One of the most interesting (and most important) spiritual gifts mentioned in the Bible is “discernment of spirits” (1 Cor 12:10).
Briefly defined, this is the ability to tell the difference between various spirits that may be operating in the life of a person, animal, or place. It’s a much-needed gift, but it’s not always understood or received very well.
There are many people who don’t have any spiritual knowledge or experience at all. These folks believe only in the physical, material universe that everyone can see. They’re likely to dismiss the idea of spirits as either superstition or mental illness of some kind.
But for others, the spirit world is very real. Among these people, experiences are quite varied – including everything from feeling the presence of someone who can’t be seen, all the way up to hearing audible voices and seeing apparitions with something close to a physical form.
What many people don’t realize is that the gift of discerning spirits has many levels, and isn’t usually discovered all at once. For many (and perhaps most) people who have this gift, it’s unleashed a little at a time, over the course of a lifetime.
The first level of discernment is simply noticing the presence of spirits, and being able to distinguish a spiritual presence from our own thoughts or feelings. People who first awaken to this can’t usually tell one spirit from another, and are likely to believe that all spirits are manifestations of the same spiritual “energy.”
While I wish that things were this simple, my experience proves otherwise. Not all spirits are good or helpful or benevolent! While I believe everyone (and perhaps even everything) will eventually find oneness in God, that’s not the way things are in this world right now. Thus a higher level of discernment is needed if we’re going to advance in our spiritual life.
The second level of discernment is the ability to tell good spirits from bad ones. Christians at this level typically attribute positive spiritual experiences to the Holy Spirit, while relegating all negative experiences (and those that don’t fit with their theological worldview) to the devil. I was at this level for many years, and thought that this was all there was to discerning spirits.
Over the last couple years, however, I’ve realized that there are many more spirits at work in the world than just the Holy Spirit and the devil. It seems I have arrived at a third level of spiritual discernment, which allows me to perceive the name and function of each individual spirit.
The good spirits include those of God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit (who I call Sophia), the virgin Mary, and countless other saints and angels in the heavenly realm. While all of these spirits are united in their will or purpose, they each have distinct personalities – and distinct roles to play in God’s work of redemption.
Among the evil or fallen spirits, I have encountered not just one Devil, but several distinct demonic presences – including spirits devoted to things like racism, misogyny, fear, hatred, anger, lust, and depression. While each of these has a unique presence, they too are united in a single goal – the division and disruption of God’s plan for oneness.
Indeed, I have discovered that the spirit world is far more complex than I had thought. The complexity is heightened even more when we consider that evil spirits can pretend to be good ones. As Saint Paul tells us, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14).
This is why discernment of spirits is so important. And while it may seem difficult, there are actually some very simple ways of testing the spirits:
One way to test the spirits is to see what they say about Jesus. As Saint John tells us, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2-3).
While I don’t personally believe that overt knowledge of Jesus is necessary for salvation, I do know that a good spirit would not malign His name, or suggest that God has not been incarnated (that Jesus hasn’t come in the flesh).
A second test is found just a few verses later: the test of love. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,“ John tells us. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…Those who say, I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen “(1 John 4:7-8, 20).
While I wish I didn’t have to say this, it bears repeating: love does not discriminate. Thus, any voice that tells us to look down on another because of his or her race, class, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, or even religion cannot possibly be of God!
Finally, there’s the test of spiritual virtue (or fruit). “You will know them by their fruits,“ Jesus tells us. “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit”(Matt 7:16-18).
St. Paul expands on this idea in his letter to the Galatians, telling us that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Gal 5:22-23).
If a spirit is leading us to develop these qualities, it’s a pretty good sign that this spirit is a godly one. Conversely, a spirit whose guidance produces the opposite of these virtues (hatred, depression, division, intolerance, greed, infidelity, violence or addiction) is one we should be wary of.
St. Ignatius notes that in general, a spirit that works in light and openness is good, while a spirit cloaked in secrecy and deception is evil. We should certainly be wary of any spirit that will not tell us, when asked, what his or her name is or who he or she is serving!
Most likely, a given spirit will have to be tested many times before we can be sure of his or her nature. But we shouldn’t despair in this matter. If we persistently seek after God, we are assured we will find Him!
As Jesus tells us in the gospel of Matthew, “Everyone who asks receives; and the one who searches finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt 7:8).
(Coming Soon: “What is Truth?” The Search for Meaning in a World of Competing Claims)