Understand the TRUE Gift of Discernment -- and How to Train Your Senses
Aslan's Place, Hesperia, CA
TRAINING YOUR SENSES: THE GIFT OF DISCERNMENT
As an American Baptist pastor, l was accustomed to being around hurting
people. They wept in my office. They poured out stories of confusion,
abandonment, and betrayal. As a pastor I longed to help, but often I
could only refer them to therapists for counseling. Sometimes they got
better. Sometimes, they didn't.
In the late 1980s the Lord began to re-shape our ministry. His call on
our work and lives was to minister deliverance. But in the process, God
dismantled our expectations, revived and renewed our understanding of
spiritual gifts, and generally remodeled our theology and vision of the
Body of Christ. As if the Lord had hit a heavenly switch, as we prayed
for people, spiritual gifts lit up all over.
A group of earnest intercessors and prayer warriors came together.
People reported strange, out-of-the-box experiences. Their theology was
shaken in the presence of words of knowledge, visions, and prophetic
words. The gift of discernment exploded, although we really had no
understanding of the gift.
During ministry sessions, I asked team members to write down
impressions, words, or visual images they received. Perhaps the Holy
Spirit would confirm by giving the same revelation to more than one
All this time, I didn't feel, hear, or see a thing, spiritually.
Nothing. Then I began to feel a peculiar pressure on my head during some
prayer sessions. I approached a trusted friend who often saw physical
manifestations of angels and demons. I told her I was feeling this
pressure and asked what she saw.
She replied that she was seeing some demons. With that information, a
slow process began by which the prayer team members and I grasped what
was happening in us and our ministry.
Team members reported unusual, unexpected, physical sensations like
nausea, shaking, pressure, pain, or tingling. Not everyone had such
experiences and, among those who did, the reports were as varied as the
people reporting them. I stumbled upon the realization that when
prophetic team members said, "There's a demon here," I experienced
physical pressure on a particular place on my head.
A GIFT BY ANY OTHER NAME
Most Christians have been taught that the gift of discernment allows
believers to examine natural or spiritual actions, events, doctrines, or
practices to determine whether they are good or evil. Most Christians
have also been taught that discernment is the God-given ability to
determine whether a spirit is godly or demonic.
Although these understandings are Biblically accurate, failure to
address the means by which discernment occurs has left many believers to
rely on an intellectual process of analysis and application of
scriptural truths and principles. Within this understanding, discernment
becomes skilled decision-making or the ability to weigh evidence and
In 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 discernment is listed not as a human
ability, but a spiritual gift:
"Now to each one the manifestation of the
spirit is given for the common good. To one is given...the message of
wisdom...knowledge...to another faith...to another gifts of
healing...miraculous powers...prophecy, to another distinguishing
between spirits..." (NIV)
The New King James renders this phrase "discerning of spirits."
Elsewhere it is translated "discernment of spirits" (NRSV), and
"distinguishing all spirits" (NASB). In the New Living Bible this text
is paraphrased as "the ability to know whether it is really the Spirit
of God or another spirit that is speaking."
I sought understanding of this spiritual gift. I received a call from
Dr. Tom Hawkins, a scholar and Dallas Theological Seminary Ph.D.
graduate involved in ministry to severely abused people. The Lord was
about to explain to me a new understanding of His word.
THROUGH PRACTICE, THEY
HAVE THEIR SENSES TRAINED TO DISCERN GOOD AND EVIL
Tom Hawkins told me that he had received a Word of Knowledge. He gave me
the passage, Hebrews 5:11-14. He told me that he believed this
was a chief passage for what was happening to me.
I opened the Word and read these words:
"We have much to say about this, but it is hard
to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time
you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary
truths of God's Word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!
Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with
teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature who,
because of practice, have their senses trained to discern good and evil."
(NIV, Author's emphasis)
The final words, "solid food is for the mature who, because of
practice, have their senses trained to discern good and evil," shone
like a floodlight. For more than a year I and the prayer teams had
struggled with questions about physical sensations we had experienced.
Why did one member's hands get numb when he prayed? Why did another feel
pain in her chest? They'd experienced smells like rotting garbage,
high-pitched shrieking sounds, heat, cold, physical discomfort, and even
laughter. They'd asked the Lord more than once, What does this mean?
They were on the verge of finding some answers.
The book of Hebrews says mature believers are ready for solid food of
"teaching about righteousness." Verse 14 then describes one route to
maturity, saying, "the mature, who because of practice, have their
senses trained to discern good and evil."
Discernment is not child's play. It is a mark of the mature Christian.
According to 1 Corinthians 12:10, discernment is a spiritual gift. But
as the writer of Hebrews clearly teaches, this gift must be developed by
constant practice. Only then will discernment become a sharpened weapon
of spiritual warfare. Only then will God's people become acquainted with
"teaching about righteousness" in this area of discipleship and training
This made sense to me and the prayer teams. After all, teachers review
notes and practice presentations. Everyone in every field gains maturity
through practice. Why should we assume spiritual development is
DISCERNMENT THROUGH THE
FIVE PHYSICAL SENSES
I addressed the prayer teams, "In the spiritual areas of life, we
immediately assume if we can't do a spiritual activity correctly the
first time, what we're doing must not be of God. Hebrews 5:14 says
practice is necessary. We're to practice the use of our senses." The
goal of this practice is to train our five physical senses to
distinguish between good and evil.
Evangelicals commonly teach discernment as an intellectual process of
analysis and application of Biblical principles leading to logical
conclusions. The writer of Hebrews, it seems, flies directly in the face
of that understanding. Discernment is described as a sensory rather than
an intellectual process. How can this be?
Although some translations, including the NIV, render Hebrews 5:14 as
train themselves, the Greek is most accurately translated as train (or
exercise) their senses. The text refers specifically to the five
physical senses of touch, hearing, smell, sight, and taste.
The writer of Hebrews is saying discernment operates through the
physical senses. Discernment is tested with the mind by rightly applying
Scripture. This insight completed the jigsaw puzzle of understanding for
the prayer teams and me.
I catalogued their experiences, "Team members have had physical
reactions to the presence of demons, angels, witchcraft, spiritual
powers and authorities...They've smelled sulfur and rotting garbage...I
have heard the Lord speak my name. I have worked with people who have
heard the Lord speak audibly, angels sing, demons talk and laugh, and
the sound of horses' hooves thundering by."
IS SENSORY DISCERNMENT SCRIPTURAL?
Throughout history, many of God's people have experienced both godly and
demonic presence with their senses. Even a cursory reading of Scripture
reveals a consistent pattern.
God's voice was heard by Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:8), by
Abraham (Genesis 12:1), Moses (Exodus 19:19), Joshua (Joshua 1:1), and
Samuel (I Samuel 3:4). After Jesus was baptized by His cousin John, how
many people heard the voice of God say, "This is my son in whom I am
well pleased"? This event was of such importance it was recorded in
the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
When Jesus commanded demons to identify themselves in Mark 5:9,
they said, "My name is Legion, for we are many." The text
indicates the demons said. Therefore, it is logical to assume Jesus
God's people see into the spirit world. God appeared to Moses in the
physically real, though symbolic form, of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2).
God used an angel to appear and speak to Abraham (Genesis 18:1-2). He
showed himself to Joshua as an angel with a drawn sword (Joshua 5:13).
Scripture also records evil manifesting in physical, "seen" forms. In
Exodus 7:12, wooden staffs were transformed into snakes both by God's
power and Pharaoh's magicians' occult magic. God's power was good, and
the magic of Pharaoh's servants was evil, but the results of both were
visible in the natural world.
Both good and evil appear in visions. The prophet Isaiah saw the Lord in
a vision rather than with his natural eyes. He described in detail,
"I saw the Lord seated on a throne...the train of
His robe filled the temple. Above Him were seraphs, each with six wings.
With two wings they covered their faces..." (Isaiah 6:1-2).
As recorded in Revelation 13, John saw Satan (or a manifestation of the
enemy's evil) in a vision. He described "the beast" in vivid detail.
The following passages record experiences of taste from Biblical
records. Ezekiel, and John the writer of the book of Revelation, each
received a vision in which they were given a scroll to eat. Ezekiel
wrote, "So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as
honey in my mouth" (Ezek. 3:1-3). John received a scroll from
an angel. He wrote, "It tasted as sweet as
honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour"
The Bible rarely refers to spiritual presences or realities being
perceived through smell. Paul writes of the "aroma of Christ," the
"smell of death," and the "fragrance of life" (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).
Are these poetic metaphors or is Paul referring to actual smells with
which mature--and discerning--believers were and should still be
familiar? In addition, Chapters 5 and 8 of Revelation describe bowls of
incense. The smell and visible smoke of incense appear to be a physical
manifestation of the prayers of the saints.
Both good and evil are revealed by touch in Scripture. Peter saw, heard,
and felt an angel. Acts 12:7 records that an angel, bathed in light,
appeared to Peter. The angel "struck Peter on the side" to wake him and
said, "Quick. Get up."
In I Kings 19:7, the prophet Elijah fled from Queen Jezebel. Hungry and
despairing, he lay in the desert and prayed for death. An angel of God
prepared food and touched Elijah to wake him from his exhausted sleep.
In Mark 9:20, evil manifested physically. A young boy was possessed by
what Jesus named a "deaf and mute spirit." The moment the demon saw
Jesus, it "threw the boy into a convulsion." This passage should be
carefully noted. Western reasoning would lead to the logical conclusion
that this boy suffered from a biochemical/neurological imbalance
resulting in epilepsy. However, Jesus operated in discernment as well as
human logic. Although elsewhere He recognized physical illness, here He
named and took authority over demonic spirits.
The teaching of Hebrews 5:14, coupled with confirming Scriptures,
established the foundation I and the prayer teams used to share,
examine, and test their sensory experiences. Hebrews 5:14 became alive
in our ministry. The "solid food" of discernment did produce fruit of
greater maturity as the prayer teams grew in confidence, authority, and
trust in the power of God's living word. As they began to understand and
use discernment, this gift emerged as an important weapon in the battle
for deliverance, healing, and spiritual freedom.