by Ronny H. Graham
“. . . to another discerning of spirits . . .” (I Corinthians 12:10)
We have just come through a year like no other in our lifetimes. None of us will ever forget the many things that have transpired over the year of COVID-19 and the 2020 election. People wonder if things will ever go back to normal, whatever that is.
One of the greatest tragedies of the past year or so has been the massive amounts of misinformation pumped into the media. A constant barrage of confusion has been broadcast about coronavirus, China, Russia, Trump and Biden, Black Lives Matter, and many other subjects. It has reached a point that everything seems on the verge of mass confusion and perhaps chaos. Indeed, in some places across the country and around the world, chaos has erupted into violence and looting—even anarchy!
Perhaps we are closing in on the time when the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2) realizes that he has but a short time (Revelation 12:12), so he is creating confusion everywhere. One minister used to say that if confusion appears to be a major factor in something going on, Satan is probably not far away.
But these are the times we live in. The chaos is hard to escape and equally difficult to remain unaffected by it. It is like a dark cloud following us around, trying to engulf us, and because it is everywhere, we cannot run away from it. The confusion has even touched the church, throwing church service attendance and Feast of Tabernacles plans into disarray. It has also contributed to yet another split in one of the churches of God.
We would probably all like to know what is really going on. What is the truth about all this? We hear so many lies that it becomes frustrating, and if we allow it, they can cause us to fall into depression. When that happens, we know that its ultimate source is that “great, fiery red dragon” (Revelation 12:3) who is bent on deceiving and persecuting God’s people (see verses 10-17).
In times like this, we need to consider one of the gifts of God’s Spirit, one that we do not hear much about. It is a godly virtue that we can thank God for giving to those who make use of His Spirit.
Gifts of God’s Spirit
The apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 12:4, 7-11:
There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. . . . But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
Reading through this list, we may think, “I don’t have any of these!” Quite frankly, we may have seen few of these actually exercised over our years attending the church. We may have never even seen a miracle or a healing with our own eyes or heard anyone get prophecy right, at least not yet. How about the word of wisdom or the word of knowledge? We may have witnessed a little more of those than we realize, not being “tuned in” enough to recognize it!
Across the street from a workplace of mine lives a Jewish rabbi. He has several degrees in theology, including a doctorate relating to Hebrew studies, and is well known across the Jewish community. While I was talking to someone in the neighborhood, a subject arose that related to a paper the rabbi had written. I voiced what the Bible says about the subject, and the other person replied, “I doubt you know the Bible as well as the rabbi.”
I thought for a minute before answering, finally saying, “You know, you might be right, but he doesn’t believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So, I am not so sure he does know more. Because God has called us, we have been given knowledge that very few people have, even though we may not feel we have it and probably do not use it as we should.
What about the gift of discernment, or as it reads in the passage, “discerning of spirits”? The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips paraphrases Paul’s expression as “the ability to discriminate in spiritual matters.” This latter phrasing seems to be a more precise expression of what Paul means—not just the ability to detect evil spirits but to distinguish between the spiritually positive and negative.
Dictionaries like Wikipedia define discernment as
the ability to obtain sharp perceptions or to judge well. In the case of judgment, discernment can be psychological, moral, or aesthetic in nature. . . . Christian spiritual discernment can be separated from other types of discernment because every decision is to be made in accordance with God’s will. The fundamental definition for Christian discernment is a decision making process in which an individual makes a discovery that can lead to future action.
This description of discernment emphasizes making correct decisions that proceed to wise actions.
Of the verb form (diakrino, Strong’s #1252) of the word Paul uses in I Corinthians 12:10, Strong’s Concordance comments, “to separate thoroughly, i.e. (literally and reflexively) to withdraw from, or (by implication) oppose; figuratively, to discriminate (by implication, decide), . . . contend, . . ., discern, doubt, judge, be partial, stagger, waver.” Discerning is a matter of separating, discriminating, evaluating, and judging, and once done, a person either approves or opposes the subject of his discernment.
In our society, words like “discriminate” and “judge” are considered almost taboo, but the truth is that we must make judgments all the time. What would be the point of discernment if it does not lead to a judgment? In Solomon’s prayer before God in I Kings 3:9, he asks for discernment between good and evil so he could judge God’s people. God, pleased with both the humility and good sense of his prayer, rewarded Solomon immensely.
Discerning Truth from Error
I and II Timothy and Titus are the last writings of Paul before his death. The editors of The Amplified Study Bible comment on the theme of these epistles:
The letters to Timothy and Titus are generally called the “Pastoral” Epistles. They are pastoral in tone and in the subject matter they address. While covering much of the apostolic instruction on the life and doctrine of the church, they also provide some guidelines on how Christians in the church should relate to society. One of the overriding concerns of the books is that truth be valued and guarded. Too often, today truth is subjective and culturally conditioned to the point where people don’t even have problems believing mutually contradictory ideas. Paul speaks of the value of truth in his own apostolic role, and he stands against false teachers who would distort the truth for their own ends.
In II Timothy 3:1-7, he warns Timothy, his trusted companion whom he considered as he would a son, about what he will face in the years ahead:
But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
So, as Paul is preparing to die, he warns his protégé to take heed of certain seducers, not only that he might not be drawn away by them himself, but arm those who were under his charge against their seduction.
Matthew Henry comments on verse 6: “They crept into houses to insinuate themselves into the affections and good opinion of the people to draw them over to their way of thinking.” The apostle finishes in verse 7 by describing these seducers as seeming to learn new things all the time but actually never coming to a right understanding of the truth. He warns Timothy—and us—to turn away from such people!
Is this not what happened in our former church association? Did not the men who crept in think they had a better vision for the church than the old way? Many of us, heeding Paul’s command, turned away from them. With the church continuing to splinter, are such deceptions continuing to happen? It is our job as God’s elect to pay attention at all times to what we are learning, and we should pray for God to help us build discernment to divide the Word of Truth properly (II Timothy 2:15). We need to be able to separate God’s truth from what is false.
Discerning Sin, Provoking Repentance
We do not like to think of such things occurring in the church, but it is not immune to them. In II Timothy 3, it was not clear if Paul spoke about these things being in the church, but in I Corinthians 5:11-13, he leaves no doubt:
But now I have written to you not to keep company with one named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves that wicked person.”
Paul explains that we have to evaluate—discern, judge—immorality of all kinds in the church, and he advocates the practice of disfellowshipping those who continue to practice such sins. The presence of unrepentant sinners in the congregation only causes trouble and creates divisions, as they had in the incident he had written about earlier in the chapter.
But what about grace, mercy, and patience? What about demonstrating the love of God? Some might ask, “What’s wrong with Paul? Doesn’t he understand that we live under grace? Did he not understand that we all need to co-exist and be tolerant of one another? Did he not know that he would have everyone pointing the finger at each other and bringing chaos into the church? Isn’t that what’s going on in the world as we speak?”
In II Thessalonians 3:6, 14, the apostle gives the same advice:
But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. . . . And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.
Some might think, “Paul needs to stop! He’s going to destroy the church!” But that is exactly the opposite of what he is trying to do. He urges church members to use the gift of discernment to root out the weeds—call them tares, if you will—among them so that good fruits of righteousness could be produced in the ensuing peaceful environment (see James 3:18). Remember, God gives the gifts of His Spirit—including discernment—for the improvement and growth of the body (I Corinthians 12:7).
In fact, what Paul commanded the Corinthians and Thessalonians to do is an expression of godly love. Admonishing Timothy and Titus to guard the truth falls into the same category. It is far less harsh than what many militaries have done to guards who fell asleep while on watch duty! The principle is the same—getting rid of those who demonstrate dereliction of duty—but disfellowshipping is far kinder and more effective spiritually.
Moreover, Paul advises this seemingly harsh treatment to bring about a beneficial effect: It is intended to produce shame in the disfellowshipped individual and spur him or her to repentance—to a restored relationship with God. Is that not what God wants everyone to do, repent and turn to Him? Paul advises in verse 15, “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish [caution, warn, and rebuke, if necessary, in love] as a brother.” In the end, disfellowshipping turns out to be a loving, corrective measure, not a punishment.
Paul poured himself out admonishing, warning, and even rebuking the brethren, imploring them to exercise discernment and judging, if need be, to keep the spirit of the world out of the church. In these times, the need is all the more pressing.
Discernment is a fruit of God’s Spirit that should improve over the years of our conversion, as the writer of Hebrews mentions in Hebrews 5:14: “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” Many of us have experienced a great deal over our long years in the church, and it is hoped the ability to discern right and wrong has been honed to a sharp point. Paul had the same hope, as he writes in Philippians 1:9-11:
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.