Discernment, or distinguishing between spirits, seems to be a gift the Church doesn’t talk about very often. Personally, I know that if I was teaching about spiritual giftings a few years ago, I’d kind of skim over discernment, because I didn’t understand it well enough to talk about it. Now, I’ve grown in that gifting and while I know a lot more about discernment, I feel that I understand it even less.
One of the big issues that I think we run into when talking about spiritual giftings is that we want to categorise and box them in so that we can better understand them. We want to be able to say discernment is always like this, and the prophetic is always like this. I’m not certain that is how the kingdom works. God is three and also one; Jesus is the lamb, and also the lion.
The kingdom doesn’t seem to fit in boxes, and I don’t believe spiritual gifts do either. They do not always look or work a certain way, and they are not without some level of overlap. I’m going to talk about how I’ve learnt to utilise my gift of discernment while I lead, and what it looks like for me. It may look like that for you, or it may look totally different.
I often know things about people that I have no human way of knowing. I’ll know what someone is struggling with, and often why they are struggling with it. I sometimes know so much information about people that I struggle identifying the source of the information, did they tell me that or did Holy Spirit? When I’m talking to an individual, this is a lot of information, but then on a corporate scale, it’s even more overwhelming. Trying to preach while hearing the thoughts of people in the audience has been very distracting!
This gift is very useful, and it helps me lead and pastor people well. But it would be easy for this spiritual gift to turn into suspicion; assigning motives to individuals or writing people off based on things I feel like I know about them. I need to be careful, and use my gift in a way that loves and empowers people, rather than in a way that tears people down. Here are two things I do to make sure I’m using my discernment gift healthily.
1 Corinthians 12 talks about spiritual gifts. Paul begins the chapter with “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” Paul talks about how the gifts all come from one source, and how we need each other. After talking about these gifts, Paul ends the chapter with, “Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”
Obviously when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians there were no chapters, which means the “most excellent way” must have to do with what he was just talking about, and also is what he will say next. 1 Corinthians 13 begins,
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
Love is the most excellent way for gifts to operate. Love needs to be the core, purpose, and goal for every spiritual gift, including discernment. It is when spiritual gifts are used apart from love that things become messy and unhealthy.
Love must be the lens we are looking through as we use our spiritual gifts, otherwise judgement, suspicion, and condemnation will be.
If I can’t find love in my heart for someone I won’t prophesy over them until I connect to love. Otherwise I’ll prophesy out of what annoys me about them, or what I think is wrong with them.
Discernment is a bit different, because at least for me it’s not something I feel like I can turn off. Which means while it’s the same process of not viewing the person through anything negative I’m picking up, but rather looking through that and finding the gold. It’s a constant process I need to be engaged in.
I constantly need to be aware of how I’m viewing the people around me, and believe that the people around me are intrinsically good, and doing the best they can.
People are not their sins, they are not what they are carrying, or the lies they are believing. I sometimes feel like I need to spiritually shove all of that aside and look at someone’s heart so I can minister and lead them out of a place of love. My gift of discernment becomes unbalanced if I use it outside of a conversation with Jesus, because I need His perspective to understand what I’m experiencing and to maintain love and hope.
Trust Leadership and People Above You
We need to choose to trust what people are saying over what we are experiencing. For me this was a hard concept at first. I really had to work at getting to a place where I trusted what I was hearing from God, and trusting what I was experiencing. Then I found myself in a conversation where the person was telling me that what I felt like I was discerning was not the case. In the moment I have a choice: Do I trust myself, or them?
I find it is healthiest to choose to trust the person over what you are experiencing. If I feel like someone is struggling with pornography, and then when I ask them about that they say they are not, then I’m going to take them at their word. Whether I understand why I’m discerning that or not, I’ll choose to trust what they are saying. Perhaps I’m picking up something coming against them, like a temptation that is trying to get them, or perhaps I’m picking up something someone else believes about them. When this happens I simply resolve to believe the person, and see if that resolves what I’m feeling.
If I can not resolve what I’m discerning, or if I feel like I’m picking up something that is a genuine danger to themselves or others, I may take it to a leader above me or someone on my team with the gift of discernment who also loves this person. If I talk to someone who does not have love and hope for the individual it’s just going to feed suspicion, and lead to unhealthy discussion. If our motive is helping and loving the individual with wisdom, it’s not going to become gossip.
When I’ve brought things to leaders above me there have been times where they have totally been picking up the same thing as me, and we’ve together been able to create a plan and find a way forward in helping that individual. There have been other times leaders above me have told me I’m wrong. If that happens and they are the leader over the area I’m ministering in, I will choose what that leader says over what I’m feeling like I’m discerning. That leader is ultimately the one responsible, and it’s between them and God. If I’ve taken something to them and they feel like there isn’t an issue, I’m no longer responsible for the issue.
The gift of discernment is wonderfully helpful in leading people into greater freedom, and setting them up for success. Much of my growth in the area of discernment came from finding other individuals and spending time discussing how they experienced things, and learning from each other. It is a gift that is worth stewarding and growing in, because when operated in from a place of love it will help you create a safe and thriving school environment.
Jim McIntyre is a BSSM alumni who completed his third year with the School Planting Department in 2018. Jim is part of the leadership team of Overflow Church Medowie in Australia, and is the director of School of Revival which is launching in 2020.