Discernment has been on my mind a lot lately. I've noticed people have varying ways of interpreting what it means to discern a matter, teaching, or spirit. One version of discernment is to follow the prophet. For some that philosophy and set of belief constitutes discernment. Others in practice show that going with whatever the "official position of the LDS Church" is on a topic constitutes discernment. I disagree with both of those. Neither are discernment. Relying on another person, due to their church calling, and depending on them (or organization) to distinguish truth from error for you is not only not discernment, it's headed in the opposite direction. It's shifting what is your responsibility onto another. And then trusting things to that person which ought not to be.
Of course experienced others can be of great value. They can offer wisdom and can point out things, and help clarify confusing matters. That's all great. I'm not discounting any of that. What I believe is that you can't (well, you can, and many do) delegate the need to distinguish and discern onto another person. Unless that person is God, it's doomed. More on this in just a minute taken from what Joseph Smith taught. Underlining is mine.
President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel--said the Lord had declared by the Prophet, that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church--that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls--applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall--that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves, (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith pp. 237-38)
It's so much easier to delegate the discerning of spirits and the distinguishing of truth from error to an organization or high church leader. But that is a mistake. The Gospel does not teach us to do that. The Gospel teaches we are to discern, take the Holy Spirit as our guide, and seek earnestly for spiritual gifts which come from God. One of which is discernment.
Joseph Smith had this to say regarding this topic. TPJS P205-207. Also found here:
It is evident from the Apostles’ writings, that many false spirits existed in their day, and had “gone forth into the world,” and that it needed intelligence which God alone could impart to detect false spirits, and to prove what spirits were of God. The world in general have been grossly ignorant in regard to this one thing, and why should they be otherwise—for “the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.” The Egyptians were not able to discover the difference between the miracles of Moses and those of the magicians until they came to be tested together; and if Moses had not appeared in their midst, they would unquestionably have thought that the miracles of the magicians were performed through the mighty power of God, for they were great miracles that were performed by them—a supernatural agency was developed, and great power manifested.
If we go among the pagans, they have their spirits; the Mohammedans, the Jews, the Christians, the Indians—all have their spirits, all have a supernatural agency, and all contend that their spirits are of God. Who shall solve the mystery? “Try the spirits,” says John, but who is to do it? The learned, the eloquent, the philosopher, the sage, the divine—all are ignorant. The heathens will boast of their gods, and of the great things that have been unfolded by their oracles. The Mussulman will boast of his Koran, and of the divine communications that his progenitors have received. The Jews have had numerous instances, both ancient and modern, among them of men who have professed to be inspired, and sent to bring about great events, and the Christian world has not been slow in making up the number.
Every one of these professes to be competent to try his neighbor's spirit, but no one can try his own, and what is the reason? Because they have not a key to unlock, no rule wherewith to measure, and no criterion whereby they can test it. Could any one tell the length, breadth or height of a building without a rule? Test the quality of metals without a criterion, or point out the movements of the planetary systems, without a knowledge of astronomy? Certainly not; and if such ignorance as this is manifested about a spirit of this kind, who can describe an angel of light?
If Satan should appear as one in glory, who can tell his color, his signs, his appearance, his glory, or what is the manner of his manifestation? Who can detect the spirit of the French prophets with their revelations and their visions, and power of manifestations? Or who can point out the spirit of the Irvingites, with their apostles and prophets, and visions and tongues, and interpretations etc.? Or who can drag into daylight and develop he hidden mysteries of the false spirits that so frequently are made manifest among the Latter-day Saints? We answer that no man can do this without the Priesthood, and having a knowledge of the laws by which spirits are governed; for as no man knows the things of God, but by the Spirit of God, so no man knows the spirit of the devil, and his power and influence, by by possessing intelligence which is more than human, and having unfolded through the medium of the Priesthood the mysterious operations of this device; without knowing the angelic form, the sanctified look and gesture, and the zeal that is frequently manifested by him for the glory of God, together with the prophetic spirit, the gracious influence, the godly appearance, and the holy garb, which are so characteristic of his proceedings and his mysterious windings.
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. Thousands have felt the influence if its terrible power and baneful effects. Long pilgrimages have been undertaken, penances endured, and pain, misery and ruin have followed in their train; nations have been convulsed, kingdoms overthrown, provinces laid waste, and blood, carnage and desolation are habiliments in which it has been clothed.
The world always mistook false prophets for true ones, and those that were sent of God, they considered to be false prophets, and hence they killed, stoned, punished and imprisoned the true prophets and these had to hide themselves "in deserts and dens, and caves of the earth," and though the most honorable men of the earth, they banished them from their society as vagabonds, whilst they cherished, honored and supported knaves, vagabonds, hypocrites, impostors and the basest of men. A man must have the discerning of spirits, as we before stated, to understand these things."
This part deserves a repeat: "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".
I believe God's hand is moving again in the affairs of men involving the restoration. Thus I think we should expect to see efforts by the adversary as well to mislead people. Just as the early saints did. I think we should be prepared to discern false spirits, soothsaying, and other attempts to lure, or displace our focus from the Lord and remembering the restoration. If/when we encounter such things I personally believe we should try not to condemn but show compassion towards the person or people involved. Compassion towards the individual will speak well of you and the path you follow, even if it turns out you erred. As a side note, I've noticed humor is also something that has a certain discerning capacity to it. The Lord has a good sense of humor.
A few final thoughts from the piece by Joseph. The story he retells about Mr. Irving and Mr. Baxter shows that more than one person can be under the influence of the same false spirit. This is on page 4/5 of the link: But it may be asked how Mr. Baxter could get a sign from a second person? To this we would answer, that Mr. Baxter’s brother was under the influence of the same spirit as himself, and being subject to that spirit he could be easily made to speak to Mr. Baxter whatever the spirit should dictate;
Both can receive the same message from that spirit, and when the two meet up, and concur, they both are lead to believe it therefore must be of God. So someone else also having the same spiritual phenomena or experience isn't necessarily a reason to let your guard down and drop the need to discern whether the communication or phenomena came from God. Not all spiritual things are from God.
Hence revelation is so important, as opposed to trusting in man or the arm of the flesh. Profound words. Prophetic words from Joseph. Thank you Joseph, thank you for saying what needs to be said rather than what pacifies us and assures us that all is well and all we have to do is rely on a man. I'm grateful he pointed the way. He didn't point to himself. He taught that people depended too much on the prophet, and hence were darkened in their minds.
When John says to "Try the spirits", and Joseph Smith expounds on it, I want to appreciate and receive the counsel offered to us by those who we know communed with God. Discerning of Spirits is one of the scriptural Gifts of the Spirit, and human intellect, rationalization, and committees can never substitute for it.