Conversatio Divina

Part 8 of 17

The Discerning of Spirits

Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age

Michael Glerup

Conversations Partner: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS).


The first act of discernment by the apostolic community—the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas—occurred after the ascension of Jesus and before the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Two questions were problematic for the early Christian writers interpreting Acts 1. First, why didn’t Jesus appoint Matthias before he departed? And second, was the drawing of lots still permissible or useful in determining the will of God? In regards to the first question, interpreters answered, Jesus didn’t appoint the new apostle in order to offer proof that he was still with the disciples, though he was absent in the flesh. Chrysostom writes, “For just as he chose when he was among them, so he chose now in absence.”See ACCS NT V:18. For the answer to the second question we turn to Bede, the English historian and the “last” of the Western fathers. He writes:

So it was that Matthias, who was appointed before Pentecost, was chosen by lot, while in the case of the seven deacons, who came later, there was no shaking of lots but only the disciples’ choice; and indeed they were appointed by the prayer of the apostles and the imposition of hands.Acts 6:3–6. Therefore if there are any who, under the compulsion of some difficult situation think that because of the example of the apostles they should consult God with lots, they should see that these same apostles needed only the assembly of the brothers gathered together and prayers poured forth to God. For just as he chose when he was among them, so he chose now in absence. This was no small consolation.See ACCS NT V:18.

The choice of Matthias by lot reflected the unique period in which the apostolic community found itself—between the ascent of Christ and the descent of the Spirit. In this “in between” time, the apostolic community relied on the ancient practice of the Jewish community and prayer. Their prayer to the Lord, who knows the hearts of men (cardiognosis), underscored the community’s trust that the Lord was not surprised by the betrayal of Judas.Acts 5:1–11; 12:20–23.

01.  Discernment of Spirits

Paul’s listing of “discernment of spirits”See 1 Corinthians 12:10. in his discussion of the variety of spiritual gifts served as a starting point for patristic reflection on discernment. Origen was the first Christian writer to offer careful explanation of this phrase.See Joseph T. Lienhard, “On ‘Discernment of Spirits’ in the Early Church,” in Theological Studies 41, No. 3, September 1980, 505–529. Lienhard cites M. Viller’s opinion that the “whole biblical teaching on discernment of spirits could be assembled from a few chapters of Origen’s work On First Principles. His exposition was offered in the context of Exodus 4:10, in which Moses says to Lord that he is “weak of voice and slow of tongue,” and the Lord’s response is that he will open his mouth and teach him what to say.Exodus 4:12. Origen writes:

Blessed are they whose mouth God opens for them to speak. I fear, however, that there are some whose mouth is opened by the devil. . . . See what is written of Judas, how it is told that “Satan entered into him” and how “the devil had put it into his heart to betray him.”John 13:2, 27. And it was the same Satan that opened his mouth to “confer with the chief priests and Pharisees how he might betray him to them”cf. Luke 22:4. when he had received the money. . . . Without the grace of the Holy Spirit it is not possible to distinguish between mouths and words of this kind. Thus, in the classification of spiritual graces it is also added that some are given the gift of the discernment of 1 Corinthians 12:10. It is therefore a spiritual grace by which the spirit is discerned, as the Apostle says in another place: “Test the spirits to see whether they are of God.” 1 John 4:1. But just as God opens the mouth of the saints, so, I think, does God open the ears of the saints to hear the divine words. For this is what the prophet Isaiah says: “May the Lord open my ear that I may know when the word should be spoken.”Isaiah 50:4–5.

Origen reasons that if God can open the mouth of a person, it follows that there are instances in which the devil is the source of speech. Consequently, it is important for the spiritual person to discern whether these words are from God or some evil spirit. This task is impossible without the grace of the Holy Spirit, and therefore it is listed by Paul as a spiritual gift. For Origen, then, discernment is the discernment of spirits, specifically whether the spirit trying to influence a person is from God or not.

The next work that thoroughly considers the discernment of spirits is Athanasius’ The Life of Anthony.Lienhard argues that The Life of Anthony “treats discernment of spirits more thoroughly than any other patristic writing,” 515. There is an important difference between Origen’s understanding of discernment of spirits and that of The Life of Anthony. As mentioned above, discernment for Origen was a gift of the Holy Spirit that enabled a person to distinguish between good and evil spirits. For Athanasius, discernment was basically concerned with determining the various kinds of evil spirits, identifying their distinctive characteristics, and ascertaining the best course of action to overcome their influence. In Athanasius’ work, Anthony instructs his audience:

Much prayer and asceticism is needed so that one who receives through the Spirit the gift of discrimination of spirits might be able to recognize their traits—for example, which of them is less wicked, and which more; and in what kind of pursuit each of them exerts himself, and how each of them is overturned and expelled.Athanasius, The Life of Anthony and Letter to Marcellinus. Translation and Introduction by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980) 47–48.

Later, he says:

For discrimination between the presence of the good and the evil is easy and possible, when God so grants it. A vision of the holy ones is not subject to disturbance. . . . But it comes with such tranquility and gentleness that immediately joy and delight and courage enter the soul, for the Lord who is our joy, the power of God the Father, accompanies them. . . . The assault and appearance of the evil ones, on the other hand, is something troubling, with crashing and noise and shouting—the sort of disturbance one might expect from tough youths and robbers. From this come immediately terror of soul, confusion and disorder of thoughts, dejection, enmity toward ascetics, listlessness, grief, memory of relatives, and fear of death; and finally there is craving for evil, contempt for virtue, and instability of character.

The criterion Anthony suggests for distinguishing the presence of good or evil spirits is their effect on the person. The visitation of a good spirit is characterized by serenity, joy, and delight. The opposite effect is engendered by an evil spirit. As in Origen before him, in The Life of Anthony discernment of spirits is considered a spiritual gift.

02.  Discernment: The Chief Virtue vs. Inspired Insight

Not long after The Life of Anthony, the use of the term “discernment of spirits” sharply declined.See Lienhard, 518–24, for a thorough discussion on this development. Discernment was characterized less and less as a spiritual gift employed to distinguish spirits and conceived more as a virtue. For some, discernment was considered the “chief” virtue, which guided the monk in the “middle way” or balanced life, keeping the monk from the extremes of asceticism or laxity.See John Cassian Conference 2. For others, discernment described the graced, inspired psychological or spiritual insight that provided the spiritual guide understanding into the secrets of the heart. The following story from Verba Seniorum—a systematic collection of the sayings of the desert fathers that was translated in the mid-sixth century from Greek into Latin by two Roman clergy, the deacon Pelagius and subdeacon John—illustrates this shift. The Verba Seniorum, the name for the Latin version, exerted a powerful influence on later medieval monasticism. The following selection is taken from the section titled “Discernment”:

At one time there came from the city of Rome a monk that had had a great place in the palace, and he dwelt in Scete near by the church: and he had with him one servant that ministered unto him. And the priest of the church, seeing his infirmity and knowing that he was a man delicately nurtured, used to send him such things as the Lord gave him or were brought into the church. And when he had spent twenty-five years in Scete, he became a man of contemplation, of prophetic spirit and notable. And one of the great Egyptian monks, hearing of his fame, came to see him, hoping to find a more austere discipline with him. And when he had come in, he greeted him: and they prayed, and sat down. But the Egyptian, seeing him softly clad, and a bed of reeds and a skin spread under him and a little headrest under his head, and his feet clean with sandals on them, was inwardly scandalized, because in that place it was not the custom so to live, but rather in stern abstinence. But the old Roman, having discernment and vision, perceived that the Egyptian was scandalized within himself, and said to his servant, “Make us good cheer today, for the sake of this Father who hath come.” And he cooked a few vegetables that he had, and they rose up at the fitting time and did eat: he had also a little wine, by reason of his infirmity, and they drank it. And when evening was come, they said the twelve psalms, and slept: and in like fashion during the night. And rising in the morning the Egyptian said, “Pray for me.” And he went away not edified. And when he had gone a little way, the old Roman, desiring to heal his mind, sent after him and called him back. And when he had come, he again welcomed him joyfully, and questioned him.

The old man asked him a series questions concerning the nature of his life before he entered into the life of solitary. From his answers to these questions, the reader learns that the Egyptian had never lived in a city. He slept in the fields with the herds and without a mat. His diet was simple and consisted of dry bread, salt fish, and water. His days were long, and his work was difficult. In contrast, the old Roman lived a luxurious life. Desiring to profit the monk he described his former life by saying:

“I, this poor man that you see, am of that great city, Rome, and held the highest place in the palace, beside the Emperor.” And when the Egyptian heard him begin to speak, he was struck with compunction, and listened eagerly to hear what he would say. And he went on: “So then, I left Rome and came into this solitude.” And again he said, “I whom you see, had great houses and much wealth, and despising them I came to this small cell.” And again he said, “I, whom you see, had beds decked with gold and coverlets most precious: and for these God hath given me this mattress of papyrus and this skin. And my garments were costly beyond price, and for them I use these poor rags.” Again he said, “On the keeping of my table, much gold was expended: and for this He gives me these few herbs and a small cup of wine. Many were the slaves who served me, and for these lo! God had put compassion in this one man’s heart, to tend me. For a bath I pour a little water on my feet, and I wear sandals because of my infirmity. And again for the pipe and lyre and other kinds of music wherein I delighted at my feasts, I say to myself twelve psalms by day, and twelve by night. But for those sins of mine that I then sinned, I offer now in quiet this poor and useless service unto God. Wherefore consider, Father, and be not scandalized because of my infirmity.” And the Egyptian, hearing these things and turning upon himself said, “Sorrow upon me, that I out of much tribulation and heavy toil did rather come to rest and refreshing in the monastic life, and what I had not, I now have: but thou from great worldly delight art come of thine will into tribulation, and from high glory and riches art come into humility and poverty.” And he went away mightily profited, and became his friend, and would often come to him to learn of him: for he was a man of discerning and filled with the fragrance of the Holy Ghost.The Desert Fathers. Translated from the Latin with an introduction by Helen Waddell (New York: Vintage Books, 1998) 109–11.

The narrative of the old Roman illustrates the view of discernment as the capacity of the spiritual person to read hearts (cardiognosis). Because only God knows the hearts of others, discernment is a divine gift, which also serves as a sign of the Spirit’s presence.See Acts 1:24. Not only did the old man discern the problem; he also discerned the remedy. And like a good doctor, he offered the appropriate treatment with gentleness and humility, enabling the Egyptian monk to flourish. The narrator of the tale also provided us insight into his understanding of discernment through the words he employed to describe the old Roman: contemplative, prophetic, a man of discernment and vision, and filled by the Holy Spirit. 

03.  Conclusion

As Joseph Lienhard observed, “‘discernment of spirits’ was in use as long as the spirits were understood to be personal.”Lienhard, 529. It was a gift given to some who were well along in the spiritual journey. It was considered a mark of spiritual progress and natural outworking of the Spirit in those who realized purity of heart. Over time the phrase was abridged, and discernment became a necessary virtue for the solitary life, to guard the monk from ascetic excesses. In Eastern monasticism, discernment, as the capability of understanding the secrets of the heart or as a “lamp that can light up what is dark in others,” was considered a prophetic gift of the spiritual director, a gift applied for the well-being of the individual and the community.Discernment, as prophetic gift, may be viewed as a continuation of the apostolic ministry. See Acts 5:1–12, the Sin of Ananias and Sapphira. Gregory of Nyssa writes concerning Ananias’ deception, “But the Holy Spirit at the same moment was in Peter, and detected his intent . . . and gave to Peter from himself the power of seeing the secret.” ACCS NT V:60.


Michael Glerup, Ph.D., serves as the Research and Acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith.