Conversatio Divina

Part 13 of 17

A Charismatic Response to Annemarie Paulin-Campbell’s Article on Discerning of Spirits

Michael Clarensau

The home video market has drastically changed the manner in which we experience entertainment. In former days, an evening’s entertainment required a collective setting amidst dozens of similar consumers, all clamoring for satisfaction from a shared encounter with the art form on display. Whether the entertainment would be labeled good or not hinged largely on the collective response. In fact, I might find myself enthralled by the performance, but temper my expression of pleasure if those around me didn’t view the event similarly. Conversely, if everyone around me applauded wildly, I might wonder at my own ignorance for any ambivalent feelings I might have otherwise possessed.

Today, one need not file into a massive auditorium to experience the same genre. But viewing the entertainment in my own private setting manufactures a completely different experience. I am not jostled by the press of others, nor do I find myself swayed by their interpretations or reactions. At the same time, I cannot benefit from their collective insights because the only response in the room is my own. The next day’s comment on my experience runs the risk of being countered by a wiser or more vocal majority.

One might refer to the difference in these experiences as a matter of perspective. That difference, however, seems more pronounced than a matter of mere vantage point. The entire event feels different because the arena of focus and presentation is fully distinct. It’s with that same sense of diversity of focus that I view Paulin-Campbell’s presentation of discerning of spirits. But, while a charismatic approach to the subject of discernment conjures images of the proverbial apples-to-oranges comparison, I am convinced we will find both fruits—Ignatian and charismatic approaches to this topic—quite tasty.

01.  A Crowded mirror

Among charismatics, the issue of discernment of spirits often draws a crowd. Now we needn’t liken or limit the focus to a dusty tent where a microphoned seer identifies and rebukes a plethora of evil intenders in the spirit realm. The issue of discerning spirits is, however, more often a corporate idea for the charismatic.

In the Apostle Paul’s listing of those ways in which the Holy Spirit equipped the Church (1 Corinthians 12), the charismatic sees community and the Spirit’s need to inform that community with direction and information not otherwise available. Indeed, Paul’s focus was the correction of Corinth’s abuses in their collective settings. As such, the gifts distributed by the Spirit are often deemed to have that same community focus. For a people who find meaning and life-altering reality in public experience over introspection, the experience of determining the nature and source of influencing spirits drifts toward the external or even the environmental. The atmosphere of the moment, the experience, the reality of God’s presence is more often a group encounter where evil seeks to hinder and good bids the hesitant to enter in. Surely the individual impact is measurable and significant, but the focus is more often concerned with evaluating the properness of other expressed gifts or protecting the right work of God’s Spirit in the room as a whole.

02.  A More Aggressive Posture

A second difference for the charismatic is the manner of response. Where Paulin-Campbell’s introspective understanding might lead to private repentance or the pangs of guilt she suggests, the charismatic goes on the offensive. Evil spirits are rebuked, even when the heart may not wish them to leave. Discernment leads to encounter and aggressive action that will seem more external than my understanding of the Ignatian response.

For the charismatic, the success of such actions will be determined by whether one has more in common with the Apostle Paul or the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:13–15). Those empowered by the Holy Spirit possess authority in the realm discerned and have been given the right to direct such spirits in an apostolic manner. This understanding informs spiritual formation as well. For the charismatic, such growth is seen as resulting more often from a series of ecstatic experiences with God than a required sense of self-discipline after the manner of Ignatius.

03.  A Sharing of the Lens

While Paulin-Campbell’s insights on spiritual discernment and the charismatic understanding of the same subject flow from completely different foci—the former prioritizing the discovery of what God may be saying, the latter seeking to verify the true identity of the speaker—it seems unlikely that the two would ultimately choose to oppose each other. Being more attached to the charismatic—though wholly disconnected from its more extreme versions—I feel more confident of identifying how I might benefit from her than how she might gain from me.

First, I find numerous expressions of gratitude for the more introspective understanding of this gift. Often with the greater corporate focus of the work of the Spirit, charismatics tend to neglect daily development as disciples of their Savior’s teaching. Indeed, amidst charismatics, those seemingly most capable of discerning spirits are not equally recognized for their personal piety and Christlike growth. The crowd focus frequently yields an environment where what the crowd sees matters most. An application of this and other spiritual gifts to one’s personal journey would likely yield deeper realities in both the private and corporate arenas.

Perhaps the charismatic offers greater application for this gift within the corporate setting or even a stronger sense of the availability of the present Holy Spirit. The aggressive posture of the charismatic, while given to occasional missteps, seems to open the way more often for demonstrations of the power of God’s Spirit amidst its environment of higher expectation. The community focus also may benefit the personal introspection, for sometimes others may see what one’s own spirit manages to avoid.

Charismatics would most certainly concur with Ignatius’ comments on the war between flesh and spirit, even though they may not identify this as discernment’s principal milieu. Perhaps a greater use of this gift in the private setting would yield greater accuracy in that discernment. Certainly, accurate discernment of the spirit’s activity in others would be more difficult since human eyes can see only what is outward. But if one were to evaluate honestly and accurately what is lurking in one’s own heart, correct evaluation would be more common, and the resultant action more beneficial and enduring.

In the end, while charismatics and Ignatius approach the subject of the discerning of spirits from completely different settings, it’s highly unlikely that either would oppose the conclusions of the other. The gift is needed both in the personal and the corporate efforts to pursue God.

Having been discipled through the charismatic view of discernment, I find Paulin-Campbell’s voice joining in with a few others inviting me to a journey I had rarely been encouraged to consider. Subsequently, I have found an emerging benefit through such introspection through times of solitude and guided self-care. In these moments of greater awareness of God’s daily intent, I have more easily recognized how each day can make its contribution to God’s ever-unfolding path for my life.


Michael Clarensau is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God and currently serves as lead pastor of Maranatha Worship Center in Wichita, Kansas. He has formerly served as editor in chief for Radiant Life curriculum and Gospel Publishing House and has held various district and national offices for his denomination. He is the author of thirteen books and numerous articles.