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What Is the Gift of the Spirit of Discernment and How Can Prayer Help?

What Is the Gift of the Spirit of Discernment and How Can Prayer Help?

Have you ever had a conversation with another believer that caused unrest in your spirit? Maybe it was when you started hearing about a relationship or lifestyle – or even a new philosophy or perspective of theirs – that gave you a sick feeling in your gut.

Did you consider your internal response an indication that you were being critical, judgmental, or intolerant of that brother or sister in Christ? Or could it be that you have the gift of a spirit of discernment?

If you’ve ever wondered “What is a spirit of discernment?” you wouldn’t be the first to ask.

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What is the gift of a spirit of discernment?

In First Corinthians 12:10, Paul refers to “distinguishing between spirits” (or “discerning of spirits”  in the NKJV) – as a spiritual gift that God gives to believers in order to recognize lying spirits and to identify deceptive and erroneous doctrines.

Paul warned when this gift of discernment is not being exercised in the church, distortion of the truth occurs.

But this gift of discernment is not something that is only exercised in a corporate church setting.

In 1 John 4:1, believers were exhorted to “not believe every sprit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  

As believers today, you and I are to heed that instruction to test worldly philosophies, foreign doctrines, and even new perspectives and ideas that come out of the mouths of politicians, celebrities, community leaders, and even pastors and religious leaders. We are to test everything that comes through our television sets, over our radio waves, and across our laptops and phone screens.

To have the spirit of discernment is to possess the ability to judge well. We get our English word "aesthetic" from the Greek word for discernment, meaning moral perception, insight, and the practical application of knowledge.

First Timothy 4:1 tells us: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” Thus, we are urged to “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

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Where is the spiritual gift of discernment mentioned in the Bible?

In 1 Kings 3, when the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked him to name whatever he desired, Solomon pleased God by asking for the spirit of discernment. Solomon’s words were “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong…” (1 Kings 3:9).

Solomon’s request for discernment so pleased the Lord that God not only gave Solomon a wise and discerning heart, but He also gave him what he didn’t ask for – “both wealth and honor – so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings” (1 Kings 3:13).

In the New Testament, Paul prayed that believers would have and apply the spirit of discernment: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10).

Paul realized if believers were able to discern what is best from what is just good or acceptable, they would be pure and blameless, and stand apart from the rest of the world.

The Apostle John also urged the first century Christians to practice the spiritual gift of discernment because of how quickly they could be deceived if they weren’t grounded in the truth: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

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How do I know if I have the gift of discernment?

Scripture implies that if we are wise and walk in the ways of the Lord, our lives are evidence of a spirit of discernment. “Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them” (Hosea 14:9).

All spiritual gifts are abilities that are empowered and enabled by the Holy Spirit and used for the edification of the church.

If you have the gift of discernment, then, it isn’t something that is evidenced by your wisdom and savvy in the workplace or your strong opinions that stand out among unbelievers. If it is truly a gift it is given to you to uplift and encourage the body of Christ.

Are you a person who studies the Word of God so you can have a discerning heart? Are you one who pours over His precepts so you know how to discern God’s truth and rightly divide it, teach it, and apply it?

Hebrews 5:14 tells us if we have a maturity in the Word, we likely possess a spirit of discernment: “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”

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How do I pray for the spirit of discernment?

Since Solomon pleased God by asking for a wise and discerning heart, we would do well to request of God the same.

We can pray for a heart of discernment as the Psalmist did in Psalm 119:25: “I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes.”

When we pray for discernment, we are to ask for it in faith, like we would ask for anything (Matthew 21:22). We are also to ask for it with the right motives. James 4:3 tells us “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

If you are asking God for anything, not really believing God will give it to you, you are one who “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:7). And if you ask so that you can wield a spiritual super-power and appear more spiritual than others around you, that, too is not pleasing to the Lord.

But, when you ask humbly, in faith, and with the motive of living a more holy life, God will hear you (Matthew 21:22).

Pray also for a renewed mind and a stronger desire for God’s Word than the world’s philosophies. Romans 12:2 tells us: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

The more you grow in your love for and knowledge of God’s Word, the more discerning you will be.

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Suggested Prayers for Discernment

Here are some suggested short prayers for a discerning spirit:

Lord, God, please give me an understanding heart and a sensitivity to Your ways.

Lord, help me to distinguish between the truth of Your Word and the lies of this world.

Lord God, help me to discern between Your voice and the enemy’s voice. May Your gentle warnings be louder in my ears than the enemy’s empty threats.

Lord God, grant me a desire for Your Word so I will crave Your instruction, guidance and wisdom. Your Word tells me if I lack wisdom, to ask You for it and You will give it generously and without finding fault in me. Thank You for Your desire to give me a discerning spirit.

Lord Jesus, tune my ears to Your still small voice that convicts my heart of sin, corrects my ways, and counsels my heart. I know You are not the accuser who wants to discourage me and give me a spirit of despair. You are instead, my Advocate, who gently corrects me with Your Word, and steers me along the right path.

Cindi McMenamin is a national speaker and award-winning writer who helps women and couples strengthen their relationship with God and with others. She has authored more than a dozen books including When Women Walk Alone (more than 130,000 copies sold), When God Sees Your Tears, When a Woman Overcomes Life’s HurtsWhen Couples Walk Together (co-authored with her husband, Hugh), and Drama Free: Finding Peace When Emotions Overwhelm You, and God’s Whispers to a Woman’s Heart. For more on her resources to help strengthen your walk with God, your marriage, or your parenting, see her website:  

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