The Holy Spirit has provided a way for us to sort truth from error. But in this season of spiritual compromise, discernment is not popular.
When I began making regular ministry trips to Nigeria a few years ago I learned that a peculiar Nigerian minister named T.B. Joshua was causing quite a stir in that country. Often referred to as “the Man of God” or “the Man in the Synagogue” by his followers, this African preacher founded a massive religious compound in Lagos called The Synagogue, Church of All Nations. He began attracting big crowds because of his healing powers.
I was initially excited to hear about a new healing ministry on the international scene, but when I talked to pastors in Lagos I learned that no mainstream Christian church or denomination in Nigeria embraced Joshua as authentic. In fact, Pentecostal leaders had denounced him publicly because of his occult background and because he mixed Christian terminology with pagan healing methods.
I finally sat down with Joshua in 2003 to confront him about his story (including his claim that his mother carried him in the womb for 15 months because he was “special”). After being in his offices, talking with his zombielike followers, interviewing ex-members of his cult and watching videos of his bizarre methods (which include a form of magic writing), my own gut feelings confirmed what I had already been told by countless pastors in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja and other cities: This man was not operating by the Holy Spirit’s power.
“God gave us spiritual gifts in a package, and discernment is part of the set. It is not optional.”
What was even more shocking was seeing planeloads of Christians from South Africa, Europe and North America arrive in Nigeria to attend this man’s meetings. The excited pilgrims came to receive a touch from God. They wanted a spiritual impartation. Some left claiming they had been healed.
It was through this experience that I realized how desperately devoid of discernment the American church has become.
When the charismatic movement was at its zenith 30 years ago, Christians rediscovered the gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We embraced healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues and miracles—gifts that had been ignored by the mainstream church for centuries.
We also learned that discernment is one of these nine supernatural gifts (see 1 Cor. 12:8-10). We were taught that since the devil has the ability to counterfeit, and since Satan’s activity includes “all power and signs and false wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9, NASB), God’s people must be equipped with the supernatural power to tell the difference between the true and the false.
God gave us spiritual gifts in a package, and discernment is part of the set. It is not optional. Yet today it seems we’ve set discernment aside—perhaps because we’re suspicious of any gift that requires us to exercise clear judgment.
We live in a confusing season marked by spiritual compromise, moral relativism and deceptive imitations. In our culture today up is down and right is wrong. Oprah tells us that Jesus is not the only way to God. Spirituality is up for grabs, and you can define it however you want. The broad way to destruction is celebrated while the narrow way to salvation is criticized.
And in some charismatic churches, hunger for the supernatural is encouraged while leaders seem reluctant to put boundaries around it for fear of seeming intolerant. We stopped teaching discernment because it forces us to draw lines. We desperately need to return to what the Bible teaches us about this important subject:
1. We are commanded to discern. The apostle John instructed us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The word “test” means to “examine as metal”—the process a jeweler would use to prove authenticity. Metals may look the same; only when you apply heat will you find which ones are fake or of low quality. All that glitters, in such cases, is not gold.
We don’t like to test because it seems harsh. We don’t like confrontation. We want to be nice to everybody. But it is the Lord who tells us to test the spirits. Will we please people, or fear God?
2. Discernment is a sign of spiritual maturity. The author of Hebrews told his readers that they were immature babies who couldn’t handle eating spiritual meat. “Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). The implication here is that those who don’t learn to discern are spiritually stunted.
Is it possible that we in the American church have been so focused on satisfying our own material or emotional needs that we have gotten stuck in perpetual infancy? The Bible offers a remedy: Grow up! We will never come to full adulthood in a spiritual sense if we don’t develop discernment.
3. Discernment is damaged when leaders compromise. The prophet Ezekiel denounced the priests and governors of Israel because they didn’t teach the people to discern. “They have made no distinction between the holy and the profane, and they have not taught the difference between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek. 22:26). Discernment, according to this passage, is shaped by the choices leaders make.
When shepherds don’t build fences, sheep wander into wolves’ territory. That’s why God holds leaders to a stricter standard. In some cases today, leaders have brought their flocks to feed near toxic streams. The gospel has been polluted by false prophecies and poisonous doctrines and, in some tragic cases, by the direct impartation of immorality and greed from the pulpit.
Do you want discernment? It will probably not make you popular. But I pray we will be willing to risk our popularity in order to become mature disciples of Jesus—and to guard the American church from deception.
J. Lee Grady is editor of Charisma.
4 years ago