Matt, the engineering student with the “street preacher obsession,” had proven himself a really hard-boiled OCDer. Even after asking his minister and several friends whether they thought the Holy Spirit was calling him for a special ministry, and despite hearing them all say ‘No, I don’t think so,’ he still could not gain peace on the matter. The tormenting question insistently forced itself onto the front of his awareness: “How do I know for sure that the Holy Spirit isn’t calling me to be a street preacher?”
At this point, I encouraged Matt to try the process of “discernment of spirits.” The basic principle here is that two spirits are always at work in a difficult choice: the Holy Spirit, who is working in us through peace and joy; and the negative or evil spirit, marked by agitation and turmoil. Key Biblical references for this concept include Galatians 5:22-23, John 14: 26-27, 1John 4:1, Col 3:15 1Thes 5:21, 1Cor:12:10, and 1Tim 4:1.
It gets complicated, because the negative spirit can masquerade as the Holy Spirit. Importantly, though, the characteristic feelings associated with the negative spirit always make themselves known eventually. The fundamental task in discernment is carefully watching the spirits move, observing the motions of the mind and soul over a significant period of time.
The second essential principle in discernment of spirits is this: Make no choices until the spirits have shown themselves. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Better to do nothing than to make a mistake. God’s purpose, after all, may actually rest in what you learn through bearing the turmoil patiently (Isaiah 40:31,KJV).
Matt started the process, and put off making a decision. This in itself provided some initial relief. Furthermore, it turned out that the method of discernment appealed to his analytic mind. After a few weeks, he explained to me the technique he had developed.
After I pray, I’ll usually just add on a time in which I try to listen. I’ll bring up the question of street preaching, and I’ll just see if I can label the different feelings and the different emotions that are going on. It’s getting easier to identify the distressing movements. I’m realizing more and more that the way the Lord uses me is not usually when I act according to that sort of distressing feeling. It’s usually when I have a positive feeling, a passion, or really feel like something is important–you know, when there’s an active, strong, positive motivation to do something. These other kind of feelings, when they come up they seem very negative and heavy, and they don’t seem to accomplish anything. These anxious feelings, I think they pull you away from God.”
What an insightful statement! Matt, I thought, should be a theologian rather than wasting himself on engineering. One reason the discernment of spirits can be helpful is that fear paralyzes the mind. Research has demonstrated that when the brain processes fear, it gives it the highest priority. Fear stays right there right in the forefront of consciousness, pushing you to do something immediately, while other important lines of reasoning are blocked. A person in this situation is unable to employ gut-level common sense. The discernment process helps to cut through the paralysis, and put a tormenting thought into proper perspective. As Matt put it, “I think the discernment process is helpful for just getting the obsession away from your mind and down more into the core of your soul or spirit or whatever.”