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Discerning the spirits

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 12 August 2021

In the first letter of John, we find the verse:"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world." The early Church is instructed not to make moral judgments, or examine values, or darkly list "isms." It is instructed to discern the spirits. Talk of such spirits doesn't evoke the existence of the supernatural as does the Scottish prayer:

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

Rather "Spirit" here refers to the real mental constructions that take over our lives, those insubstantial animals that hold us to ransom and have a life of their own. That the writer of John's letter is not referring to the supernatural is confirmed by his mention of false prophets who are the disseminators of false mental constructions, otherwise called in the New Testament "unclean spirits". We are all familiar with such spirits that we have inherited from our families of origin, from traumatic events, tragic loss and of meaningless and from the surrounding culture. Indeed, a whole tribe of psychologists is engaged in sorting them out, naming them and putting them in their place. A modern attempt at exorcism, if you will. The spirits that live with us may also be ideological, more the result of the activity of false prophets. These spirits are unclean because they have a distorted view of human life and the world. They are more the subject of preachers, political scientists and philosophers than psychologists.


These different spirits, both personal and public are hard to shake, and it feels like we are possessed. It is as though we have a demon! Leaders of nations can be possessed. How else can we explain the power of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Plot? These demons exist as ideologies that are blind to human life and push millions to extinction. The medieval picture of the world seems true in our time long after we have ceased to believe in the supernatural; the world is inhabited by a multitude of demons.

Jesus is found, in the New Testament, casting out demons. A common response to these stories is to dismiss them as relics of a superstitious past because they betray an ignorance of the origins of mental illness described in modern psychology and psychiatry. But it could be that these stories of exorcism are metaphors for the kind of possession discussed above. They indicate that the unclean spirits that derange the mind are liable to be cast out by another spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, otherwise referred to as the Holy Spirit.

The Church talks of the Holy Spirit in order to distinguish it from all the spirits of the world that are many or "Legion". The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God that is identical to the Spirit of Jesus, and it may be identified by the fruits it produces. According to Paul in Galatians these are:

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

By contrast, the spirits of the world (flesh in Paul's terms) are:

fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.


There arises from this conception of the works of spirit a moral discernment that does not rely on proof texts or what is or not "natural" or an attempt to continue a tradition that has long been irrelevant. It is rather theological. By "theological" I mean the way the Church conceives of the presence of God in the man Jesus. Karl Barth was famous for his insistence that ethics for Christians can only be theological ethics, an ethics that cannot be separable from our understanding of the presence of God.

Ethics are not so much a question of distinguishing right from wrong, good from evil, but a matter of discerning the spirits that lie in the hearts of men and women. Such discernment is pastoral rather than accusatory or judgmental. When a person is judged as being selfish or venal, only the symptoms are addressed. The cure can only be to try harder not to be selfish or venal. But when, as good pastors attempt to do, we uncover why the person is as he is, when we discern the spirits that have become lodged in the heart, then a cure may be sought. We can then talk about the cure of souls and we find ourselves thinking about the exorcisms performed by Jesus.

The discernment of spirits is the task of dogmatic theology, the science of the presence of God as Holy Spirit. Every theologian is an exorcist. This is, as the word "discernment" suggests, an attempt to divide out the spirits of the world/flesh from the one divine Spirit of God. This work is unafraid to name false prophets as heretical. A relevant example, in this context, is Pelagius who was declared a heretic because he stated that free will and intention were adequate for the cure of souls.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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