As an American Baptist pastor, l was accustomed to being around hurting people. They wept in my office. They poured out stories of confusion, abandonment, and betrayal. As a pastor I longed to help, but often I could only refer them to therapists for counseling. Sometimes they got better. Sometimes, they didn’t.
In the late 1980s the Lord began to re-shape our ministry. His call on our work and lives was to minister deliverance. But in the process, God dismantled our expectations, revived and renewed understanding of spiritual gifts, and generally remodeled our theology and vision of the Body of Christ. As if the Lord had hit a heavenly switch, as we prayed for people, spiritual gifts lit up all over.
A group of earnest intercessors and prayer warriors came together. People reported strange, out-of-the-box experiences. Their theology was shaken in the presence of words of knowledge, visions, and prophetic words. The gift of discernment exploded, although we really had no understanding of the gift.
During ministry sessions I asked team members to write down impressions, words, or visual images they received. Perhaps, the Holy Spirit would confirm by giving the same revelation to more than one person.
All this time, I didn’t feel, hear, or see a thing spiritually. Nothing.” Then I began to feel a peculiar pressure on my head during some prayer sessions. I approached a trusted friend who often saw physical manifestations of angels and demons. I told her I was feeling this pressure and asked what she saw.
She replied that she was seeing some demons. With that information, a slow process began by which the prayer team members and I grasped what was happening in us and our ministry.
Team members reported unusual, unexpected, physical sensations like nausea, shaking, pressure, pain, or tingling. Not everyone had such experiences and, among those who did, the reports were as varied as the people reporting them. I stumbled upon the realization that when prophetic team members said, “There’s a demon here,” I experienced physical pressure on a particular place on my head.
A Gift by Any Other Name
Most Christians have been taught that the gift of discernment allows believers to examine natural or spiritual
actions, events, doctrines, or practices to determine whether they are good or evil. Most Christians have also been taught that discernment is the God-given ability to determine whether a spirit is godly or demonic.
Although these understandings are biblically accurate, failure to address the means by which discernment occurs has left many believers to rely on an intellectual process of analysis and application of scriptural truths and principles. Within this understanding, discernment becomes skilled decision-making or the ability to weigh evidence and deduce answers. In 1 Corinthians 12: 7-10 discernment is listed not as a human ability, but a spiritual gift:
Now to each one the manifestation of the spirit is given for the common good. To one is given…the message of wisdom…knowledge…to another faith….to another gifts of healing….miraculous powers… prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits. (NIV)
The New King James renders this phrase “discerning of spirits.” Elsewhere it is translated “discernment of spirits” (NRSV), and “distinguishing all spirits” (NASB). In the New Living Bible this text is paraphrased as “the ability to know whether it is really the Spirit of God or another spirit that is speaking.”
I sought understanding of this spiritual gift. I received a call from Dr. Tom Hawkins, a scholar and Dallas Theological Seminary PhD graduate involved in ministry to severely abused people. The Lord was about to explain to me a new understanding of His word.
Tom Hawkins told me that he had received a Word of Knowledge. He gave me the passage, Hebrews 5:11-14. He told me that he believe this was a chief passage for what was happening to me. I opened the Word and read these words:
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s Word all over again. You need milk, not solid food. Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature who, because of practice, have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (NASB, author’s emphasis).
The final words, “solid food is for the mature who, because of practice, have their senses trained to discern good and evil,” shone like a floodlight. For more than a year I and the prayer teams had struggled with questions about physical sensations we had experienced. Why did one member’s hands get numb when he prayed? Why did another feel pain in her chest? They’d experienced smells like rotting garbage, high-pitched shrieking sounds, heat, cold, physical discomfort, and even laughter. They’d asked the Lord more than once, What does this mean? They were on the verge of finding some answers.
The book of Hebrews says mature believers are ready for solid food of “teaching about righteousness.” Verse 14 then describes one route to maturity, saying, “the mature, who because of practice, have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
Discernment is not child’s play. It is a mark of the mature Christian. According to 1 Corinthians 12:10, discernment is a spiritual gift. But as the writer of Hebrews clearly teaches, this gift must be developed by constant practice. Only then will discernment become a sharpened weapon of spiritual warfare. Only then will God’s people become acquainted with “teaching about righteousness” in this area of discipleship and training in godliness.
This made sense to me and the prayer teams. After all, teachers review notes and practice presentations. Everyone in every field gains maturity through practice. Why should we assume spiritual development is different?
I addressed the prayer teams, “In the spiritual areas of life, we immediately assume if we can’t do a spiritual activity correctly the first time, what we’re doing must not be of God. Hebrews 5:14 says practice is necessary. We’re to practice the use of our senses.” The goal of this practice is to train our five physical senses to distinguish between good and evil.
Evangelicals commonly teach discernment as an intellectual process of analysis and application of biblical principles leading to logical conclusions. The writer of Hebrews, it seems, flies directly in the face of that understanding. Discernment is described as a sensory rather than an intellectual process. How can this be?
Although some translations, including the NIV, render Hebrews 5:14 as train themselves, the Greek is most accurately translated as train (or exercise) their senses. The text refers specifically to the five physical senses of touch, hearing, smell, sight, and taste.
The writer of Hebrews is saying discernment operates through the physical senses. Discernment is tested with the mind by rightly applying Scripture. This insight completed the jigsaw puzzle of understanding for the prayer teams and me.
I catalogued their experiences, “Team members have had physical reactions to the presence of demons, angels, witchcraft, spiritual powers and authorities….They’ve smelled sulfur and rotting garbage…I have heard the Lord speak my name. I have worked with people who have heard the Lord speak audibly, angels sing, demons talk and laugh, and the sound of horses’ hooves thundering by.”
Is Sensory Discernment scriptural?
Throughout history many of God’s people have experienced both godly and demonic presence with their senses. Even a cursory reading of Scripture reveals a consistent pattern.
God’s voice was heard by Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen. 3:8), by Abraham (Gen. 12:1), Moses (Ex. 19:19), Joshua (Josh. 1:1), and Samuel (I Sam. 3:4). After Jesus was baptized by His cousin John, how many people heard the voice of God say, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased?” This event was of such importance it was recorded in the Gospels of Matthew; Mark; and Luke.
When Jesus commanded demons to identify themselves in Mark 5:9, they said, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” The text indicates the demons said. Therefore, it is logical to assume Jesus heard.
God’s people see into the spirit world. God appeared to Moses in the physically real though symbolic form of a burning bush (Ex 3:2). God used an angel to appear and speak to Abraham (Gen. 18:1-2). He showed himself to Joshua as an angel with a drawn sword (Josh. 5:13).
Scripture also records evil manifesting in physical, “seen” forms. In Exodus 7:12, wooden staffs were transformed into snakes both by God’s power and Pharaoh’s magicians’ occult magic. God’s power was good, and the magic of Pharaoh’s servants was evil, but the results of both were visible in the natural world.
Both good and evil appear in visions. The prophet Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision rather than with his natural eyes. He described in detail, “I saw the Lord seated on a throne…the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him were seraphs, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces…” (Isa 6:1-2).
As recorded in Revelation 13, John saw satan (or a manifestation of the enemy’s evil) in a vision. He described “the beast” in vivid detail.
The following passages record experiences of taste from biblical records. Ezekiel, and John, writer of the book of Revelation, each received a vision in which they were given a scroll to eat. Ezekiel wrote, “So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ezek. 3:1-3). John received a scroll from an angel. He wrote, “It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour” (Rev. 10:8-10).
The Bible rarely refers to spiritual presence or realities being perceived through smell. Paul writes of the “aroma of Christ,” the “smell of death,” and the “fragrance of life” (2 Cor. 2: 15-16). Are these poetic metaphors or is Paul referring to actual smells with which mature–and discerning-believers were and should still be familiar? In addition, Chapters 5 and 8 of Revelation describe bowls of incense. The smell and visible smoke of incense appear to be a physical manifestation of the prayers of the saints.
Both good and evil are revealed by touch in Scripture. Peter saw, heard, and felt an angel. Acts 12:7 records that an angel bathed in light appeared to Peter. The angel “struck Peter on the side” to wake him and said, “Quick. Get up.”
In I Kings 19:7, the prophet Elijah fled from Queen Jezebel. Hungry and despairing, he lay in the desert and prayed for death. An angel of God prepared food and touched Elijah to wake him from his exhausted sleep.
In Mark 9:20, evil manifested physically. A young boy was possessed by what Jesus named a “deaf and mute spirit.” The moment the demon saw Jesus, it “threw the boy into a convulsion.” This passage should be carefully noted. Western reasoning would lead to the logical conclusion that this boy suffered from a biochemical/neurological imbalance resulting in epilepsy. However, Jesus operated in discernment as well as human logic. Although elsewhere He recognized physical illness, here He named and took authority over demonic spirits.
The teaching of Hebrews 5:14 coupled with confirming Scriptures established the foundation I and the prayer teams used to share, examine, and test their sensory experiences. Hebrews 5:14 became alive in our ministry. The “solid food” of discernment did produce fruit of greater maturity as the prayer teams grew in confidence, authority, and trust in the power of God’s living word. As they began to understand and use discernment, this gift emerged as an important weapon in the battle for deliverance, healing, and spiritual freedom.