9 steps in developing the gift of discerning spirits

Marko Joensuu         No comments

The gift of discerning spirits is the ability to discern spiritual influences or presences in our life and environment. It is one of the gifts Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11.

We can see the gift of discerning spirits operating in many occasions in the Bible.

In Acts 5:1-11 Peter confronts Ananias and Sapphira who lied about giving everything they had got from selling a house. As a result, they both end up dead.

In verse 3, Peter says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?”

Undoubtedly, Peter was operating in the gift of discerning spirits, although he might not have called it as such.

In Acts 16:16-19, when Paul was at Philippi, a slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination followed Paul and cried out that Paul and his companions were the servants of the Most High God, and that they would proclaim to the Philippians the way of salvation.

Paul listened to her for three days, but finally, “greatly annoyed”, he commanded the spirit to leave  her. What followed  was that  her masters, who made a lot of money from her fortune telling, complained to the magistrates, who threw Paul to prison.

This is one of the most fascinating examples of the work of the Spirit in the Bible.Why didn’t Paul cast the demon out straight away? Why did he wait for three days?

I believe that it was because through the gift of discerning spirits, Paul would have been suspicious of why the demonic spirit caused the slave girl to proclaim what on surface level seemed helpful to his cause.

Eventually, Paul must have had cast the demon out, as he didn’t want to accept a testimony of a demon. But it seems that the demonic spirit was trying to trigger Paul to react, and it succeeded. As the result, Paul and his companions were thrown into prison.

Thankfully, God outplayed the enemy and used Paul to bring the Philippian jailer to faith. But here we can see a complex scheme by the enemy in operation, where nothing was what it seemed.

I have identified nine steps in the development of a fully mature gift of discerning spirits.


1.   Studying the Bible on a daily basis

If you want to develop the gift of discerning spirits, you must study the Bible regularly. God has given us His revelation in the Scripture. Reading the Bible prayerfully begins to develop the discernment within us. In Joshua 1:8, God speaks to Joshua who is getting ready to enter the Promised Land and encounter his enemies: 

"This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success."


Only when we study the Scripture diligently, we will be able to have a good success in defeating our enemies. 

2.   Cultivating a lifestyle of experiencing God’s presence

Reading the Scripture is necessary, but it is not enough. We must also spend time in the tangible presence of God, and learn to open the streams of the living water—the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit—within us.

The gift of discerning spirits needs a continual flow of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us to operate. It is perhaps the most energy- consuming of the gifts. Sometimes, it feels like walking around the city with an active, spiritual nuclear reactor within you!

3.   Discerning your emotions

With the help of what the Scripture says about your emotions and the protection of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, you will be able to discern and analyse your emotions.

Many Christians seek to ignore their emotions and motivations, trying to combat the negative ones with faith. But you must also understand your emotional life and its key dynamics. If you feel depressed, rather than ignoring it, acknowledge it, and seek to understand why. What has caused you to feel depressed? Is there any specific reason? Or if you feel angry, why do you feel angry? Try to go a little bit deeper than the superficial motivations. The real reasons for your anger are nearly always deeper than what you are reacting to. At the root of our soulish and fleshy reactions are often nearly forgotten experiences—memories that influence and direct our behavioural patterns without us discerning it.



4.   Resisting negative emotions and sensations with faith and the presence of God

But the analysis of your own emotions and motivations isn’t enough. We must learn to use the shield of faith and hide ourselves in the presence of God. Psalm 27:5 says,

"For in the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; in the secret place of His tabernacle."

God’s presence is our shield and our protection against the schemes of Satan.

5.      Separating emotions from the spiritual force energising them

As you seek to remain protected by the shield of God’s presence, over time, you will begin to sense how the emotions and loaded half-facts the enemy uses to attack you will become separated from the spiritual force behind them. As they become disconnected from their power source, they will begin to lose their power on you.

6.      Experiencing the spiritual forces as negative force fields or spheres

After you experience that sense of disconnection, you often begin to experience the demonic spiritual beings as something like negative force fields.You will sense how their pressure on your mind increases and decreases.They come at you like waves that hit the shore when a storm begins to rage, but slowly, as you resist, they begin to recede.

Some of the emotions will still keep on getting through your defence, especially during intensive attacks.


But at this stage, you don’t need to, or shouldn’t, even engage with these emotions and demonically charged thoughts at all. Instead, you should wait under the shield of faith and God’s presence, until the most intensive phase of the attack is over, and then you can pray and counterattack.


In the meantime, you should focus on reconnecting and maintaining the flow of the Holy Spirit’s power and presence into your life. You are no more fighting against these forces actively; instead you are focused on the Lord, and His presence fights for you.


Psalm 46:10 says, "Be still, and know that I am God."


It is at this stage when you begin to realise that the devil’s main goal is to disconnect you from the flow of the presence of God in your life. But you are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and you don’t need to leave His temple. Instead, you are hiding in His pavilion.


This is a place where the storms of life no more affect your mind as strong as they used to.They might still be coming at you, but your security is the Lord and His presence. 

7.   Learning to operate with the gift

The gift of discerning spirits is both for everyday life and ministry. In my prayer life, I wait for the disturbance of the demonic spirits to lift before I practise any active prophetic listening. In my everyday life, I resist whatever reaction the demonic disturbance seeks to impose on me. In ministry, I am mindful of the spiritual environment, and factor it in.

There are situations in everyday life that will have completely different consequences depending on the spiritual atmosphere.


You can often discern the presence and operation of a demonic influence in the room where you minister, as you are confronted with impure or negative thoughts, or fear and discouragement. Often, I feel the presence of the demonic forces as a tangible, heavy wall that tries to shout at me and tell me that it’s unbreakable.


One of the main dangers when you are seeking to minister in the supernatural is that the enemy is also operating in that dimension. This gives particular challenges when it comes to operating in the prophetic gift.


Often when I minister in a church, I encounter strong spiritual resistance. In that situation, I dare not to receive or share any new revelation, but operate from the revelation of the Word and specific prophetic revelation that God has given to me before that event. I sense the atmosphere through the gift of discerning spirits. It is only when I feel that the spiritual resistance is lifting that I step into the prophetic flow.


Prophetic ministry is ministry in His presence, and if I don’t sense His presence, I can’t really accept any prophetic revelation.


There are two main reasons: first, you can be deceived. Second, even if you aren’t deceived, your listeners can be deceived. Matthew 13:19 says,


"When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart."


I have realised that, often, people aren’t receptive to a word, and the evil one snatches it, before it has any time to make any impact.

But I can ‘hammer’ the atmosphere with the revelation God has already given to me beforehand and create a new atmosphere where listeners become receptive. That is why it is so important to prepare for any ministry time in prayer, so that you will have the confidence to stick with the word that God has given you in advance, no matter how  much the enemy attempts to intimidate you. In this kind     of ministry, I can spend hours in the Holy Spirit speaking to me about an event, but this only gives me the ability to deliver His word faithfully.

8.   Learning to tolerate continual spiritual disturbance

One of the hardest things about this gift is that you will often feel and experience these spiritual disturbances, which can be emotionally and even physically taxing. Often, you have been called to live and minister in an environment where sin has created strongholds in people’s lives, so this is mostly not something you can easily escape from.You will simply need to learn to tolerate emotional discomfort at times.

9.   Learning to rest again in God’s presence

You need regular times of rest in God’s presence.You must be able to remember that your ministry is not just warfare, but at the heart of it is rest in God’s presence and fellowship with Him.

Psalm 23:5 says, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies."


There is a lot of spiritual disturbance in the world and around you. Sometimes, you have been called to confront those forces around you, at other times to ignore them.


This list has been taken from my book Supernatural Love: Releasing the Compassion of Jesus Through the Gifts of the Spirit.


You can connect with Marko on Twitter @markojoensuu and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mpjoensuu/ or by visiting markojoensuu.com. 
Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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