Summary: Our culture tells us that if something is spiritual, it is "good." John tells us we have to discern the spirits

18 John 4:1-6 January 21, 2007

Discerning Spirits

Intro – Franklin episode where they are searching for a talisman to cure his Grandmother. The question in the show is whether the talisman will actually cure the grandmother or whether it is just superstition and not real. There was no room for the question of whether using the talisman is right or wrong!

There seems to be a mindset in our culture that says that if something is “spiritual” it is good, or if it works it is good. Thus if someone is healed by a talisman, then the use of talismans is good and right. When I was at university, there was a witch in Guelph who had a bumper sticker that said “witches heal.” You might want to argue about whether witchcraft or Wicca can really heal someone, but I think that the more important question is whether or not it is God’s way to heal.

John begins this passage by saying “dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…”

In our context, what this statement tells us is that just because something is spiritual, does not mean it is necessarily good.

When Pam and I were in Sri Lanka, we spent some time with a family where the husband was Hindu. When he was younger he had some amazing spiritual encounters. He told me stories of pilgrimages that he took where the experiences he had were nothing short of supernatural. He had also had dreams and visions that were prophetic and spiritual. At that time in 1990, I had no category for his stories. The categories I had did not fit. The categories were A) The experiences we real and therefore Hinduism is the true religion, or B) the experiences were not spiritual but had a physical explanation such as delusion or the use of mind altering drugs.

John gives us another category that says the experiences are real and are spiritual, but not every spiritual experience is from God.

So if there are spiritual experiences that are not from God, what are we to do with them?

I think the best way to answer that question is to remember that one of the strongest metaphors we have for our relationship with God is the marriage relationship. Just as a spouse says to their spouse, “there are relational experiences you will only have with me.” God says, “there are spiritual experiences you will only have with me.” And, just as we would not say that my wife is being offly ego-centric by saying that I can only sleep with her and no-one else, God is not being ego-centric by saying that there are things that we can only come to him for.

When we get married we vow that we will be faithful to our spouse alone. By that we mean that we will not go to another person to receive what we should only receive from our spouse. This is part of what it means when we say that we will be faithful to God – we will not go to other places to receive what we should only receive from God.

So, if we have been asking God about our future and we do not feel like we are getting the answers we want, it is not okay to go to the local fortune teller to get an answer.

If we do not feel that God is giving us the peace and contentment that we want, it is not okay to go to the local new age guru to get it.

If God is not giving us the healing that we want, it is not okay to go to another spiritual healer to see if their prayer will work.

If God is not giving you a wham-bang charismatic experience, it is not okay to try psychotropic drugs for that next spiritual hit.

Do you understand that it might “work,” but you are cheating on God?

Not every Spirit is from God

It is a great temptation among the Haitian Christians in the Dominican when they get sick, or feel endangered to go back to the Voodoo priest to get healing or protection. They need to be taught that God wants us for himself alone, and we are to have no other Gods before him.

Here we might be tempted in the same way, but I think that our greater temptation is to think that if something is spiritual, it must be from God. John says that this is not so, and that we must discern the spirits to test whether they are from God or not.

In John’s context, he was more concerned about the spirits in the church, rather than alternative spiritualities. There was a group in his church that taught that Jesus could not have been God made human. They either said at he was God, but only appeared human, or that he was human and only appeared divine. In the early church in general, not just the congregation that John writes to, the gift of the Prophetic was a normal part of worship. People would often get up and give a word from God. In this divisive context, John is saying that just because a word sounds spiritual, don’t assume it is from God – you have to discern the spirit that the word came from.

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