If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?" (Luke 11:13 NASB)
Our current series started as a study on the Model Prayer as given in Luke 11. The chapter continued with lessons on prayer and, in Luke 11:13, Jesus promised that our heavenly Father would give the Holy Spirit to us if we ask for Him. To understand what receiving the Holy Spirit involves, we have taken a detour through the passage in 1 Corinthians 12. Today, we come to the manifestation of the Holy Spirit whereby the recipient has the ability of distinguishing of spirits.
Matthew Henry describes this as the ability or power to "distinguish between true and false prophets, or to discern the real and internal qualifications of any person for an office, or to discover the inward workings of the mind by the Holy Ghost. (One example would be Peter/Ananias in Acts 5:3) MacArthur clarifies this further. "Christians with the gift of discernment have the God-given ability to recognize lying spirits and to identify deceptive and erroneous doctrine."
Discernment is critical, for, without it, we are easy prey for any scheme of our enemy, Satan. This manifestation works for the common good in several ways.
1) To discern false doctrine: The "prosperity gospel" is certainly appealing but even a cursory examination of Scripture will reveal how unlike Christ that idea of God's blessing leading to great wealth is. That's an obvious example, but without discernment, people can easily be led astray by doctrine that has the appearance of truth but does not actually agree with Scripture.
2) To discern deceptive leaders: Some years ago, several friends who were members of a mega-church invited me to attend services with them. They had a very popular minister who was widely known, and they were eager for me to meet him. When he approached us, I felt uneasy. By the time I had met him, listened to his message, and sat through the service, I wanted to run out the back door as fast as possible. There was something about this man that made me so uneasy that I did not trust him. My strong reaction was so unlike that of my friends and the people in their church that I distrusted it. Several years later, I learned of his involvement in a terrible scandal that had been ongoing at the time I met him. I wept that I had not said something about my uneasiness earlier. It was a Spirit-given manifestation of discernment that allowed me to avoid being swept up in enthusiasm for this charismatic leader.
3) to pray effectively for each other: When, as believers, we are burdened and oppressed by the enemy, it is helpful to recognize the lying spirit doing the oppressing. For example, when someone is overwhelmed by worry, fear may actually be at the root of the problem. In that situation, 2 Timothy 1:7 is a helpful focus Scripture. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind." When we are overwhelmed by fear, we can know that is not from God and we can claim the promise that not only has He not given us fear, but He does give us power, love, and a sound mind. In addition, discernment allows us to pray effectively, whether for ourselves or for others.
4) to to effectively battle evil: (This is closely related to #3) Ephesians 6 is very clear. "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." The purpose of the armor of God is to not only protect us from those forces but also allow us to do battle. Our only offensive weapon is the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. When we have the discernment to recognize the enemy against which we are to battle, we can more effectively use Scripture as a weapon, whether that enemy is fear, anger, greed, lust, death, idolatry or some other spirit. I tend to think of these "spirits" in terms of the Ten Commandments: idolatry, rebellion, pride, murder/death, adultery/lust, stealing/coveting, and lying. In general, most sin falls into one of those big categories, and Scripture can be used to ward off our propensity to indulgence in those sins. Recognizing the spirit of the sin helps us to combat it.
5) to restore our focus: Our battle is against the spiritual forces of wickedness, but our focus should not be on the spirits of the battle. Our focus should always be our Lord. When we recognize (discern) the deception of the evil one, that discernment should point us back to the Lord and away from the deception. Redirecting our focus, however, requires that we discern the misdirection. The Holy Spirit, then, manifests in such a way that our focus can be restored and we can be protected from heading in the wrong direction.
6) to protect us from ourselves: Humans have a tendency to listen to the loudest voice and follow the most persuasive leader. Christians are as susceptible as anyone (perhaps more so) and this should not be. I am often shocked by the way we embrace alarmist doctrine and causes without actually checking Scripture in an attempt to discern truth. Before we run off in every direction, we would do well to ask the Holy Spirit for God-given discernment so that we can recognize truth and discern falsehood.
One of the reasons I have sometimes made stupid decisions that have had costly consequences is that I have not always asked for discernment. Jesus was clear. If we ask for the Holy Spirit, He will give Him to us. My lack of discernment is no one's fault but my own.
The manifestation of the Spirit that allows "distinguishing of spirits" is critical if we hope to live effectively and victoriously as disciples. It is critical if we hope to pray for ourselves and others, and it is critical if we hope to effectively battle evil. The only way to be certain of our decisions is to have the aid of the Holy Spirit, and the only way to have that is to ask. Just ask.