“Satan made me do it,” and no one recognized it. Is it just me, or does this seem to be an accurate adage for how the Christian faith often functions today? As much as we may mention evil, and its ramifications upon our lives, how often are we really combatting it? Resisting temptations is one manifestation of opposing the dark powers that may be, but it is only one among many.
The evil things that creep into our lives and communities are often the kind that we don’t recognize—“a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Most people can recognize a temptation when they see it, but there are also many subtle, evil things that slowly dwindle away at our dedication to following God’s will. These subtle, evil things manifest themselves in simple ways, like “reason” overpowering faith, and demonic possession being excused as merely mental illness.
There is a spiritual gift that those who know how to recognize evil have. Paul mentions it in one of his lists of spiritual gifts.
More literally, this gift can be rendered as “distinguishing of spirits” or “distinction of spirits.” Paul regularly talks about good and evil—recognizing how these two opposing forces interact in our lives and in our communities.
The author of Hebrews makes nearly the same point as Paul: “But solid [spiritual] food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14). Like faith, everyone who claims to believe in Jesus should have the ability to distinguish between good and evil things and spirits, but some are more gifted in this area than others. And note how the author of Hebrews prefaces this topic: using the word “constant.” The “practice” must be constant. It’s constant because evil is constant.
Although its not regularly discussed in most church communities—probably because its viewed as weird by those who don’t believe the same way—the warring powers of good and evil are a regular topic in the New Testament. Jesus, the apostles, and his disciples regularly cast out demons. Paul writes letters that have the fight against the powers of evil as a central topic, like his second letter to the Corinthians. And, Peter makes the fight against evil the crux of his second letter; ditto for Jude and John’s apocalypse that we call Revelation.
At the center of the Bible, thematically, is the idea of a war for souls, and the tragic love story of a God trying to prompt His beloved people away from these evil spirits and evil choices. These evil spirits are warring for our allegiance. They exist because, like us, they chose to follow their own wills over God’s perfect will.
Buy why would God let them exist at all? Everyday that God doesn’t vanquish the evil spirits from the earth is an opportunity for people to come to salvation. For the day that He vanquishes evil, He will destroy all of it, including evil people because they keep the evil spirits and other kinds of evil alive in them. But that day is not today. Instead, today Jesus offers grace in the hope that before the end we will choose Him back.
Between now and the last day, we as Christians must distinguish between good and evil spirits. We must know when it’s truly God performing miracles, offering a prophetic word, and speaking in tongues, and when its evil powers doing work that mimics God’s. This distinction comes through a knowledge base in the difference between good and evil, as articulated in the biblical text, and a dedication to prayer, so that we may receive wisdom and discernment. Furthermore, the distinction itself is simple in most cases: Is the [you name it] being used to free people and offer them the gracious way of Jesus, or is [you name it] being used for the power or gain of select individuals? (Who is it really about?) Now there are many situations that are too complicated for this question to answer—requiring those with the spiritual gift of discerning between spirits—but for most, this question can be used.
Those who are gifted in the area of discernment between the spirits must act. For if they don’t, we will all end up in a situation we don’t want to be in: a place where evil is guiding in our communities and hearts, not God. Christ has overcome evil; we must rely on Him to help us identify it and fight against it. For this reason, we must grant people with the gift of distinguishing between spirits the freedom to do so. We must embrace their gift, not be afraid of it.
How can you make people with the spiritual gift of discerning between spirits feel comfortable to speak up when the time comes?
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