so we can act appropriately.
It was remarkable how Jesus’ spiritual insight cut through fleshly manifestations to discern what someone needed to be set free from. Whenever Jesus recognised someone was suffering from demonic oppression, He responded with great compassion. Although He was firm with the evil spirit, Jesus did not need to be harsh with a person to deliver them from spiritual bondage. Years of suffering, loneliness, and hopelessness, were dealt with by a few words from Jesus. He saw into their souls, loved them, healed them, and restored them.
Similarly, at the earlier dinner discussion, Jesus discerned the difference between a character weakness exploited by the devil (Peter), and someone who had determined to pursue evil (Judas). While Jesus discerned Peter's character flaws, He also discerned the call of God on his life. Although He rebuked the spirit at the time, Jesus later pointed out to Simon that he was to overcome the enemy’s work not only in his own life but in the life of the emerging church. "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18).
It is important for us to guard our own hearts against judging too quickly. We may discern the enemy at work in someone's life, but we also need to ask the Lord for insight into the real person, so that we can differentiate the two. (Part 5 explores this more).
I think it is also important to go a step further with discernment. I was talking to a friend about someone we know who has a strong gift of discernment and who feels a responsibility to make known what they have detected. However, they have nothing but criticism to share. What is missing is the prophetic voice that encourages, edifies, and provides ideas for course correction - otherwise although we may be correct in what we detect, we are not operating in the spirit of Christ, but simply a critical spirit!
Sometimes the Lord may tell you to listen and not respond. It may not be the best time to address it, or you may not be the best person to do so. I once found myself in this situation and even though I discerned a spirit manifesting through someone, the Holy Spirit restrained me from confronting it. Sometime later God involved another pastor who, because of their gift for making peace, and the relationship he had developed with this person, the corrective word was received and accepted. The result was healing and reconciliation. (And only if you are in a leadership position with recognised authority would I suggest confronting any character manifesting a clear anti-Christ spirit, as Saul did with Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:8-12).
The Final Word
Learning to discern is more than being able to identify what spirit is behind something - it is about discerning what the Spirit of God is doing. We can be so preoccupied with assessing the enemy’s schemes that we have no idea what God is actually up to. We need to remain focused on giving him the glory and following His lead. For example, Jesus had been casting out demons left-right and backwards before the dinner plates were even on the Passover table, and yet, here He is giving permission for the devil to carry out his plan through Judas. Why?
Because He discerned the will of God, not just the wiles of the enemy.
Regardless of what Satan had planned through Judas and the religious leaders, Jesus knew which kingdom this act of treason, and his resulting death, was actually going to establish. Once Judas was out of the room, He confidently declared:
“Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.” - John 13:31-32
Jesus knew that when He finished his time on earth and returned to the Father, the disciples would need discernment to be able to remain faithful to the Father. He prayed for us, “… not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:15-17) Be encouraged by this prayer!
Jesus has given us the Word of Truth to align our hearts and minds with.
Jesus asked the Father to send us the Holy Spirit, and He did.
Jesus also said the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth, and He does.
The Holy Spirit provides us with a unique gift of discernment to help guide us as we can follow Jesus' instructions.
Learning to discern is a walk of faith with the Holy Spirit. It starts with learning what God has already declared his will is on any given situation.
Then it continues with discerning what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do in order to bring about God’s desired outcome. And one of the most wonderful and reassuring promises we have is that when the Holy Spirit is manifest in our lives personally and in the life of the church is this…
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is FREEDOM!
So be wise in heart, my friends, as you learn to discern the heart of the Father and be fully loved by Him.
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