I have to admit up front that the content of this article leaves a lot to be desired, but it is not for lack of trying on my part. The constant challenge I have is to put down in words, what I have personally learned and experienced spiritually. And do that in a way that can be reliably traced back to scripture (and not just be based on my individual experiences). Furthermore, the challenge is to organise the article in a way that facilitates understanding, does not over-simplify complicated spiritual truths, not make it too academic to a point where it loses the spiritual weight it carries and ultimately be concise while at it. This is what keeps the articles I write a going concern. There is always more to explain, there are often more questions which spring up by the end and it is what keeps me writing. Hence I also view this challenge as a blessing.
Since we are exploring how discerning of human spirits works, I cannot start this article without a brief discourse about the human spirit. The spirit of a person is who they really are, it is their true nature. Their nature then births and drives all of their motives and actions. In other words, if you look at a person’s actions, you are merely looking at a secondary element in this whole spiritual equation, the primary source is the spirit. So knowing and understanding the nature of their spirit, through this process we call discernment, is important. If the spirit is the tree and their actions and results are the fruit, some interesting deductions can be made about who they are.
You may apply a reverse engineering process and look at the actions of a person, which are fruit, to determine what kind of person they are, the tree. I call this the “fruit-to-tree” dimension (yes I am coining some of these spiritual concepts as I go along). I find this biblical tree-fruit analogy to be useful in understanding and explaining spiritual discernment. The limitation of this fruit-to-tree method is that people act out of character sometimes. They may disguise their true nature behind seemingly upright actions. As the bible says in 2 Corinthians 11:14 “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their actions” So the apostles were very much aware of this truth that people may act contrary to their true nature.
Another interesting text that illustrates that they were aware of this truth is found in Acts 16:16 onwards, where they meet a girl who was possessed by a spirit of divination which enabled her to predict the future and made her slavemaster a fortune. The apostle records that “She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Act 16:17. This was the truth, but it was contrary to her true nature. It was an outward exhibition meant to disguise her true nature. The bible says “She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.” So once more we see that the Apostle Paul was aware that people sometimes act contrary to their true nature. Looking at the fruit to determine the tree, would not have been ideal there. But let us first look at an ideal situation for the fruit-to-tree type of discernment.
The bible says “Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruit, you will recognize them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles?” How do we know that the bible is referring to the nature of the human spirits of these false prophets? Well, the text is clear, it contrasts between the outwards display and the impression these prophets paint (with their actions and results) as opposed to their true nature which is inward (their spirit). It is essentially telling us that by looking at a person’s outwards exhibition, we can classify them. We can look at their actions and results, and notice that they do not resemble anything that is ordained by God.
These are situations where you hear, for example, someone speaking against consulting the dead. But you later find out that they have been secretly consulting necromancers and spiritualists when no one was watching. And that they have built their whole spiritual journey on this perversion. Or someone murdering and saying God commanded them to do so. The actions and results of their life do not align with the word of God. It is easy to see that they have not been empowered by God all along. All the preaching they were doing was just sheep’s clothing. A mask they were wearing to hide the true condition of their spirit.
One thing that is important to note about this text though, is that it says these false prophets come wearing sheep’s clothing. A lot of false prophets are actually not on pulpits, many of them are pretending to be ordinary members of the church. That brother who is seemingly blessed during preaching and stands at the back of the church could be the same person taking stock of the members, seeing who they could win to their side to criticize the pastor or leadership of the church. They could be the same person casting doubts on the fitness of the pastor to lead or the spirituality of the church leadership members, sowing division and confusion amongst the members of the church, or the body of Christ in general. Such people’s evil ‘ministry’ should not be underestimated.
I have noted two wolves in recent times, who are wearing sheep’s clothing on social media but are on a mission to destroy the faith of many Christians and create a barrier for those considering to give their lives to Christ to find it difficult to do so. What they do not know is that they will not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ.
Other than people disguising their true nature behind righteous actions, the other limitation of the fruit-to-tree method to discernment is that it may take a long time. In some instances, it may take years before a person’s true nature is revealed, because no matter how long it takes, eventually, a person’s life will bear fruit according to the true nature of their spirit. However, by the time this big revelation happens, a lot of damage could have been done to those following this person or being discipled by them.
Do not make any mistake, this is a very spiritual process. You need the Holy Spirit and knowledge of the Word of God to be able to realise that the actions and results of a person’s life are inconsistent with being one with God. You may wonder why after a huge revelation of a false teacher or prophet, there are still people following that individual. It is because it is not just a mental exercise. No amount of Journalism, News, Facebook posts, or PR can deliver a person and open their eyes to such deception, only the truth revealed by the Spirit of God can.
Another kind of discernment is what I call the “tree-to-fruit” dimension. Using this method you can identify the true nature of a person’s spirit independent of the actions and results of their life. This is the method the Lord Jesus used with the fig tree. He identified the tree first and determined which fruit it ought to bear, failing to find such fruit He then cursed it. And that is why it is coined the story of the fig tree i.e. “Jesus curses a fig tree”, even though the tension of that incident is in the fact that He could not find any fruit. Let us use this bible text in Mark 11:12-25 to explore the “tree-to-fruit” dimension next… (I know I have barely scratched the surface here, but for the sake of conciseness this text has to be continued in the next article. Stay tuned!)