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Having "ears to hear"

One of the spiritual gifts is "discerning of spirits" (1 Corinthians 12:10 KJV). Other translations say "distinguishing between spirits" (ESV, HSB) while the NAS says "distinguishing of spirits." They generally mean the same thing. The word distinguishing in the Greek carries with it a meaning that someone judges, a passing of a sentence, a thorough conclusion, to detect look-alikes of things that appear to be the same. This is what Charles Spurgeon meant when he said "Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right."

Illustration for NC Wyeth Poem,
The Picket-Guard
To a degree, all Christians have been given an ability to discern. That comes with the Spirit who resides in us. We're all supposed to ask for discernment, and wisdom, too. We are supposed to practice it and develop it. (Hebrews 5:14). The Spirit delivers this discernment, we don't obtain it at seminary or by study with an elder or any man-made means. It is the Spirit ultimately Who gives us the ability to detect error and truth.

While all Christians have at least the ability to discern, some have been given a Spiritual Gift of Discernment. It means some have been given an extra dose. Picture an army. All the encamped men listen for the enemy. However, some have been stationed at the edge of the camp and are on patrol. If the enemy makes a move, it is the men on patrol who hear it first. They sound the alarm. Soon the enemy is close enough f the main army to hear it themselves. However it is the guard on patrol who hear the enemy first and earliest.

 Civil War Dictionary of terms explains the Picket Duty: "An advance outpost or guard for a large force was called a picket. Ordered to form a scattered line far in advance of the main army's encampment, but within supporting distance, a picket guard was made up of a lieutenant, 2 sergeants, 4 corporals, and 40 privates from each regiment. Picket duty constituted the most hazardous work of infantrymen in the field. Being the first to feel any major enemy movement, they were also the first liable to be killed, wounded, or captured. And he most likely targets of snipers. Picket duty, by regulation, was rotated regularly in a regiment."

It is like that with believers who have been given discernment as a gift. We are usually the watchmen, on guard, patrolling the section of ground we have encamped by. The Lord our General has stationed us in a place, given us the ability to hear the different moves of the enemy, and we raise the cry when we hear him slithering, crouching at the door, or otherwise making a move. We also detect spies (Galatians 2:4, Jude 1:4).

I don't often talk about my own experience, because my own experience doesn't matter. Also, the process of discernment is a mystery even to me, who experiences it every day. However I'd like to press your patience this one time and share something personal, with a tie-in to the Mark 4:9 verse,

"And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Ears of a Watchman with discernment
I've mentioned briefly in passing that our former pastor was let go for serial plagiarism. He had been memorizing other men's sermons and delivering them as his own, even relating the other pastor's personal anecdotes as if he had lived them himself. Apparently this had been going on for four years or more. I arrived at my church in January of 2012. After a few months, little things were said or done by the pastor didn't set right with me, spiritually. I watched, prayed, and watched some more. I had an open mind. I call this phase, the "Hunh" phase, as in "Huhn, what's up with that?" Or, "Huhn, what does that mean?" Or, "Huhn, did I see/hear what I thought I saw/heard?"

Along same summer and then fall of 2013, and my "Huhn" phase morphed into a low alarm phase. I'd leave the sermon feeling unsettled. What was happening as I listened to the sermons during this time is the crux of this essay. I'd never heard anyone speak to this process or never have seen it written about, until one comment recently by Pastor Justin Peters caught my attention. During this phase of listening to my former pastor preach, I'd have the strong sense that behind what I was hearing was...nothing. There was nothing behind the words.

WWI: "The most interesting of the special instruments
employed for the defense of Paris from aerial attack
are the "listening posts", as shown in the illustration.
This consists of four huge horns, which gather up
the slightest sound and magnify it by means of a
microphone, so it is impossible for an
airplane to approach unheard." Wikimedia Commons
See, when the Living God sends His Spirit to fill the words spoken from His word via a preacher or a teacher, they are heavy in my ears. It is like the words themselves are edged with neon, weightier, there is something behind them. Alternately, when there is no Spirit carrying the words, it is like they are pale, dead, like brown leaves drifting to the ground rather than arrows piercing the heart. I can't explain it better than that. Here is a visual.

Hearing regular words:

Hearing Spirit-filled words:

Hearing dead & empty words that are supposed to be alive:

Dead words are empty, they whisper weakly and then fall to the ground. They litter the floor of the sanctuary and flutter only when kicked while walking out the doors when the sermon is done. Jesus was explaining this to Nicodemus in John 3:8, when He likened the Spirit to wind, and said,

"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In the 1 Corinthians 12:10 verse about distinguishing of spirits, the word is pne├║ma . Depending on context, it means wind. Without the word "Holy" in front of it, the word means just spirits, not The Holy Spirit. (source)

As each week progressed through the summer, fall and then winter of 2013, I'd leave church increasingly unsettled. My mind would react to the sermon by saying, "It feels empty." "It feels canned". "There's nothing there."

As Gertrude Stein famously said about Oakland CA, "There's no there there."

When I couldn't shake the feeling and the unsettlement grew to prickling proportions, I decided to investigate, and by March of 2013 I'd made the discovery that each and every sermon was plagiarized. That was why the words I'd heard had no power. They were not carried by the pneuma, the Holy Spirit. They were a lie.

"The tragedy of this last hour is that we have too many dead men in the pulpits giving out too many dead sermons to too many dead people. There is a strange thing that I have seen even in the fundamentalist circles: it is preaching without unction. What is unction? I hardly know what it is, but I know what it is not, or at least I know when it is not upon my own soul. Preaching without unction kills instead of giving life. The unctionless preacher is a savor of death unto death. The Word does not live unless the unction is upon the preacher. Preacher, with all thy getting, get unction." ~Leonard Ravenhill

When the movie Heaven is Real was released, discernment minister Justin Peters was reviewing it on his radio program. (Link below). He was referring to a video interview of the father and son, Todd and Colton Burpo. Peters was describing how Colton looked and sounded when Colton was telling the interviewer of his alleged trip to heaven.

Peters was attempting to describe the lack of verve in Colton's voice and the lack of animation on his face. Peters was saying that IF Colton had actually gone to heaven, there would be a liveliness on his face and a power behind his words. Peters was struggling to articulate the feeling of having ears that hear the pneuma power. He said, frustrated, "Where is the unction? There is nothing behind the words!"

I understand! Gratefully, I finally heard someone else say what I was also struggling to put into words.

Easton's Bible Dictionary explains unction: "Unction- (1 John 2:20 1 John 2:27; RSV, "anointing"). Kings, prophets, and priests were anointed, in token of receiving divine grace. All believers are, in a secondary sense, what Christ was in a primary sense, "the Lord's anointed."

All believers have an unction, or an anointing, to hear the Spirit and be moved by His power. Those of us who have received the gift of discerning of spirits perhaps have a radar that is tuned to a longer frequency, or who have a greater range and hear earlier than others.

I personally believe this is partly what Jesus meant when He said of understanding the parable in Mark 4:9, "And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Jesus said it again in Mark 4:23, Matthew 11:15, Revelation 2:7, Revelation 2:11, Revelation 3:22. It is said in Deuteronomy 29:4 and Ezekiel 12:2. In the Deuteronomy verse, Moses said to Israel,

 "Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day."

Having ears to hear is obviously important.

Pulpit Commentary on Mark 4:9 says: "He has "ears to hear" who diligently attends to the words of Christ, that he may ponder and obey them. Many heard him out of curiosity, that they might bear something new, or learned, or brilliant; not that they might lay to heart the things which they heard, and endeavor to practice them in their lives. And so it is with those who go to hear sermons on account of the fame of the preacher, and not that they may learn to amend their lives; and thus the words of Jehovah to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33:32) are fulfilled, "And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not."

Acoustic listening devices developed for the Dutch army as part of
air defense systems research between WWI & WWII. Source

We all have ears to hear, if we are a believer. However those ears need to be kept clear (Acts 28:27, Matthew 13:15). If you do not have discernment as a gift, you still have a responsibility to practice the skill. Matthew 13:15 explains the first steps in keeping our ears open and receptive:

"for this people's heart has grown callous, their ears are dull of hearing, they have closed their eyes; or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and should turn again; and I would heal them."

When the heart grows callous, the eyes and the ears also dim. Keep the heart soft by continual study of the word, prayer, and repentance of personal sins.

Also, are the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance—apparent in the words you’re hearing? If those are present they are from God. If they are not, the words are not from God.

Third, if there is no Spirit power behind their words, there will be a difference between what people say and what they do. If you hear one thing said but observe that the above fruits are not in the person's actions, then their words are not anointed. In other words, anyone can parrot love, peace, joy, gentleness in their speech but do they demonstrate it, too? One who speaks with unction will speak and act in alignment with God's word. One who speaks without anointing will always show themselves Spirit-less by their actions at some point. (Proverbs 5:22; Isaiah 59:12).

While it is dangerous to base our spiritual life on feelings, the fact is, we do experience things by the Spirit. If you feel something is "off" in a sermon or a teaching, if you feel that it is pale, or lacking something, it could be that it lacks the pneuma or the unction and the Spirit is alerting you to that fact. It takes much prayer and discernment to detect the difference between a personal feeling and the Spirit's warning bell.

Even then, the alert isn't the end, it is the beginning. My role was not just to rely on a feeling, but to prayerfully investigate. When the cold hard facts come in is when we move ahead. The guard on patrol doesn't come running to the encamped army saying, "I think something may be out there!" Something is always out there. The guard comes to the army and says "I saw a flashlight and heard the cocking of a gun." Facts.

While the devices posted above where man experimented with various means of amplification and acoustic listening, our spiritual listening devices are the Word and prayer. That's all we need. Hone your listening skills and ask for increased discernment, whether or not you have the specific gift.

And don't listen for only the words. Listen to what is behind the words.

Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Revelation 13:9)


Further Reading

Challies reviews Expository Listening

1st Mark of a Healthy Church MEMBER: Expositional LISTENING

What is the Spiritual Gift of Discerning Spirits?

Justin Peters reviews Heaven is for Real movie (skip to 22:26-24:20 to the 'lifeless/no unction' incident)


  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    "While all Christians have at least the ability to discern, some have been given a Spiritual Gift of Discernment."

    Your statement is 100% correct. Now the unfortunate part - those of us who have the Spiritual Gift of Discernment tend not to be wanted in the Body... and there sadly are even believers who deny that there is a Spiritual Gift of Discernment.

    I want to re read this when my brain is working better... your part about the unction of the Holy Spirit caught my eye, in a good way. :) But as I am tired right now, I'm not able to read this as diligently as I'd like to... I need to come back and let this sink in a bit. This post deserves attention!


    1. Hi Carolyn, Thanks so much for reading. I appreciate it. I agree, discernment is not a sought after gift nor are the people having it sought after people. Usually.

      The Catholics have co-opted the word unction but it simply means anointing. All Christians are anointed with the Spirit. At Vine's Expository Doctionary under the heading of unction is says, "Unction- see Anoint". and at Anoint we read, "That believers have "an anointing from the Holy One" indicates that this anointing renders them holy, separating them to God. The passage teaches that the gift of the Holy Spirit is the all-efficient means of enabling believers to possess a knowledge of the truth"

  2. God has also given me the gift of discernment.

    I think one problem is-many Christians get knowledge of the word of God confused with discernment. There are many ministries called discernment ministries which are really only knowledge based. As one person put it "For example, Hank Hannegraff nearly always uses Scripture to discern and calls his a "discernment" ministry, but I think this incorrect. By using Scripture, his is a "knowledge" and/or an "understanding" or "teaching" ministry. Discernment is more elemental than (human thought), more in the domain of the heart or spirit and not so much the mind--except as a conclusion afterwards. In scripture, it is "discernment of spirits" not "discernment of knowledge" or "discernment of facts"; and spirits must be spiritually discerned."There are things that I was quite aware of as a New born babe in Christ that although people who have been Christians for many years and could run circles around me with the word of God, they were not aware of because they simply didn't have this Gift. Sure they had more knowledge of Scripture than I, but remember Discerning the Spirits is a GIFT and not something we acquire over time.

    Like you said Elizabeth, we all have different levels of discernment as Christians. But again this is not the same thing as the GIFT of discernment.. So as I go to many "discernment sites" all I see are people who are very knowledgeable and have the Gift of knowledge more than the gift of discernment.

    Also, the person who exercises it does not go out looking for something to discern. But the gift of discernment especially operates when it is triggered by an event or a situation like in your example Elizabeth with your former Pastor. The discerner doesn’t go out looking for something to discern, but it is a reaction to what happens

    The serious dilemma I have along with others who have been given this gift by the Holy Spirit is that I (we) tend to notice and catch something wrong before most anyone does. All who have been given this gift can and are the most misunderstood people and usually dismissed as either too harsh, judgmental or know it alls if we say something early on--

    One example is John Piper.. Ever since I checked him out online several years back (8)years ago or so-after listening to one of his sermons on my car radio, something never settled well with me about him from the get go.. Now that more things have been coming out in the open over time I can say what I have known about him for a long time. I want to shake people sometimes but have to realize that I (we) must be wise to understand what to do with the information that comes from it. And we must exercise restraint in what comes out of our mouth when discerning. While you or I may know exactly what is going on, we have to pray and ask for wisdom in saying it gently and waiting when to say it.

  3. Thanks Linda! I liked that you also brought up the timing of when to make the report.

    I'd say that discernment is always grounded in the mind. Everything about the Christian walk involves the mind: the Spirit is transforming the mind, (Rom 12:2, Eph 4:23, and especially Colossians 1:9-
    For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,"

    It is thru discerning His discernment and wisdom that we have knowledge. It's a total package.

    I hope you have not been hurt too badly by unbelieving, scoffing, or rejecting UN-discerners. Keep persevering!

  4. I don't have anything to add other than to say that I can relate completely with the post and comments here. It was an un-fun experience to discern jesus calling was not biblical back in 2011 right before it really took off in popularity. It was that same year the Holy Spirit alerted me to things that were cincerning about Beth Moore. I was not well recieved by those around me who I tried to warn.

  5. Hi Elizabeth, after some sleep and breakfast... I reread your article. YES! Yes! You exactly said it, very clearly. This is a great post, very edifying to me as another fellow believer with the gift of discernment.

    Great quote of yours:
    "The Spirit delivers this discernment, we don't obtain it at seminary or by study with an elder or any man-made means. It is the Spirit ultimately Who gives us the ability to detect error and truth."

    Yes it is a GIFT from the Holy Spirit, not from man, not from seminary.

    I totally understand your "warning bell" concept, because I've had the same thing. In fact, with many of the preachers/teachers who are currently embroiled in some sort of problems today (be they personal sins now being exposed and/or aberrant doctrine), when I first heard that preacher/teacher, something didn't settle. After investigation of the facts, my concerns were substantiated. Like Linda above, Piper being one; Warren, Hybels, MacDonald, Driscoll, and Moore as other examples.

    And as I said before, and is being echoed by your other readers, those of us with the Spiritual Gift of Discernment tend not to be well received in the church these days.

    Great post, time to bookmark it.

    And yes, I followed you on your explanation of unction, and didn't for a minute misunderstand it the way Catholics do.

    Love the Spurgeon quote, too.

    Thanks again,

  6. I have the gift of discernment, and I agree with those who posted who said it's not a very well received gift. This gift first came apparent to me when my church was going to show the movie "The Passion of the Christ" as an outreach event. I was very uncomfortable with this but couldn't put my finger on why I felt that way. I didn't know much about the movie, but during the planning meeting I had to leave the room because the uncomfortable feeling grew so strong--yet I could not articulate my misgivings. As I learned more about the movie, I realized that I knew at some level that using a movie instead of scripture to witness to others was wrong. I did voice my discomfort with a few people but their reaction was 'well, if just one person comes to Christ because of this movie...'

    As I keep growing in the Lord, I keep seeing more and more areas where people lack discernment. I've shared my concerns with Beth Moore with a few friends who are huge fans of hers--and I can tell they shut down and refuse to consider my words. Same thing with Heaven Is for Real--it frustrates me that people drink up this book and now movie without considering how it lines up with scripture. And if I point that out to them, I usually hear that the little boy wouldn't lie. I didn't say he lied...what I'm saying is that his "experience" (which I personally believe was a dream) doesn't line up with what the bible tells us about heaven.

    Everything that is presented to us should be weighed in light of scripture and, dare I say, especially 'Christian' materials. If a book or movie says A, and the bible says B, then we should believe B.

  7. Hi Miss Prata,

    Just wanted to say thank you very much for this blog post and the comments. You have described me, and explained me, for my own mental health. You have also greatly helped my husband to begin understanding my gift, and that others are given the same gift! My husband and I are new believers, and we are in our mid/late 40's. God is amazing and He saved us both, a few months apart, through different, yet overlapping circumstances/events about 3.5 years ago. This to say, I have been given two gifts that became apparent immediately-- discernment and faith-- and they have caused division between my husband and I. Other believers seem to think that I am too serious and I am often perceived as condescending. I have been accused of arrogance, pride, "new believer vigor", legalism and boastfulness. My unwillingness to listen to or read or participate in book studies using the works of certain well known and beloved "pastors" (Piper, Mahaney, Giglio, Keller, whose works are stocked at my church's bookstore), has exacerbated misunderstandings. I have warned and questioned, but not one person agrees with me. The consensus seems to be that I have to learn more about the gray area of God's grace and to "settle down" into Christianity a bit. However, to me, it's one thing for people who know these men personally to support them personally, but quite another thing to continue to support their works and to recommend them as solid teachers. I believe that if a preacher is going off course now, or has had a history of off course behavior or proximity to heresy, then the seed was always there, and I can not trust their work. Billy Graham is my best example, of someone who was revered for years, before the truth started coming out. Who would support him now? Thanks, but no thanks, I will learn from the Bible! Until your post, I was very disheartened and wondered what is wrong with me, that I am such a stickler on so many teachers and feel acutely aware of how they teachers exegete and exposit God's word. Not that I know so much about the Bible, I have not even read all the way through it yet. However, when I listen to a sermon, I can HEAR / FEEL and distinguish between God's word correctly exposited, from the man preaching God's word and turning it for his own benefit or I can hear his incorrect understanding of the passage or his stretching of God's word to fit an erroneous teaching. So, I get called a know-it-all a lot! It just won't sit well, and I feel a duty to say something about what I heard that was wrong. A feeling of "this is not right!" wells up inside of me, so strongly. The pastor I look to the most, John MacArthur, he even still supports Piper. I was at my wits' end trying to figure out "why???". I've wanted to email him so many times on this subject. But because of your blog, I now have a "settled" feeling. I feel that I can understand a bit better about why I feel this way, and the vast majority do not. They simply can not. It is a gift of the Spirit. And, I am not alone! Thank you for letting God lead you and for maintaining a presence on the Internet. - Jackie
    p.s. How do you use your gift in the church? I am not sure how to use my gift to edify the body since I am a woman. Thank you for any advice!

    1. Hi Jackie,

      Thanks so much for your reply. You have been through a lot, haven't you! Well no worries, with age and progression in sanctification comes wisdom and maturity. Your gift will be tempered. :)

      As a woman I admit it is a difficult balance to walk the razor's edge in proclaiming boldly and meekly submitting. I normally use the gift one-on-one with women in private situations. If at church an issue is raised and I make a comment at the allowance of the teacher, then later someone will come and ask me a question about what I said, and then I go from there. Occasionally if a woman mentions in public following a certain false teacher, I pray, study, get a paper together, and later approach her privately and ask if I might put the paper in her hands to study at her leisure, privately. I never call anyone out publicly.

      If it is a church issue, like when I discovered the pastor was plagiarizing, I make an appointment with the appropriate person and speak about it. In the former case, I approached an elder and met privately and gave the information to him. After that it was in his and the other elders' hands. I prayed, and encouraged, but once I delivered the information my job isn't to influence or get in the middle of decisions. The decisions I leave to the men.

      As mentioned the blog essay above, we watchmen are patrolling but we don't take action apart from the army. We have commanders above us, in terms of there being pastors and elders. Above them is Jesus. So I know my place and strive to operate in it.

      In addition, I pray a lot and though I'm sensitive to the falsity abounding, I don't pursue EVERY false thing happening in church. I'm called to point out this or that but not this AND that. I trust the Spirit to be working the other situations with other people. Back to the watchman analogy on the battlefield, if I'm patrolling quadrant A and I can't get to quadrant B or see it so clearly, I trust the Spirit to be operating there with other people.

      Last, I strive to maintain good relationships, loving relationships, bearing fruit, with the other members. So that when I DO have to come to one or another of them, there is a relationship already in place where I've built some social capital to draw on. I also touch base frequently with or or the other pastor in my church, so they can keep an eye on me and see of I'm drifting or still on a good theological footing. I need to stay heightened in the accountability department. Well-rounded relationships are important. Even in this area I know I can improve.

      So I hope that these answers your questions. Thanks for asking.

  8. Dear Elizabeth, Your post is right on. People are looking for feelings, experiences, to be drunk and high, mysticism, revelations, visions, contact with angels, entertainment, signs and wonders.....but discernment? I don't hear any want of discernment, wisdom, understanding, good judgment (Proverbs 2, 3, 8, Psalms 119..)

    I quoted bible verses to someone testing a false teaching and I was told I was unloving.

    Reading the bible to someone is not loving? Warning about this awful teaching was not the loving thing to do?

    The world seems to rule in many churches today. The world will tell you, as you refer to God's Word that you are mean, unloving, putting God in a box, judgmental, rigid, not enlightened...

    The snares are everywhere for the counterfeit Jesus to be worshiped, self to be worshiped.

    They say love and acceptance of all. Except the bible believer.

    I left a church over Beth Moore. I grieve over people liking the Noah movie, Son of God movie, Heaven is for Real......God is real and he will not be found in Hollywood. I practically beg friends to read the bible, but they say they don't understand it or it's too boring. The church seems to be under a spell, following pied pipers that promise happiness and power instead of peace and contentment, truth.

    1. Hi ANonymous,

      I'm sorry for your anguish, It's heartbreaking when the right thing is in front of us (reading the bible0 but people won't. I thought this statemeent was well put, and wise:

      " The church seems to be under a spell, following pied pipers that promise happiness and power instead of peace and contentment, truth."

      I'm relying on the promise of God to wipe away our tears and make us forget our sorrows. What joy it will be to be part of the redeemed body in heaven, worshiping perfectly. Until then...there will always be people worshiping in various gradations of truth, or not in truth at all.


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