Discernment of Spirits

Discernment of Spirits

By Lenora Grimaud

To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.
(1Cor.12: 7-11).


We learn about the gifts of the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament, in Isaiah Chapter 11:1-3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that these gifts are Permanent dispositions that make us docile to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. These seven gifts were given to us in the Sacrament of Confirmation. They are: wisdom, understanding (discernment), knowledge, counsel, piety (prayer and reflection), fortitude (sacrificial giving), and fear of the Lord (humility and reverence).

Actually, these seven gifts are all part of one gift. We can’t really have one without all the others; they are all interdependent. Most people, by nature, have a capacity to develop natural gifts of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, discernment, counsel, and fortitude through their life experiences and education. The gifts of the Holy Spirit add a heightened and spiritual dimension to these natural attributes, and pertain to the spiritual life; to our relationship with God. They are motivated by love. It is also important to distinguish between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the charisms of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the New Testament. The gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Old Testament build on nature, and are permanent dispositions that make us docile to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

The Charism of Discernment of Spirits:

All of the charisms are gifts that are given for the building up of the community—of the Body of Christ. They are gifts for ministry. While these charisms can minister to us through private revelations in our individual walk with the Lord, they are primarily given for ministry to others, and manifested in community. These charismatic gifts differ from the gifts of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation. They are not permanent dispositions, but gifts for the Church, rather than primarily for the growth of individual holiness.

The charism of discernment of spirits, which empowers us to distinguish between good and evil spirits, is very necessary for prayer groups. It enables us to test all of the other charisms that are manifested. It is also a necessary gift for spiritual directors, and for priests when doing pastoral counseling or hearing confession, and for those involved in healing and deliverance ministries and intercessory prayer ministries. Since we are all involved in Spiritual Warfare, both the gift of discernment and the charism of discernment of spirits is beneficial to us in our personal spiritual journey and encounter with evil spirits, as well.

Satan will do everything he can to bring disorder into our communities, to cause us to abuse the charisms of the Spirit, and to put a stop to the use of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. He can use any one of us, even the most spirit-filled. St. Peter is a prime example. Peter was very open to the Spirit of God, and the first to receive the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God: Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ,’ he said ‘the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.’ (Mat. 16:16-17) Right after this profession of faith, Jesus has to rebuke Peter because Satan used him to try to divert Jesus from his true mission: Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord;’ he said ‘this must not happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’ (Mat. 16:22-23)

At a prayer meeting, a person who is given the discernment of spirits usually needs to act on that discernment. Sometimes, for the good of others, they can pray quietly, commanding the evil spirit to be quiet or to leave, but usually they will have to speak out and rebuke the spirit. It may also be necessary to give some instruction or teaching to the community. This can be a humiliation for the person who was used by an evil spirit, unless they are humble and realize that it is not so much them, but the spirit using them that is being confronted. It is also very difficult for the person who received the discernment. People with this charism, by nature, find it very difficult to correct, admonish, or confront others. They are usually non-judgmental, which I think is a prerequisite for receiving this charism. This charism is different from the broader gift of discernment used in an individual’s life, because it is instantaneous seeing, hearing, and knowing, and usually has to be acted on right away. However, generally, the person who receives this charism will have the same foundation necessary for the growth and development of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit:
  • Faith in God and trust in his will.
  • A personal relationship with Jesus as our Lord.
  • Abandonment to the will of God.
  • Humility and the desire for holiness.
  • Life of prayer and recollection.
  • Knowledge of the Scriptures and the Teaching of the Church.
  • Fruits of the Spirit—Peace, Love, and Joy.
  • Self-knowledge and the willingness to die to self in the service of others.
  • Some knowledge of human nature and psychological growth.
The purity and authenticity of the charism of discernment of spirits will be based on the degree that we have these foundational criteria for discernment of God’s will and direction in our lives.

The purpose of our Prayer Meetings is to become one body in praise and worship of God; to deepen our knowledge of God, each other, and ourselves; to grow in faith, hope, and love; to develop and use our gifts for the glory of God and the building up of the community; to become one, holy people, equipped to spread the Gospel of love and peace—the Good News of Jesus Christ—throughout the whole world. We can expect that the enemies of Jesus Christ will do everything in their power to stop this mission and purpose of God.

The enemy will attempt to cause division and disunity in our communities. He will try to make us choose one leader over another, one ministry over another, one gift or charism over another. He will bring confusion, and try to mislead us by taking our attention off of Jesus; he will quote scripture out of context; he will try to introduce false teaching and heresy. He will magnify one truth to the exclusion of others. He will attempt to take advantage of our weaknesses and frailties—our needs and lack of spiritual growth. He will use every means to lead us into the deadly sins of pride, lust, avarice, greed, jealousy, envy, anger, fear, and sloth. The enemy is anti-Christ! He will often appear as an “angel of light,” flatter us, charm us, and tell us all the things we want to hear.

Jesus is calling us to radical love—to die with him so we can rise with him. He is calling us to be Saints who could be canonized, if it was his will and for the glory of God. The “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” is necessary for every Christian in order to become Saints and to fulfill the mission that Jesus Christ has called us to. However, every Christian is at a different stage of growth in their spiritual journey when they receive this experience. It is helpful to look at where the Apostles were in their spiritual journey when they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost:
  • Baptism of Repentance (John’s Baptism), turning away from sin and evil—desire for holiness and righteousness.
  • Conversion—faith in Jesus—willing to follow him, leaving everything.
  • Fellowship and intimacy with Jesus—brotherhood—prayer and abandonment to the will of God; they served Jesus.
  • Formed by the Word of God (Jesus)—Jesus was their teacher; they were his disciples; Jesus taught them everything they would need to know.
  • Tested by the Spirit and Satan—they all fell away, and returned (self-knowledge).
  • Obedience—they obeyed Jesus and waited in Jerusalem for the Spirit to come; they waited to be empowered and sent, in the name of Jesus—they didn’t go out on their own, or in their own name.
Obstacles to discernment—openings for evil spirits in community:

  • Harboring resentment, bitterness, or anger against another person—especially a member of the prayer group or community; anger against the Church.
  • Jealousy and envy of the gifts of others; rebellion and rejection of authority.
  • Quick to judge; criticalness of others; gossip and detraction.
  • Unrepentant sin—lack of self-knowledge.
  • Pride—clinging to our own judgments, opinions, ideas, etc.—need to be right.

We would do well to meditate on the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia (CCC-1866). These are open invitations to evil spirits. We can guard against them by acquiring their opposing virtues, and living a virtuous life.

Why does God allow us to be tested by the evil one?
  • It enables us to come to know ourselves: our weaknesses and our strengths—where we need the most help—what we need to work on and develop.
  • It prepares us for discipleship and ministry.
  • It guards us against presumption and pride.
  • It makes us humble and dependent on God’s power—preventing us from relying on our own strength.
  • It increases wisdom and teaches us how to discern good from evil.
What are the signs of discernment of evil spirits?
  • Feelings: feeling of unrest; lack of peace or joy; restlessness; anxiety; fear; nausea; queasiness; resistance; negative reaction to what was said.
  • Senses: smell of sulphur; images of evil spirits; sense that something is not right—hearing words such as “No, No” or “Stop, Stop!”
  • Thinking: rebellious or evil thoughts; thoughts that cause us to trust in our own understanding instead of Scripture or the Teachings of the Church. They cause us to resist the leading of the Holy Spirit. The prophet, Elisha said to Naaman, Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will become clean once more (2Kings 5:10). Naaman was indignant because it was an insult to his intelligence. When he obeyed he was healed. Pride and trust in our own understanding has caused many people to stop going to a prayer meeting, and even leave the Church, as well as to resist opportunities for great grace. It causes people to break commitments and obligations. It has caused many people to think they can pray just as well in their own homes, and do not need the Church, or to go to Church. God’s ways are not our ways. We must believe that there are many paradoxes and mysteries throughout Scripture that cannot be comprehended by the human mind. We must wait in faith and trust for God to give us understanding.

Causes: an evil spirit or spirits in the room; false prophecy, teaching, or other charism manifested by inspiration of an evil spirit; a spirit of resistance to the truth attacking us or others; spirit of fear attacking us or others; a spirit of pride, jealousy, anger, or judgment towards a person manifesting a charism, or a member of the community; condemnation, rash judgment, or gossip coming through the manifestations of the charisms. The evil one comes to accuse, to condemn, to damn, and to lead us to despair. He also comes to turn us away from opportunities for grace and to resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the evil one comes to attack us or our loved ones right after we have received a great grace from God, in order to fill us with fear and rob us of the blessings we have received.

What should we do if we discern the presence of an evil spirit?

  • At a prayer meeting, we should speak out what we are feeling or sensing. Others will confirm it or explain it. One of the leaders will make a decision on how to act on it, such as: pray a cleansing prayer for the group; pray the prayer to St. Michael the Arch Angel; direct the people to fix their eyes on Jesus; lead the people in praise and worship of God; or, take authority over the evil spirit and command it to leave in the name of Jesus. If a false prophecy is given, scripture or teaching should be given to correct it—with gentleness and love. The evil one will often quote scripture out of context, or inspire us to interpret scripture and the teachings of the Church, falsely. He can even influence the way we pray for others, publicly, turning our prayers into slander, detraction, and gossip; causing us to judge or condemn other people or groups in our prayers. St. Paul warns us that we are not to judge non-believers. God, alone, is their judge (1Cor. 5:9-13).
  • Many holy souls are plagued with evil thoughts, blaspheming God or the Church; thoughts accusing and condemning them and others of sin and evil. This often happens while they are at prayer or at Mass. The evil one can also cause them to see lustful and evil images. If Satan attacks us right before or after we have received some grace, blessing, or gift from God, causing us to be fearful, we need to resist him, or confidently, and with faith, command him to leave in the name of Jesus. We should turn our eyes on Jesus and continue to praise him.

St. Teresa of Avila had a special gift of discernment. She was able to see the demons and evil spirits that hovered around her. At first, this made her very fearful because they were very grotesque and frightening figures. But, in time she came to regard them as having no more power than flies or nats. They were annoying pests, but they could not harm her because she was empowered by Jesus. Flies and nats are a lot more fearful when we can’t see them for what they really are. St Teresa used to say that when the devil makes a lot of noise and commotion we can rejoice, because it means he is on the outside of us and not inside of us. It means that we are awake and can arm ourselves. We can secure our house, so that burglars cannot enter (Mat. 24:43).

Why do we need to be concerned about evil spirits?

After his Baptism by John, Jesus was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit to be tested by Satan. It was no contest for the Son of God, but Jesus showed us what we could expect—how Satan will try to tempt us.

Temptations in the wilderness: (Mat. 4:1-11)

He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry, and the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’

But he replied, ‘Scripture says: Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

The devil then took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are the Son of God’ he said ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says: He will put you in his angel’s charge, and they will support you on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says: You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’

Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘I will give you all these’ he said ‘if you fall at my feet and worship me.’

Then Jesus replied, ‘Be off, Satan! For scripture says: You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.’

Be on guard against the enemies of Christ and against the world: 1John4:1-6

It is not every spirit, my dear people, that you can trust; test them, to see if they come from God…We test them against the Scriptures, the teaching of the Church, and the fruits of the Spirit. If anyone comes to us preaching and teaching about spiritual things, about God, and they do not believe in the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ his only Son, and they do not acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and the Lord of heaven and earth, we must not listen to anything they have to say about spiritual things, or about God.

Do not believe it—warning: (Mat. 24:24)

for false Christs and false prophets will arise and produce great signs and portents, enough to deceive even the chosen, if that were possible. There; I have forewarned you. There are many false Christs—false Messiahs—and distorted perceptions of Jesus, in the world today. The most popular false Christ today, is the Self, or higher power within every person. There are false Messiahs who claim to preach the truth, divine teaching; teaching that denies or rejects the teaching of Christ that has been handed down to us; the teaching of Christ that Christians have believed and understood for the past 2000 years. Yet, these false teachers have done nothing to prove the divine origin of their teaching. Their teaching is merely a figment of their own imagination and speculations—their own philosophy. They have done none of the “works of God” that Jesus did to prove that he was sent from God. To believe them, we would have to call Jesus, the Apostles, and the Church throughout the ages, liars. We would have to call God a liar.

False Teachers: (1Tim. 4:1)

The Spirit has explicitly said that during the last times there will be some who will desert the faith and choose to listen to deceitful spirits and doctrines that come from the devils…If we are strong in our faith, we will have no need to even listen to these spirits and doctrines. They result in the spread of heresy and apostasy. We must be informed Christians, who know the Scriptures, and the history and teaching of the Church. We must be people of prayer and meditation, virtue, good works, one Church, and docile to the Holy Spirit, or we will have no resistance against these false teachers.

The Great Revolt and the Rebel: (2Thes.2:9-10)

But, when the Rebel comes, Satan will set to work: there will be all kinds of miracles and a deceptive show of signs and portents, and everything evil that can deceive those who are bound for destruction because they would not grasp the love of the truth which could have saved them. We need to remain in Jesus—the Truth, the Way, and the Life, or we will be deceived.

Recapitulation: (1Pet.4:12)

My dear people, you must not think it unaccountable that you should be tested by fire…We need to know that we can expect trials, tribulation, and suffering in life, and that they can purify us and help us grow in holiness. No servant is greater than his Master. There can be no resurrection without the acceptance of the “Cross.”

To the faithful: (1Peter 5:8-9)

Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith and in the knowledge that your brothers all over the world are suffering the same things. We need to stay awake; to grow in our faith. If we are not growing, and faithful to our spiritual exercises, we will fall asleep and be in darkness.

The Spiritual War: (Eph.6:10-13)

Put God’s armour on so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics. For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens. That is why you must rely on God’s armour, or you will not be able to put up any resistance when the worst happens, or have enough resources to hold your ground. We need to recognize that our real enemies are spiritual. We need to have discernment.

Truth—buckled around your waist
Integrity—for a breastplate
The eagerness to spread the gospel of peace—shoes
Salvation from God—helmet
Word of God from the Spirit—sword

Pray all the time, asking for what you need, praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion.

A Warning: (Gal.1:8)

and let me warn you that if anyone preaches a version of the Good News different from the one we have already preached to you, whether it be ourselves or an angel from heaven, he is to be condemned. False teachers are attempting to rewrite the Gospel of Jesus Christ and interpret it according to their own understanding. It is astounding that people will reject the teachings of Christ handed down by the Apostles and the Church, the Saints, and all true disciples of Christ, and yet, they will accept those who come in their own name, 2000 years later, believing that they have the real truth.

Counterfeit Apostles: (2Cor.11:14-15)

if Satan himself goes disguised as an angel of light, there is no need to be surprised when his servants, too, disguise themselves as the servants of righteousness. People are easily deceived by appearances—charismatic figures who appear to be very gifted and seem to have all the right answers. They claim to be sent by God, to be sons of God, but they have nothing in common with Jesus Christ or his Apostles and Saints.

Peter’s denial and repentance foretold: (Luke 22:31-32)

Simon, Simon! Satan, you must know, has got his wish to sift you all like wheat; but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers. If we are true disciples of Jesus, we too can expect to be sifted like wheat. When we fall we need to get back up and repent; to turn back to Jesus. This takes faith. From our own experience, we can strengthen others and increase their faith.

Scripture makes it very clear that we need both, the charism of discernment of spirits, and the gift of discernment operative in our everyday lives. We need to be able to distinguish between truth and lies, good and evil, right and wrong, true prophets and false prophets, teachers of the truth and false teachers, and between good and evil spirits. God wants to prepare us so that we won’t be deceived by the Anti-Christ when he comes.

Whether we want to believe it or not, we are all involved in spiritual warfare. Jesus has made this clear, not to make us fearful, but to prepare and empower us. A man who is physically blind does not see what is outside of him; around him. But, usually, his blindness causes his other senses to become very acute. He senses when he is in danger, and he senses the presence of other entities around him. In spiritual warfare we cannot see our enemies, but if we are spiritually mature, we should be able to discern when we are in danger. We should be able to sense the presence of evil outside of us; the presence of foreign entities. Spiritual blindness—the lack of discernment—can lull us into a false security; to believe that what we don’t see or know can’t hurt us. Jesus warned his disciples to stay awake:
As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes…So stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Mat. 24:37-44.
Soldiers in war zones are well aware of their need to be on guard, to be awake. During the Vietnam War, many unsuspecting soldiers living in Saigon died in their beds during the night. The Vietcong used women and children as their allies. Many soldiers in Saigon were not aloud to even carry weapons. Women and children that would rally round them, often carried bombs and grenades; their maids planted them in their rooms, or brought them in while they were asleep. The same is true today. In an article printed in The Camp Pendleton Scout, on March 6, 2008, the following news is recorded: In Fallujah, Iraq, the insurgents in the Al Anbar province sneak women and children with bomb-making materials past the Coalition and Iraqi forces’ security…In the past, Marines and Iraqi Police could not search women due to the cultural barrier prohibiting men from touching women…These tactics have proven futile, thanks to the brave women known as the “Sisters of Fallujah,” who selflessly help protect their city and stop insurgents’ attempts to harm their community…Sisters of Fallujah search women, children and their belongings at the ECP before they enter the city…looking for suspicious items which could be harmful to the public such as bomb-making materials. Scripture warns us that the enemy often comes disguised as an “angel of light” in order to deceive us. He can use those we would never suspect; even women and children.

Many people, today, do not understand the meaning of “Just War.” They believe that all war is a hostile act of aggression, rather than defense against evil, or the responsibility of governments to protect their people. They do not believe that there is a need to employ people to “keep the peace.” They think there is no need for civil authorities—police forces, armies, governments, laws and Court Systems. They have been lulled into a false security that all people are naturally good, and it is only the civil authorities and the Law that makes them do evil. They think that if we get rid of all these “keepers of the peace,” we will do away with evil—“it’s not gonna happen.” All authentic authorities receive their authority from God and from the community, and are subject to God. When they go against the laws of God and righteousness, the community must use legitimate and peaceful means to change the law and remove unlawful authorities.

Jesus did not come to remove the Law, (the Covenant) but to fulfill it. He did not come to remove the Cross, or suffering, but to redeem it. War is, primarily, a consequence of evil, and results in even more evil. Wars are sometimes necessary, but they can never bring lasting peace. But, we cannot have lasting peace by removing all the consequences of sin and evil. When the kingdom of God is established firmly within the hearts of every human being, when God reigns within the heart of every human being, when peace reigns within the heart of every human being, then we will no longer need these external civil authorities—armies, governments, police forces, and the Law. The Law of the Spirit will be written on our hearts—and God will once again say, “It is good—very good.”

Discernment of spirits gives us the wisdom to know what kind of strategy we need to employ against our enemies. Sometimes, we need to ignore them as though they were nothing more than flies or nats, and eventually they will give up and fly away: resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7). Other times, we need to take authority over them and to command them to stop or to leave; to bind them and cast them out in the name of Jesus. Sometimes, only prayer and fasting will conquer them.

It is so puzzling to see so many people, today, who acknowledge the existence of angels, and even run after them; who acknowledge the existence of their deceased loved ones, and seek out psychics and mediums to contact them; and who believe in alien beings from other planets already living among us, or soon to arrive. They believe in these invisible entities, but cannot acknowledge the existence of Satan, demons, or evil spirits. It is strange that we cannot seem to love our neighbor who looks, thinks, believes, and acts differently than us, but we are quick to believe that we can embrace all invisible realities as good and worthy of our love. We can acknowledge that there are both, people who love and do good things and also people who are dominated by sin and do great evil, but we do not acknowledge that this is true of spiritual entities. This isn’t even rational thinking! If we acknowledge that there are godly people living in our world, we also have to acknowledge that there are ungodly people, as well. Otherwise, our world would be a world of perfect order, harmony, balance, peace, joy, unity, equality, and happiness. There would be no wars. If we acknowledge that there are benevolent angels, we must also acknowledge that there are fallen angels. If we acknowledge that there are good spirits or forces of goodness, we have to assume that there are also evil spirits and forces of evil at work amongst us. If we acknowledge that the deceased are alive and amongst us, we have to acknowledge that this includes both, the righteous and the evil doers. If we acknowledge that there are aliens from other planets who are friendly, we also have to assume that there may be unfriendly aliens, as well. We seem to have no fear of God, of the Truth, or of the consequences of our choices and decisions in life.

Through his Incarnation, Jesus entered into the human condition—into our sufferings, trials, temptations, and encounters with sin and evil. He suffered the consequences of all sin. He showed us how to recognize, resist, and overcome evil. He gave us power—the power of the Holy Spirit—to conquer sin and evil. He showed us how to live, how to carry our cross, how to die, and how to rise again. He empowered us with love, which casts out all fear. He made us a new creation, giving us a new mind and heart—a new consciousness. We need not be afraid, if we live in Jesus—if Jesus is truly the “Lord” of our lives. Jesus conquered Satan, sin, evil, and death. He tells us over and over, “Be not afraid, I am with you.” This does not mean that we won’t still experience the same things that strike fear in other people. It does not mean that we will not have to suffer; that we won’t have to endure trials, temptations, and darkness; that we can avoid the cross, and ultimately death. It means that those things—the consequences—cannot rob us of faith, hope, love, joy, and peace. It means that those things will transform us instead of destroy us; they will be redeemed and not be in vain. They will become a blessing instead of a curse. But, if we reject Jesus, if we do not use the power he has given us, we can well be afraid. Scripture says: “My people perish for want of knowledge.” (Hosea 4:6).

It was God that revealed to us the knowledge of Angels, good spirits, the Holy Spirit, resurrection of the dead, and heaven. It is the same God who has also revealed to us knowledge of fallen angels, evil spirits and demons, Satan, souls of the damned, judgment, and hell. How can we believe in one without acknowledging the other? How can we dare to call God a liar? But, our presumption and pride leads us to do just that, and that is why we need the charism of discernment of spirits.