11 lessons I have learnt through the use of the gift of discerning spirits

Marko Joensuu         6 comments
The apostle Paul teaches that we don’t fight against flesh or blood, but against demonic principalities and powers. Intriguingly, in 2 Corinthians 10:11 he also says that we aren't ignorant of the devil's devices—or at least, we shouldn't be.

I am convinced that it must have been at least partially through the gift of discerning spirits that Paul became familiar with the devil's devices—after all, it is only the apostle Paul who actually names that gift in the Bible. Nevertheless, it seems that many Old Testament prophets operated in it, as did the apostle Peter at least infrequently (Acts 5:1-11). 

My journey into understanding the gift of discerning spirits started in 2008, when I began to work on a book with Rami Kivisalo. Rami is an ex-criminal who became demon-possessed and worked with the Russian mafia before giving his life to Jesus in prison.

The book was originally published in the USA by Chosen Books, as so far, it has been translated into Swedish, Norwegian and Romanian.

Over a period of perhaps 18 months I encountered many inexplicable and physical demonic phenomena in our house, such as knocks on the walls, windows and doors, and so on. Once I witnessed a postcard moving by itself as if moved by an invisible hand. 

Amongst many other things, every single computer—altogether four of them, two brand-new—that I used to write the book, experienced the feared Blue Screen of Death. 

It seemed to me that the spiritual resistance against writing the book was somehow taking a physical form. It took me a while to attribute all this to writing a book, and initially, I discounted these phenomena as strange coincidences. Then, once our landline phone started ringing relentlessly when I was praying. This had been going on for a few days. Finally, I got up to check who is calling. It turned out that the landline was calling itself!

But the worst thing of all was the fear. I began to be intimidated by the smallest of things, situations and events. 

After around six months of experiencing deep and horrendous fear every day, there was an event that made me realise that the origin of this fear was not natural but supernatural. It was the moment of revelation, and the beginning of a long way back to normality. 

It was like being woken up and realising that all your life there had been subtle influences of an invisible hand around you that you had never noticed—and that those influences had not been benevolent. I began to realise that when Paul was writing about powers and principalities and the prince of air, he wasn't writing about some abstract, metaphysical theory or the Roman rule, but about his daily experience of demonic oppression in cities.

It is said that you are never more than six feet away from a mouse or a rat in London. It was as if, figuratively speaking, I could now sense the presence of these demonic 'rodents' wherever I went. It took me a long time to discover that this gift is actually rather useful and not meant to depress you.

The gift of discerning spirits is a heavy gift to carry. The other gifts of the Spirit are centred on God’s power and His presence and emotionally rather delightful. But the gift of discerning spirits not like that. It is all about sensing the presence and operations of the enemy. And that makes it emotionally rather taxing. 

It really is the other side of the gift of prophecy. The nasty side. If you can sense God's presence, you will also be able to discern the presence of His enemies.

Because we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we can all operate in the gift of discerning spirits at some level, much like we can all operate in the gift of prophecy at some level—simply because we all need to hear from God, which also means that we need to know when it is not God speaking to us. That is the foundational level of discerning spirits—knowing when it is God’s Spirit speaking to you and knowing when it is not, and when it is not, whether you are dealing with a supernatural or merely a human influence.

And this supernatural, demonic influence is everywhere around us.

When Paul writes about principalities and powers in the epistles to the Ephesians and the Galatians, he is not writing some abstract theology, but he is writing based on his observations. He is writing about powers he has encountered and wrestled with—and not just intellectually. I have read a lot of academic theology written on principalities and powers, and although much of it is useful, it mostly misses the point that Paul was writing about his experienced reality.

It seems to me that the apostle Paul had a high level gift if discerning spirits. 

But the gift of discerning spirits is a tricky gift, and I have seen so many leaders being distracted and deceived by their gift of discerning spirits. Rather than subjecting what they have discerned under the authority of the Bible, they have begun writing theology based on what they have experienced.  They have lost their way in the dark. 

You must discern where the darkness is, but you must never listen to the darkness. For the darkness always lies. The king of darkness is the father of all lies. And the kingdom of darkness has been built on fear, sin and deception.

Here are 11 lessons I have learned through operating in the gift of discerning spirits. I hope you find them useful. I know there are many more, so this is not an exhaustive list. And this is not God's Word, but some wisdom and principles based on experiences in the war zone. 

1. The enemy attacks your faith through attacking your emotions

The enemy is the master of attacking your faith through manipulating your emotions. This is because our emotions are more intertwined with our beliefs than we often realise. 

Through affecting our emotions, the devil can affect what we believe and influence our behaviour.

If you feel depressed, it will automatically affect your perspective and your belief system. So, the enemy surrounds you with a spiritual atmosphere of depression—in fact, his mere presence feels depressing and intimidating, if you are used to living in the light—which will begin to affect your soul, mainly because our sour and our ‘spirit’—your spiritual interface, are so intertwined. 

When you feel depressed, it is not just an emotion. Depression and fear are also a belief system, or a force that begins to affect your belief system. Suddenly, what seemed entirely possible only a minute ago now seems impossible, and even the smallest of obstruction begins to seem insurmountable. 

Like the presence of God is enough to trigger joyful and peaceful emotions, the presence of darkness will trigger many destructive emotions. So, through his mere presence the devil can affect our emotions.

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:26-27, “‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.”

We can see how long-held emotion of anger is closely linked to the works of the enemy. But this is also applicable to many other emotions. 

Looking back at my life after I began to operate in the gift of discerning spirits, I could discern long patches of time and moments when I had either felt deep loneliness or depression and anxiety—or anger—and discern that lurking behind those emotions that felt natural was in fact a venomous supernatural force trying to trap me in those emotions.

This is because I can now discern between natural emotions and demonically influenced emotions better.

And I could now see the fingerprints of the enemy, not in all of them, but in many of them, because my mind is well capable of tripping over itself even without the help of the devil!

This doesn't mean that all negative emotions are demonic, and also that there are many medical and health reasons that affect our emotions. But the gift of discerning spirits helps to discern what is natural and what is supernatural.

If you are doing anything meaningful for the Lord, you will have encountered the attack of the enemy on your emotions. 

Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

The gift of discerning spirits operates in a slightly similar way. For example, you might wake up in the morning feeling low with no apparent reason. You might put it down to staying up late at night and having low energy levels. You might get a cup of coffee and feel instantly better. Often, what happens to me is that after that cup of coffee I go to pray and read the Bible. After a few minutes, I feel can like there is something like an invisible, dark cloud that is being lifted. This is almost a physical sensation, but in essence, it is spiritual in nature. I realise that I have woken up in a negative, demonically infested spiritual environment. Or rather, I have slept in a demonically infested spiritual environment, which has seeped in through the night. It is only when it is being lifted that I notice that it was there.

Now, I am not attempting to demonise every negative emotion. We feel bad for many reasons, and some of the reasons are entirely natural. And sometimes, it is the coffee that is enough to make me feel better.

I am not asking you to micro-analyse your emotional life. But the students of the Spirit must also be the students of the soul—to know the difference between soul and the Spirit.

When I was studying at the university many years ago, I often woke up with a sense of deep loneliness. Often, I could spend an hour in prayer to get rid of that emotion. Very infrequently, I can wake up today and feel that same emotion. But through the gift of discerning spirits I have come to realise that this this deep sense of loneliness has always been an attack of the enemy.

2. The enemy attacks your faith through flawed logic

In 2 Corinthians 10:4-6 Paul writes:

“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.”

The enemy attacks our faith through false arguments and reasoning. He is the master of flawed reasoning. He bombards us with thoughts that often seem factual, but they always come with a spin. And that spin means that if you follow the devil's reasoning you will end up with the conclusion that he has already prepared for you. This is because if you follow his reasoning, it means that you are also accepting his premises—and his premises are false. 

We can see this process clearly in the Genesis 3 story about Satan tempting Eve. 

Genesis 3:4-5 says, 

“Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”

Here Satan casts doubt on the motivation of God—according to him, God has banned eating from the tree because He wants to withhold immortality from Eve. But that is flawed logic. If God created the garden, He could have simply left it out, if that was the reason! But Satan casts doubt on God’s motivation and also on His position as the Creator. It sounds nearly as someone else but God had planted the tree, which implies that He is not omnipotent after all.

It is the same flawed logic Satan applied when he himself rebelled against God. He mistook God’s kindness and humility for weakness. He must have genuinely believed that he could defeat God; otherwise he would have never rebelled.

Had Eve stopped for a second, she would have realised that this was flawed reasoning. If God planted the garden, the fruit from the tree could never make anyone like God. But in this one issue Satan was partially right—eating from the tree did make Adam and Eve know the difference between good and evil. Up to that point, they had known only good, now they also knew evil! But the lie in the devil’s argument was that Adam and Eve would become gods. But rather than becoming immortals, the tree brought death for them. 

The implied but hidden premises of the devil’s argument were that God is not the creator of all things and that He has selfish motivations. 

Have you heard arguments that imply the same premises recently?

What I have learnt through the gift of discerning spirits is that the devil’s faulty reasoning has real spiritual force. If I am not full of the Holy Spirit, his arguments seem reasonable to me, as they are full of spiritual force that has the power to convince and deceive my natural mind.

When I am under the influence of the “prince of air”, these arguments pummel me with compelling power. It is only when I am full of the Spirit that I fully see the unreasonableness of the devil’s arguments.

3. The enemy attacks your relationships

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:10-11:

“For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.”

We can see here how the devil’s target is our relationships. 

It is often when I am on my way to meet someone that my mind is being bombarded with negative thoughts about the person I am about to meet. These thoughts can easily feel like my own thoughts. But I resist them and when when I pray with that person, I feel like a dark, demonic cloud is being lifted, and I realise that the enemy has been trying to bring a wedge between that person and myself.

Often the enemy achieves this the same way than when he spoke to Eve in the garden: by casting doubt on the motivations of people.

But God’s command to us is clear. He has called us to love even our enemies and not just our neighbours, so no matter what their motivation is, we have been called to bless.

4. The enemy always has one more attack in store

One of the tricks of Satan's effective warfare against you is to always keep another attack in reserve—usually apparently stronger than the previous one. Hence when you think that you have already won the battle, you will face an unexpected attack from a different direction—perfectly timed to rob you of hope generated by your victory!

You thought that the war was over, but suddenly it feels that rather than it being over, you are in fact faced with a world war with no end in sight. This can be quite depressing, and it must be what the prophet Elijah experienced after he had killed the prophets of Baal—and then found out that Queen Jezebel was now chasing him with newfound determination.

Objectively speaking, the same God who gave Elijah a victory on the mountain is the same God who was able to protect him against attacks from the Queen Jezebel. But when it comes to the emotional impact, the hope created by a victory was gone. It must have felt like you have gone one inch forward and then ten yards backwards!

Through one more attack after your victory the enemy’s message is clear: he is prepared to fight you all the way, so that you will never have any rest.

But in truth, your rest is not based on whether the enemy is attacking you or not. It is based on God, and He is well able to prepare you a feast in the presence or your enemies (Psalm 23).

5. The enemy attacks your rest

In Psalm 55:6 David writes, “I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.’” At the time he was being attacked from all sides. 

The intent of these kinds of attacks is to disconnect you from the flow of God’s power and presence that rises within you each time when you rest in the Lord.

If the devil can disconnect you from the power and presence of God, he will be able to disempower you. But Paul who had experienced many of these attacks, writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7-13:

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.”

Each time the enemy disturbs your rest in the Lord, you should become even more determined to find that rest. This will lead in the strengthening and intensification of God’s presence in your life, as the only power strong enough to keep the enemy’s disturbing presence at bay is the presence of God. Hence the mystery of the Kingdom of God is that the enemy's attacks keep on strengthening you!

6. We are helpless without the Word

If you look at the list of armour and weapons that God has given us against the enemy in Ephesians 6:10-20, you will realise that all of the pieces in the armour are one way or other linked to the Word of God. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and word of God—they all derive their power from the confidence we have in Jesus—the Word of God. 

On practical note, when the enemy questions our righteousness and salvation, or when we must defend ourselves with truth, the starting point is always remembering the written Word of God. It is the Word of God and our knowledge of it that protects us against the lies of the enemy. 

7. We are helpless without the Holy Spirit

But it is not enough to know the Word of God as a literary text. What we can learn from the temptations of Jesus is that the devil also knows the Bible, and doesn’t hesitate to use it against us.

We also need to know the voice of our Good Shepherd—and the voice of our Good Shepherd is the Holy Spirit.  In John 10:1-5 Jesus says,

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

When the enemy speaks to us—even if he were to use the Bible—something feels not right. There is a discrepancy between the voice of the Word and the voice of a spirit. The words might sound right but the voice doesn't sound right.

What we are talking about here is the devil’s deceitful use of the Scripture. 

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:2,”But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully”.

With the temptations of Jesus, the devil twisted the meaning of the Bible verses he quoted by removing them from the original context. That's how the devil often twists the Scripture. But the gift of discerning spirits can alert us to that. This often happens to me when it comes to false teachers. I can't discern the presence of God in them, and when I study their teachings in more detail, I will soon find out that they are handling the Word of God deceitfully, to make it fit their own purposes.

Our gift of discerning can alert us of that, but it should lead to more thorough Bible study, to know the Scripture better, rather than ignoring the Scripture.

8. Sensing what people are going through before meeting them

Often, when I am about to meet someone, perhaps about half an hour before meeting them, I might sense an oppressive spiritual atmosphere, and it is often accompanied with negative thoughts or emotions. When I meet the person, I will find out that they are struggling or under attack in the areas directly linked to the nature of the negative spiritual atmosphere I have sensed.

The gift of discerning spirits helps me to prepare for the meeting, so that by the time I meet the person, I am ready to minister effectively rather than feeling overwhelmed. I will have processed all the negative emotions before actually meeting the person, so that I won't be full of confusion but ready to bring hope, discernment and deliverance to that person.

9. Gift of discerning spirits makes your public ministry more effective

Often when I go to preach or teach in a new place, I will sense a strong sense of resistance in the spirit. It is like speaking but your words facing an impenetrable wall. My gifting is prophetic, but in those situations, I don’t prophesy before I have broken that spiritual wall. 

In Mark 4:15 Jesus says, “And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.”

In 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 Paul writes, “But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.”

In these ministry situations, I try to make sure that Satan won’t be around and able to come immediately to rob the hearers of the word. The gift of discerning spirits helps me in that. It helps you to minister in such a way that you will know when there is spiritual freedom to share anything meaningful. 

Sometimes, you will simply have to wait until through worship, prayer and preaching of the Word a favourable spiritual environment has been created. Otherwise, receiving a prophetic word can be harmful to the hearer, as the enemy might not just rob it but also twist the word, so that the hearer will let the devil's interpretation of the prophetic word sink deep in their soul. 

10. There can be 10-20 minute transition time or prayer to activate the gift

It can sometimes take 10-20 minutes of prayer before you begin to discern the influence of demonic spiritual forces around you. In a similar way, if you don’t pray, you can desensitise your gift of discerning spirits temporarily. So, for example, one minute you can be joyful, but in 20 minutes you can suddenly feel depressed, without any apparent reason. It is only after some time of prayer that you will discern that what you feel is not a natural emotion after all, or that the thoughts that you thought were yours, aren’t your own at all.

The gift of discerning spirits needs a lifestyle of continual prayer to operate effectively.

11. The enemy will seek to harness your gift against you

If you aren’t careful, what you feel and discern will drag you down. There are so many negative emotions and experiences linked to this gift. But unless you are careful, the enemy will seek to use this gift to deceive you. I believe that this has happened to many ministers who, for example, cast demons out of believers. All the enemy needs to do is to give them a bunch of negative emotions, and they will begin to cast demons out of believers! That’s why it is so important to know the Scripture. The Word of God is always more truthful than whatever you can sense or discern. 

Some Christians seem to feel bad vibes everywhere. Then they attribute them to the people or situations around them, without praying first for understanding and guidance. But the gift of discerning spirits never gives us the reason for a demonic influence or presence. It only alerts us of them. But unless we are careful, we will begin to listen to the darkness to explain itself, assuming that the gift of discerning would also give us the reason behind the operation of the enemy. But that is what the other prophetic gifts are for—especially, the word of knowledge. 

Never ask the devil for the reason why he is in the room—he will only lie to you. Always ask God! 

So, just because you can discern the darkness, it doesn’t mean that you should listen to it or be influenced by it. Many false doctrines have come to the body of Christ when Christians have not really understood how the gift of discerning spirits operates and what it is for. 

There is a lot more on the gift if discerning spirits in my book Supernatural Love: Releasing the Compassion of Jesus Through the Gifts of the Spirit. But I hope you have found these notes useful.

You can connect with Marko on Twitter @markojoensuu and on Facebook at facebook.com/marko.joensuu 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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  1. Really insightful and balanced teaching. One of the best I have seen.

    1. Thanks - real learnings in this area don't come cheap.

  2. Great article, really explains a lot. Do you then suggest that Christians can not be demonized?

    1. There is zero biblical foundation for the teaching that Christians could be demonised. I have covered the development of this teaching in my book Supernatural Love: Releasing the Compassion of Jesus Through the Gifts of the Spirit. But different teachers use the word 'demonization' in different ways.

      When Jesus says in Matthew 12:43-45 that a demon will return with 7 others, the story indicates that the problem is that no one else has moved in. There simply is no space for demon possession if the Holy Spirit has moved in. And the Holy Spirit has moved in if anyone has been born again, as they have been born of the Spirit, regardless of them having experienced the fullness of the Holy Spirit or not.

      There are zero references to Christians having demons in the Bible. Satan entered Judas before the Holy Spirit had been given to the Church. We can certainly be deceived, oppressed, tempted etc. at level that we can become confused of this issue. And certainly, the devil can deceive us so that we live in a bondage to sin. But even that bondage to sin is not demonization, but simply chains that we have accepted through deception.

      Certainly, demonic attacks and oppression can sometimes be heavy, but we are still dealing with external forces that we are fighting against. The history of the teaching of demonization is that it became a convenient doctrine for some 'healing' evangelists - they demonised sickness, and because of that, they never needed to verify healings; all they had to do was to 'cast' the sickness out, and no verification was needed.

      Some years ago I wrote a book with Rami Kivisalo, who used to work with the Russian mafia, and was demon possessed. Even after the demons had been cast out, he was attacked by them every night for two years. Initially, he thought that the casting out of them hadn't worked at all, but this had a lot more to do with the demon coming back with seven others and finding the house occupied and trying to break back in. The point is that we should not be misled by our experiences with the demonic forces, as they are all lying spirits, but let the light of the Word illuminate our understanding.

      Yes, there can be people who attend churches who have not given their lives to Jesus yet, who can possibly be demon-possessed. But the moment they choose Jesus, this possession will be ended. And it is certainly possible that in ministry someone encounters these people and casts out demons from them. But that means that they had never accepted Jesus in the first place. The same thing happened to my friend Rami. He was raised in a Christian environment, taken to Christian camps etc. But his parents' faith didn't protect him, as he didn't have a faith of his own, and as he ventured in the world of crime and martial arts, led by a master who was himself demon possessed, he also became possessed.

    2. Thank you for your thorough response. I just started reading your blog recently and plan on reading your books. I am praying to be able to encourage others with the prophesy but have not been given that yet.

    3. True prophetic is always entirely dependent on what God is giving to us. So, it is good to go with the speed God is giving to us, not any faster, but not any slower neither. Then you will have the confidence that what you are giving out is from God.




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