Everyone has a certain level of discernment. Some might call it intuition, or their “Spidey sense”, whatever you want to call it, we all have it. But, the spiritual gift of discernment is somewhat different. As 1 Corinthians 12:10 clearly says, it is the ability to discern or distinguish “spirits”.
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 the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10, NKJV).
The Greek word diakrisis is translated as “distinguishing, discerning or judging” and so this gift is used in various ways. In the verse above, Paul points out one of its uses – that of discerning spirits, in other words, those with this gift are able to distinguish between good and evil. Now, you would think that is something most people are able to do. After all, don’t the Ten Commandments teach us the difference between right and wrong? Ah! But discernment isn’t about knowing right from wrong, it is about distinguishing between good and evil and yes there is a difference.
For example, those with the gift of discernment have the uncanny ability to meet a person for the first time and perceive if that person is hiding something, has good or evil intentions, is trying to manipulate them, or is lying. This is what is meant by being able to distinguish “good” from “evil” spirits.
The word “spirit” comes from the Greek word pneuma and has many different forms of use. It primarily denotes “the wind” as it comes from the root word pneo, which means “breathe or blow”. But it also means “breath” because the spirit is like the wind - invisible, immaterial and powerful. It is used in reference to the Holy Spirit, the soul, the spiritual nature of Christ and the disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul of anyone. In this case when Paul says “to another discerning of spirits” he implies that it is the ability to distinguish between good and evil within a person.
An excellent example of how this gift was used happens in Acts 5:1-11, where the Apostle Peter was able to discern that Ananias was lying to him when he and his wife Sapphira told Peter that they had sold land and were donating all the proceeds of the land to the church. But Peter knew they were both lying. How did he know? He had been given the gift of discernment and was able to clearly see through to their true nature and knew immediately that their motives were evil.
Most believers have a certain amount of discernment which increases as they mature in their faith (Hebrews 5:13-14). The mature believer, who has moved beyond “milk” and is digging into the Word of God for more “meat”, is empowered by the Holy Spirit and is more spiritually discerning than those who spend little to no time in the Word. Obviously, they are also more discerning than new believers in that they are able to distinguish good from evil doctrine. So the potential for growing your spiritual discernment comes when you spend time in the Word of God.
However, as I stated above, there are certain believers, who have “the uncanny ability to meet a person for the first time and perceive if that person is hiding something, has good or evil intentions, is trying to manipulate them, or is lying.” They also have the spiritual gift of being able to distinguish between the truth of the Word and deceptive doctrines. We are all exhorted to be spiritually discerning (Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1), but some in the body of Christ have a unique ability to listen to a message on Sunday and know without a doubt that something was “off”. They know when someone is lying. They know when someone is trying to deceive them. I do not mean they are receiving extra-biblical revelations from God, but rather they are so familiar with the Word of God that they can see right away when a doctrine or person goes against it. They diligently “test the spirits” and are spiritually discerning enough that they can rightly divide the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15). Again, I can’t stress this enough – those with the gift of discernment do not experience anything mystical. They do not see demons, have dreams, visions, or unusual manifestations that appear to them. There is no supernatural phenomenon at play here. The spiritual gift of discernment comes solely from time spent in the Word of God but is increased in certain people for the edification of the church.
If you know someone who has the gift of discernment, pay careful attention to their perceptions as they are usually right. Those with this gift are invaluable people to have on church boards, as Bible Study leaders, or in establishing new ministries. If you are looking for a minister of any kind in your church, you definitely want someone with the gift of discernment on the search committee!
Now a word of warning - if you have the gift of discernment you may have noticed that you tend to rub people the wrong way. You may be perceived as someone who is arrogant or judgmental, either in regard to Scripture interpretation or someone’s intentions. Learning how to use this gift appropriately is important, otherwise, your good intentions will be misinterpreted by others. Be wise - stay calm, listen to others and then quietly speak the truth in love when discussing your reservations about an issue, whether it be about a person or the Scriptures (Ephesians 4:15). And most importantly, don't become so full of yourself that you do not accept wise counsel from other believers. You are not someone who has cornered the market on spiritual discernment. We are called "the body" of Christ for a reason. We need each other to function properly.
Remember this, all spiritual gifts, including the gift of discernment are used for one purpose – to help grow and edify the church body. So, use your gift wisely.