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Cultivating Discernment

Let the Spirit of Truth lead you, the Word of God guide you and have eyes only for Jesus.

This is something we all need to hear. As a church, we need to be led not by the world, not by the spirit of lies and the spirit of fear. We need to take our eyes off of ourselves, off of the situations we’ve found ourselves in, and have eyes only for Jesus, with the Word of God being the set of glasses through which we view all things, and through which our blurry vision of the world becomes crystal clear.

Because we know that many people don’t see issues clearly don’t we? All around us people are being blindly led by the latest political statement, the most influential Christian leader, the biggest movement of the month. But also, how easy it is to make statements and judgements when we are on the outside looking in, yet when we ourselves are going through what may seem like a valley of the shadow of death, we struggle to see the bigger picture. We too don’t always see things clearly.

To illustrate this better, Bunyan writes in the Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian goes through the Valley of the shadow of death;

'Now, morning being come, he looked back; not out of desire to return, but to see by the light of the day, what hazards he had gone through in the dark. So he saw more perfectly the ditch that was on the one hand, and the quag that was on the other; also how narrow the way was which lay betwixt them both. Also now he saw the hobgoblins, and satyrs, and dragons of the pit; but all afar off, for after break of day they came not nigh. Yet they were discovered to him according to that which is written, "He discovers deep things out of darkness and brings out to light the shadow of death".

Now was CHRISTIAN much affected with his deliverance from all the dangers of his solitary way; which dangers, though he feared them more before, yet he saw them more clearly now, because the light of the day made them conspicuous to him.'

We need to mature in our discernment, allowing the Spirit of Truth to lead us through whatever situations arise, letting the Word of God guide us as our final authority on all things, and looking only to Jesus rather than to political leaders, religious leaders, scientific voices, anyone who might distract us from the one on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. Then we, like Pilgrim, will be able to rely on God alone when we are in the valley, and then when we are through, we can look back with greater clarity at what God has led us through.


Spurgeon described discernment not as knowing the difference between right and wrong, but as knowing the difference between right and almost right.

That’s a fine line that we need to constantly be aware of. Is it true? Or is it almost true? It’s the difference between God saying, ‘“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” and Eve saying, ‘“We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ 90% of what Eve said was true! But Eve spoke the lie to herself- the devil planted the seed of suggestion, and Eve spoke and believed that lie, which gave the devil a foothold.

In a world that we are constantly being bombarded with information, people, specialists, ideas, everyone has a platform from which to project their views, one of the biggest problems in the church is our lack of consistency. Even as Christians, it is so easy to be blown about on every wind of teaching. We are told that making judgements is unchristian! But when there is a contrast between the truth of God, and everything else, we need to be equipped to be discerning, to be able to tell what is right, and what is almost right.

Paul exhorts the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, ‘Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.’ John encourages believers in the same way in 1 John 4:1, ‘Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.’

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: we are in a spiritual battle. The nature of that battle- not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, authorities, the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms- means we cannot rely on our own strength, we cannot rely on what we can see by ourselves. It means that we need to cultivate and actively grow in discernment, seeing in the natural but seeing the natural with the understanding of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s have a closer look at 1 John 4 as John gives us some direction on how we can do this.

He starts with, ‘do not believe every spirit.’ John is concerned with the believers listening to false teaching. In the letter, John makes it clear that there has been a church split in this community, some of the people taught that Jesus was not the Messiah or the Son of God. Even though they had left, they still had influence over the remaining believers and were causing hostility in the community. So John says ‘do not believe every spirit.’ Have some discernment! Look at the teaching, look at the fruit. Is it of God? Is it from the Spirit of Truth?

This is something we need to hear too. Whatever people try to tell us, whether it be the doctors, the government, the epidemiologists, pastors, they all have an idea of who God is that motivates what they teach. Even if they claim to be neutral, their opinion stems from their understanding of the world, that either God is in control, or there is nothing higher in control and so we have to take control ourselves. Amidst the chaos and confusion that false teachers stir up, we are not to be gullible, we are not to believe everything that anyone tells us, or every thought that pops into our head. Even if it sounds good.

What’s important to see is that John uses the word spirit here. He highlights the spiritual source that is behind the teaching that comes to us from what appears to be natural sources. He highlights that Ephesians 6 mentality, that we aren’t picking on people, but we recognise the driving force, the spirit, that is operating through them.

Either something is true- if its spiritual source is from the Spirit of God- or else it is false and from a spirit of lies and Satan who is the father of lies. There is no middle ground for things that are sort of true. If you remember Spurgeon’s quote above, this isn’t a clear cut line- we need to discern between true and almost true. Why? Because truth is often counterfeited by an opposite spirit. You just have to think of the Egyptian magicians who counterfeited some of God’s plagues. You just have to think of the prophets in Jeremiah’s time who were prophesying (a gift of the Spirit), but they prophesied lies. It’s that counterfeit we need to be aware of, because the whole point of a counterfeit is that it is hard to tell from the real deal.

When I was younger, we wanted to sell our car. We had found a buyer who had sent us a cheque, which we were going to pay in before we handed over our keys. So we went to the bank, and my mum ran in thinking it would be a quick in and out, but the man at the counter almost immediately saw that we had been given a fraudulent cheque. To our untrained eye, it looked legitimate. But to the man who constantly handled the real deal, who had been given the training to spot a fake, he could discern that what we had was a counterfeit!

That’s why John warns not to believe every spirit, but (as he goes on to say) to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. We can test the truth from lies by the guidance of the Spirit of Truth (the Holy Spirit, which in verse 4 John says is within us!), by the Word of God, and by remaining focussed on Jesus.

Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 12 about one of the spiritual gifts being the discerning of spirits, and sometimes the Holy Spirit will give a specific revelation about the spirit behind a teaching, a person, a movement or a thought that pops into your head. But most of the time we need to exercise the tools we have been equipped with, we need to ask if it lines up with Scripture and, like John says, test it. Search Scripture, know Scripture so that we can see if this is true, and whether it originates from the Spirit of truth or a spirit of deceit. Like the banker, the more we handle the real deal, the easier it will be for us to know what's false.

In verse 2, John says ‘This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is from God.’

John was specifically tackling the false teaching which led to the heresy called Doecetism- that Jesus looked like a human, but that his humanity was just an illusion. He did not really come in the flesh. This separates Jesus’ humanity from his divinity in a way that many Christians today have inadvertently bought into with the idea that we can separate our physical selves from our spiritual selves, that we can worship together and do Christianity online, but my body physically does not have to participate or respond. By extension, these people are saying that Jesus’ humanity was of no importance, it’s his divine nature, the spiritual aspect that counts.

But what about other things in the world around us which aren’t making overt claims about who Jesus is? This is where John is helpful in verse 3, ‘but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.’ Anything, any idea or person or way of viewing the world, that does not acknowledge the Lordship and person of Jesus, is a false spirit.

Once again, we need to know Scripture, which reveals to us who Jesus is, in order to test everything against it.

Those thoughts of fear- do they acknowledge Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6)?

Those thoughts of death- do they acknowledge Jesus, who came that we may have life (John 10:10)?

The idea that the vaccine will save us- does it acknowledge Jesus, whose name means YHWH saves (Matthew 1:21)?

The righteousness of following the government- does it acknowledge Jesus, who is our righteousness, and to whom has been given all authority in heaven and earth ( 1 Corinthians 1:30, Matthew 28:18)?

John finishes this passage by saying ‘They are of the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognise the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.’

The final test for discernment is simple; the reaction of the world. It is impossible for us to align with the world, because we have different foundations for life- a different way of viewing the world. We need to view all things through our set of glasses which is Scripture. The world is immediately in contradiction to us, because they do not look at all things through the Word of God.

When we find ourselves speaking and listening with the viewpoint of the world, we need to examine our hearts, our minds and our lives. As we walk in the Spirit of Truth, the Word of God, focused on Jesus, we should contrast with the world. We should be distinct, because we are not guided or blinded by the spirit of lies. How distinct are your thoughts? Have you bought into the ideas and the movements of the world? Can you discern the spirit behind the songs and teaching and ideas you listen to?

Let the Spirit of Truth lead you, the Word of God guide you and have eyes only for Jesus.


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