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.

This was not just a problem in John’s congregation – Paul has to write to some of his congregations to clarify about the use of the prophetic as well.

In John’s context – there were people who taught things that were against Christ still in the congregation: if they got up and gave a word, it was not likely from God, even if it sounded very spiritual

At Runnymede we would love to receive prophetic words from God. If you receive something in the service that you think is a word from God, you should bring it to one of the pastors or leadership team. They will help discern the word

1. whether it is from God

2. whether it is for now

3. whether it is for the congregation

And even if the word is give out in the meeting, it is still out there for discernment – you need to know that if you give a word.

John gives two tests in this passage to help discern the spirit.

1. Does it acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh? This was the great controversy in the congregation that John writes to – that Jesus was both the messiah, the divine Son of God and that he was human, come in the flesh. John says that if the spirit doesn’t acknowledge this, it is not from God, in fact it is anti-Christ - against Christ.

In our context, we can discern the spirit behind a spiritual experience, or a prophetic word by asking, Does this experience or word affirm who we know Jesus is, or deny it? Does it glorify Christ, or try to take glory from him?

2. Is the experience/word accepted by the Christian community? Verse 6

If the majority of the congregation cannot find God in your experience or the word that is given, then it is suspect. Now if God is doing something new, it may take the rest of us a little time to catch up, but in general, we can trust the fact that if we are Christians, the Holy Spirit resides in us giving us wisdom and discernment. As a body, we can exert that discernment.

As an added note, you might think that the words that John writes in verses 4-6 are the height of arrogance. You need to remember where John was writing from and who he was writing to. John most likely writes this letter from prison to a persecuted and embattled church. His words are not triumphalistic, they are encouraging a bruised and battered people, saying, “you’ve got it right, keep going, you are on the right path!”

In other places John gives other tests

3. Does it promote doing what Jesus said? (1:4)

4. Does it promote love among believers? (1:10)

When we talk about discerning Spiritual experiences, it might be obvious to you that as a Christian you shouldn’t go to a fortune teller, or a Voodoo priest, but there are some other things that might not seem so obvious, like traditional medicine or acupuncture, or things like yoga that have their roots in other religions but could be possibly be practiced as just a fitness regime. I’d suggest that you gather a group of trusted Christian friends around you to investigate and discern whether these things are within God’s boundaries, or outside of them before you get involved. Ask God to help you discern the spirit as a group.

There is good news in what John says – he reminds us that the Holy Spirit who lives in us is the greatest Spirit when he says “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” As we try to discern the spirit in activities outside the church and in words given inside the church, we need to trust that we have a great big God who wants us to get it right – he’s not trying to trick us into getting it wrong, and if we put our lives at his feet, he will lead us in the right and good paths.

In the early days of the Toronto Blessing, when there was many nay-sayers, John Arnott used to say that we needed to trust that God’s ability to bless us was far greater that the devil’s ability to deceive us. We need to not live in fear of getting it wrong, but trust God to help us to get it right.

But, we need to be wise; to not assume that everything spiritual is good; we need to test the spirits and be sure that all that we do is in right relationship to God.