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Discernment of Spirits is a term used in Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Charismatic (Evangelist) Christian theology to indicate judging various spiritual agents for their moral influence. These agents are:

  1. from within the human soul itself, known as concupiscence
  2. Divine Grace
  3. Angels
  4. Devils

The first and the last being evil, and the second and third good, the judgment required is to discern the cause of a given impulse. Although some people are regarded as having a special gift to perceive this by intuitive light, most people are regarded as needing study and reflection, and possibly the direction of others.

This judgment can be made in two ways. The first is by a charism or spiritual gift divinely granted to certain individuals for the discerning of spirits by intuition (1 Corinthians 12:10). The second way to discern spirits is by reflection and theological study. This second method then is an acquired human knowledge; however, it is always gained "with the assistance of grace, by the reading of the Holy Bible, of works on theology and asceticism, of autobiographies, and the correspondence of the most distinguished ascetics".[1]


Orthodox viewsEdit

According to John of Damascus, the virtue of discernment (discrimination) "is greater than any other virtue; and is the queen and crown of all the virtues".[2]

John Cassian writes in "Conferences" that discernment "is only secured by true humility. And of this humility the first proof is given by reserving everything (not only what you do but also what you think), for the scrutiny of the elders, so as not to trust at all in your own judgment but to acquiesce in their decisions in all points, and to acknowledge what ought to be considered good or bad by their traditions".[3] Also it is important that "all extremes are equally harmful"[4]

Humility is the key to discernment, as well as consulting others and praying about everything we want to do: "Discrimination is born of humility. On its possessor it confers spiritual insight, as both Moses and St John Climacus say: such a man foresees the hidden designs of the enemy and foils them before they are put into operation. It is as David states: ‘And my eyes looked down upon my enemies’ (Ps. 14:7. LXX).<...> If you have not received this gift you should not think, say or do anything without consulting others about it, and without a basis of firm faith and pure prayer. Without such faith and such prayer you will never truly achieve discrimination".[5]

Peter of Damascus writes that "It is excellent to seek advice about everything, but only from those with experience. It is dangerous to ask questions of the inexperienced, because they do not possess discrimination".[6]

Gregory of Sinai says that "You can tell that a person is undeluded when his actions and judgment are founded on the testimony of divine Scripture, and when he is humble in whatever he has to give his mind to".[7]

Seraphim of Sarov says about reading the Bible that "When a man provides his soul with the word of God, then he is granted the understanding of what is good and what is evil".[8]

There is a connection between true dispassion and true discrimination: "The mark of dispassion is true discrimination; for one who has attained the state of dispassion does all things with discrimination and according to measure and rule".[9] "Without dispassion, however, you cannot achieve the beauty of discrimination".[10]

There are some distinct properties of true and false spirituality: "the devil cannot bring about love either for God or for one’s neighbor, or gentleness, or humility, or joy, or peace, or equilibrium in one’s thoughts, or hatred of the world, or spiritual repose, or desire for celestial things; nor can he quell passions and sensual pleasure. These things are clearly the workings of grace. For the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, and so on (cf. Gal. 5:22), while the devil is most apt and powerful in promoting vanity and haughtiness".[11]

We should follow "'the royal (middle) way' of the holy-fathers and not take upon oneself excessive difficult works".[12]

Ignatian view (Roman Catholic)Edit

For Ignatius of Loyola, there are two signs to judge: evil spirits act on the imagination and the senses, and the good spirit, upon reason and conscience. Then, they can be judged by their mode of action and by the end they seek. The discernment of spirits is part of everyone's spiritual journey. No one who is trying to make spiritual progress should attempt to do so alone - a spiritual director is required. A director assists a Christian in examining the motives, desires, consolations, and desolations in one's life. Objectively, one can know what is right from looking at the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins in a thorough examination of conscience. But the broader picture of one's life is often not so clear. A Christian should, according to St. Ignatius, share everything with a director who can see things objectively, without being swayed by the emotions or passion. Discerning whether the good spirit (the influence of God, the Church, one's soul) or the bad spirit (the influence of Satan, the world, the flesh) is at work requires calm, rational reflection. The good spirit brings us to peaceful, joyful decisions. The bad spirit often brings us to make quick, emotional, conflicted decisions. A spiritual director can assist both by personal experience, listening with care, and giving an objective analysis. Ignatius lays out his 23 rules for the discernment of spirits in his Spiritual Exercises manual for those who direct others through retreats.

Pentecostal and charismatic viewEdit

Discernment of spirits is particularly important among Pentecostal and charismatic Christians because of their emphasis on the operation of all the spiritual gifts within their churches. It becomes necessary then to be able to determine whether the exercise of a spiritual gift (such as prophecy or an interpretation of tongues) comes from the Holy Spirit, an evil spirit, or merely the human spirit.[13] They believe that every Christian is able to judge and responsible for judging whether such an occurrence is helpful and edifying to the church; however, they also believe that there are those individuals who have been given the spiritual gift of discerning of spirits by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is important to note that the discerning of spirits does not involve the judging of people. The gift of discerning of spirits is also believed to be necessary in distinguishing demonic possession from mental or physical illness.[14] This is important in the actual practice of deliverance, otherwise known as exorcism or the casting out of demons, which was part of the great commission that Jesus gave his disciples and future generations of believers. According to the late Albert Taylor, in "Ministering Below the Surface – a practical guide to Inner Healing and Deliverance", discerning of spirits can also be learnt.

Additionally, many Charismatics and those in Pentecostal churches believe that the gift of discernment of Spirits allows certain individuals to see spirits. The story about Elisha and the host of angels (cf. 2 Kings 6:15-17) is given as an example along with many other modern examples in the Book 'School of the Seers' by Dr. Jonathan Welton.[15]

Discernment is the ability to make wise decisions in difficult situations.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Debuchy, Paul (1909). "Discernment of Spirits". The Catholic Encyclopedia. 5. Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 18 June 2011.
  2. ^ Philokalia, Vol.2, St. John of Damaskos, On the Virtues and the Vices.
  3. ^ St. John Cassian, "Conferences". The Second Conference of Abbot Moses. On Discretion, Chapter X. The answer how true discretion may be gained.
  4. ^ Philokalia, Vol.1, St. John Cassian, On the Holy Fathers of Sketis And on Discrimination. Written for Abba Leontios.
  5. ^ Philokalia, Vol.3, St. Peter of Damaskos, Book 1. A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, True Discrimination.
  6. ^ Philokalia, Vol.3, St. Peter of Damaskos, Book 2. Twenty-Four Discourses, Discrimination.
  7. ^ Philokalia, Vol.4, St. Gregory of Sinai. On Prayer: Seven Texts. On Delusion and Other Subjects.
  8. ^ Gleanings from Orthodox Christian Authors and the Holy Fathers, Discernment.
  9. ^ Philokalia, Vol.2, St. Thalassios the Libyan, On Love, Self-control and Life in Accordance with the Intellect. First Century.
  10. ^ Philokalia, Vol.2, St. Theognostos, On the Practice of the Virtues, Contemplation and the Priesthood.
  11. ^ Philokalia, Vol.3, St. Symeon Metaphrastis, Paraphrase of the Homilies of St. Makarios of Egypt. III. Patient Endurance and Discrimination.
  12. ^ Synaxarion for Uncovering of the Relics of the Monk Seraphim, Wonderworker of Sarov
  13. ^ Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, 1983, (Los Angeles: Foursquare Media, 2008), p. 340-341.
  14. ^ Duffield and Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, 497-501.
  15. ^ Welton, Jonathan (2009). The School of the Seers: A Practical Guide on How to See in the Unseen Realm. Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: Destiny Image Publishers.

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "article name needed". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.

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