When God began teaching me about the nature of evil and unclean spirits, I had an immediate question: How do I know when these spirits are around me and my family? I was led to two scriptures that name some spiritual gifts:
7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.
8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
9 To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
1 Corinthians 12:7–10
And to others [is given the gift of] the discerning of spirits.
In these scriptures, my eyes were drawn to the gift of discerning of spirits, even though I had no idea what the gift does. Incidentally, other gifts listed in D&C section 46 include: Know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, believe on the words of others, know the differences of administration, know the diversities of operations, have word of wisdom, have word of knowledge, have faith to be healed, have faith to heal, work miracles, prophesy, speak with tongues, interpret tongues. Other gifts mentioned in the scriptures include: revelation, visions, exhortation, preaching, judgment, and teaching (see
10:8–18, 1 Cor 12, and D&C 46:8–29). Moroni
Now that I knew the gift of discerning of spirits exists, I needed to know what it did. I found the following discourse on this topic by George Q. Cannon, an LDS apostle. Elder Cannon teaches that the gift of discerning of spirits gives to those “who have it the power to discern the spirit with which others may be possessed or influenced.” The gift also gives the bearer “the power to discern the spirit which influences themselves.” I was amazed that such a powerful gift is never spoken of in the
: LDS Church
One of the gifts of the Gospel which the Lord has promised to those who enter into covenant with Him is the gift of discerning of spirits—a gift which is not much thought of by many and probably seldom prayed for; yet it is a gift that is of exceeding value and one that should be enjoyed by every Latter-day Saint. . . . No Latter-day Saint should be without this gift, because there is such a variety of spirits in the world which seek to deceive and lead astray. In a revelation to the Church upon the spirits which have gone abroad in the earth the Lord says: “Behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world” (D&C 50:2).
The Lord warns the Saints and says: “Beware lest ye are deceived” (D&C 46:8). And that they may not be deceived, He commands them to seek earnestly the best gifts.
The Apostle John says: “Behold, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). This counsel of the beloved Apostle applies as much to us in these latter days as it did to the Saints of his age. All manner of spirits have gone forth to deceive, to lead astray and to obtain possession of the children of men; and many people yield to them because they are invisible and cannot, perhaps, think that they can be possessed by invisible influences. Anger, backbiting, slander, falsehood and various passions are manifested by people under the influence of false and deceptive spirits. . . .
Now, the gift of discerning of spirits not only gives men and women who have it the power to discern the spirit with which others may be possessed or influenced, but it gives them the power to discern the spirit which influences themselves. They are able to detect a false spirit and also to know when the Spirit of God reigns within them. In private life this gift is of great importance to the Latter-day Saints. Possessing and exercising this gift they will not allow any evil influence to enter into their hearts or to prompt them in their thoughts, their words or their acts. They will repel it; and if perchance such a spirit should get possession of them, as soon as they witness its effects they will expel it or, in other words, refuse to be led or prompted by it.
The gift of discerning of spirits, also, is one that is of great importance to the Elders who are laboring in the ministry. We have known Elders become so filled with zeal and so desirous to do good, or what they supposed to be good, that they exposed themselves to the influence of the adversary. They would be filled with a species of what has been called “wildfire,” and, carried away by zeal, they would go too far; they would say and do imprudent things and yet, being prompted by the purest and best motives, would feel entirely justified in their course. In the history of the Church there have been many illustrations of this. Elders can work themselves up beyond that which is proper and wise and be led to say and do many imprudent things and overstep the line of propriety. Now, the gift of discerning of spirits is necessary to keep these kind of feelings in check.
The gift of discerning of spirits is not only necessary for this purpose, but it is necessary in the branches of the Church. Newly baptized members, anxious to obtain the gifts, are liable sometimes to be taken advantage of by the adversary and to imbibe or yield to a wrong spirit. A newly organized branch of the Church, where the gifts are manifested, especially the gift of tongues, has to be watched with great care. The Elders laboring in the branch or presiding in the conference must be in a position to discern between the Spirit of the Lord and other spirits that may seek to steal in. . . .
In all the situations in life, therefore, in which Latter-day Saints can be placed there is great need for them to possess the gift of discerning of spirits. Fathers and mothers need it for their own benefit. They need it in their families, in the training of their children. All Saints need it to enable them to escape from the many evil influences that are abroad. The Elders need it for their own sakes; they need it also in the government of the branches, of the conferences, of the wards, of the stakes and, indeed, the entire Church. It is a great and blessed gift, and it should be sought for by all. (Oct. 1, 1896 JI 31:572-74)
George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, selected, arranged, and edited by Jerreld L. Newquist [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 156-58.
Other early LDS leaders also spoke of the gift of discerning of spirits:
The gift of discerning spirits will be given to the Presiding Elder. Pray for him that he may have this gift.
Joseph Smith, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [
: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-1886], 6:240. London June 2, 1839.
There is a variety of blessings; a different blessing being probably given to one, two, three or four of this congregation. Thus, one will have faith to lay hands upon the sick and rebuke disease, and drive it from the person afflicted. Many may receive this blessing of faith, the gift of healing. Some may receive faith to the discerning of spirits; they can discern the spirit of a person, whether it is good or evil. They have such power, that when a person enters this congregation they can tell the spirit of such person; then they have received the gift of discerning of spirits.
Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [
: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-1886], 16:164–65. London August 31, 1873.
The members of the Church also partook of this Spirit [Holy Ghost], through the ministry of the Apostles, by which miraculous gifts were imparted unto them, some to one and some to another: some to speak in tongues, some to interpret, or translate from one language into another; some to prophesy, see visions, or converse with angels; others to control, or cast out devils, or heal the sick; and others, again, to teach and edify the Church, or the world, by the word of wisdom, and by the word of knowledge.
Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology [
: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1891, 5th edition], 108. Salt Lake City
A man must have the discerning of spirits before he can drag into daylight this hellish influence and unfold it unto the world in all its soul-destroying, diabolical, and horrid colors; for nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the Spirit of God.
Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., introduction and notes by B. H. Roberts [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-1951], 4:573.
Joseph Smith was speaking from personal experience in the previous quote when he wrote of the danger of being under the influence of a false spirit. The following narrative, written by Oliver Cowdery, shows how Joseph Smith became possessed by an evil spirit en route to receive the gold plates from the Hill Cumorah so that Joseph became fixated on obtaining the plates for personal wealth (to help his impoverished family). The angel
told Joseph that he had been allowed to have the experience of being possessed so that he would understand the difference between a true spirit and an evil spirit. This early experience marked the beginning of Joseph’s learning regarding the gift of discerning of spirits. Moroni
You [the reader] will have wondered perhaps, that the mind of our brother [Joseph Smith] should be so occupied with the thoughts of the goods of this world at the time of arriving at Cumorah, on the morning of the 22nd of September, 1823, (see Star, p. 131-2) after having been rapt in the visions of heaven during the night, and also seeing and hearing in open day [the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph three times in one night and then again the following day with instructions on obtaining the gold plates]; but the mind of man is easily turned, if it is not held by the power of God through the prayer of faith, and you will remember that I have said that two invisible powers were operating upon his mind during his walk from his residence to Cumorah, and that the one urging the certainty of wealth and ease in this life, had so powerfully wrought upon him, that the great object so carefully and impressively named by the angel, had entirely gone from his recollection, that only a fixed determination to obtain now urged him forward. In this, which occasioned a failure to obtain, at that time, the record, do not understand me to attach blame to our brother: he was young, and his mind easily turned from correct principles, unless he could be favoured with a certain round of experience. And yet, while young, untraditionated and untaught in the systems of the world, he was in a situation to be lead into the great work of God, and be qualified to perform it in due time.
After arriving at the repository, a little exertion in removing the soil from the edges of the top of the box, and a light pry, brought to his natural vision its contents. No sooner did he behold this sacred treasure than his hopes were renewed, and he supposed his success certain; and without first attempting to take it from its long place of deposit, he thought, perhaps, there might be something more equally as valuable, and to take only the plates, might give others an opportunity of obtaining the remainder, which could he secure, would still add to his store of wealth. These, in short, were his reflections, without once thinking of the solemn instruction of the heavenly messenger, that all must be done with an express view of glorifying God.
On attempting to take possession of the record, a shock was produced upon his system, by an invisible power, which deprived him, in a measure, of his natural strength. He desisted for an instant, and then made another attempt, but was more sensibly shocked than before. What was the occasion of this he knew not—there was the pure unsullied record, as had been described—he had heard of the power of enchantment and a thousand like stories, which held the hidden treasures of the earth, and supposed that physical exertion and personal strength was only necessary to enable him to yet obtain the object of his wish. He therefore made the third attempt with an increased exertion, when his strength failed him more than at either of the former times, and without premeditation he exclaimed, “Why can I not obtain this book?” “Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord,” answered a voice within a seeming short distance. He looked, and to his astonishment, there stood the angel who had previously given him the directions concerning this matter. In an instant, all the former instructions, the great intelligence concerning
and the last days, were brought to his mind: he thought of the time when his heart was fervently engaged in prayer to the Lord, when his spirit was contrite, and when his holy messenger from the skies unfolded the wonderful things connected with this record. He had come, to be sure, and found the word of the angel fulfilled concerning the reality of the record, but he had failed to remember the great end for which they had been kept, and in consequence, could not have power to take them into his possession and bear them away. Israel
At that instant he looked to the Lord in prayer, and as he prayed darkness began to disperse from his mind and his soul was lit up as it was the evening before, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit; and again did the Lord manifest his condescension and mercy: the heavens were opened and the glory of the Lord shone round about and rested upon him. While he thus stood gazing and admiring, the angel said, “Look!” and as he thus spake, he beheld the prince of darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train of associates. All this passed before him, and the heavenly messenger said, “All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and impure, the glory of God and the power of darkness, that you may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one. Behold, whatever entices and leads to good and to do good, is of God, and whatever does not is of that wicked one: it is he that fills the hearts of men with evil, to walk in darkness and blaspheme God; and you may learn from henceforth, that his ways are to destruction, but the way of holiness is peace and rest. You now see why you could not obtain this record; that the commandment was strict, and that if ever these sacred things are obtained, they must be by prayer and faithfulness in obeying the Lord. They are not deposited here for the sake of accumulating gain and for the glory of this world: they were sealed by the prayer of faith, and because of the knowledge which they contain they are of no worth among the children of men, only for their knowledge. … No man can obtain them if his heart is impure, because they contain that which is sacred; and besides, should they be entrusted in unholy hands, the knowledge could not come to the world, because they cannot be interpreted by the learning of this generation; consequently, they would be considered of no worth, only as precious metal. … You have now beheld the power of God manifested and the power of satan: you see that there is nothing that is desirable in the works of darkness; that they cannot bring happiness; that those who are overcome therewith are miserable, while on the other hand, the righteous are blessed with a place in the kingdom of God, where joy unspeakable surrounds them. There they rest beyond the power of the enemy of truth, where no evil can disturb them. The glory of God crowns them, and they continually feast upon his goodness and enjoy his smiles. Behold, nothwithstanding you have seen this great display of power, by which you may ever be able to detect the evil one, yet I give unto you another sign, and when it comes to pass, then know that the Lord is God, and that he will fulfil his purposes, and that the knowledge which this record contains will go to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people under the whole heaven.—This is the sign: When these things begin to be known, that is, when it is known that the Lord has shown you these things, the workers of iniquity will seek your overthrow; they will circulate falsehoods to destroy your reputation, and also will seek to take your life; but remember this, if you are faithful, and shall hereafter continue to keep the commandments of the Lord, you shall be preserved to bring these things forth; for in due time he will again give you a commandment to come and take them.
“A Remarkable Vision,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, vol. 1 (May 1840-April 1841), Vol. 1, No. 7, November 1840 175–78.) Extracts from Elder Oliver Cowdery’s Letter, contained in the October No. of the Messenger & Advocate, p. 195.
Now that I understood the definition of the gift of discerning of spirits, I wondered how I might obtain it for my own needs and to protect my family. I wondered about the appropriateness of asking God for a spiritual gift … or was I being greedy and unrighteous to want a gift that had not been given to me? A scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants taught me that it is okay to ask God for “the best gifts,” especially when those gifts offer protection from evil:
7 But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, … that ye may not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men; for some are of men, and others of devils.
8 Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given;
Finally, a discourse from an LDS apostle convinced me that asking God to help me develop the gift of discerning of spirits was a righteous and appropriate request:
Faith is a spiritual gift. So is personal revelation. So is a testimony of Jesus Christ. And there are other spiritual gifts. We know too little about spiritual gifts. This is evident in our communications, and it is also evident in our failure to seek after and use spiritual gifts. . . .
We should seek after spiritual gifts. They can lead us to God. They can shield us from the power of the adversary. They can compensate for our inadequacies and repair our imperfections. Almost a century ago President George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency taught the Saints:
If any of us are imperfect, it is our duty to pray for the gift that will make us perfect. . . . No man ought to say, “Oh, I cannot help this; it is my nature.” He is not justified in it, for the reason that God has promised to give strength to correct these things, and to give gifts that will eradicate them. If a man lacks wisdom, it is his duty to ask God for wisdom. The same with everything else. That is the design of God concerning His Church. He wants His Saints to be perfected in the truth. For this purpose He gives these gifts, and bestows them upon those who seek after them, in order that they may be a perfect people upon the face of the earth (Millennial Star, Apr. 1894, 260).
Dallin H. Oaks, “Spiritual Gifts,” Ensign, Sept. 1986, 68, 72.
I had planned to write here the specific steps that God used to teach me to develop the gift of discerning of spirits. Instead, I feel constrained. I was puzzled why I should not be allowed to share the steps, but then I received the inspiration that God teaches everyone in personal ways that are unique to the individual. So my steps may not apply to others. If you are stuck in your efforts to develop this gift, let me know and I will give you some ideas that may help.