"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world."(1 John 4:1)
Test the spirits.
Sound advice for anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Testing the spirits is truly the work of discernment.
Once upon a time (in the not so distant past), I used the word "discernment" quite a bit. Probably because I thought I knew what it meant. Or at least because it seemed like a good word to use, especially in my line of work and in talking about my calling.
Discernment, to me, looked like plotting something out, weighing pro's with con's, gathering information and analyzing the heck out of it.
But now I know this is really not discernment at all.
Discernment, or testing the spirits, is not something to be achieved with our heads.
Nor is it something I can do with my theological training and degrees.
Testing the spirits is not an intellectual endeavor; it is an exercise of the heart.
Such a practice calls us to a deeper place within each of us.
Discerning the spirits requires of us to access our own spirits. You test spirit with spirit.
What sets apart a spirit of God?
The author of 1 John continues, "If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit." (vv. 12b, 13)
Once again, I am drawn here to the remarkable simplicity of life: love or fear.
That's it, really.
On the surface, things may look a lot more complicated than that. But the essence is not.
Love is open. Love is large. Love can handle difference. Love sees past separation to unitive connection. Love listens. Love is hopeful and imaginative. Love is true.
Fear is closed down and closed off. Fear is small. Fear is on the defensive. Fear seeks to separate, divide, distinguish, judge. Fear argues. Fear is desperate and restrictive. Fear is false.
***There are many who would disagree with me on this. Who preach that love cannot be completely open, that there must be limits, boundaries, lines that demarcate the sinner and the saved. Who would see the task of "testing spirits" as God's permission for them to practice hard and swift judgment over and against another. I would argue, however, that when you boil it down, this impulse is nothing more (and nothing less) than fear.
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." (v. 18)
Test the spirits. Is it love or is it fear?
Some spirits may refuse to be dissected, may refuse these black-and-white categories of love and fear.
These spirits dwell in the gray, wavering and amalgamating love and fear.
Could any of us honestly say that we have achieved perfection in love? That we are completely void of any fear?
We are all gray creatures.
And so, we are not in the business of condemning one another. Instead, it is our task to discern through prayer what is love and what is fear. It is our work, our calling, to remove the many masks that fear hides behind--security, keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, comfort, convenience--and examine what lies beneath.
Test the spirits, for there are many false prophets among us. Those who seek to convince us that violence is the only choice; that war is inevitable; that poverty and hunger cannot be eliminated; that we can do nothing and play no part in the healing of the world; that opening our courts and churches and laws up to love is wicked.
Faith, hope, and love are not the playthings of the naive or the weak.
Faith, hope, and love are not the tools of the intellect.
Faith, hope, and love are the only things that abide, that remain, that will last forever when all fear and falsehood is stripped away.
Test the spirits that go out into the world.
Test the spirits that live within you, competing for your time and energy.
Test the spirits with the Spirit of God, given to you.
"For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-discipline." (2 Tim. 1:7)
With this Gift, we test the spirits. We discern the Spirit's work in the world, and we join ourselves to love. Amen.