One of the keys to ministering or receiving deliverance is to discern the presence of evil spirits. The following is an excerpt from Setting Captives Free that describes three ways to detect when demonic influence is at work.
How do you know when an evil spirit is at work in your life? How do you know when an area of bondage involves demonic influence or is simply the flesh? How can you tell if a sickness or physical affliction is the result of natural causes or a spirit of infirmity? How can you determine whether the torment in your mind is coming from an evil spirit or is physiological in nature? These are all very good questions. It is important to understand that not every problem is caused by a demon. It is also important to be aware that many problems are caused by demons and that it is not always obvious to the natural eye when a demon is involved. This is why we need to cultivate spiritual discernment.
Discerning an evil spirit is like turning the lights on in a dark basement to find that a deadly serpent is hiding in the corner. Until the lights were turned on you couldn’t recognize the presence of this harmful intruder in your home, but it was there nonetheless. Once revealed, the serpent can be effectively dealt with. In the same way, for evil spirits to be expelled they must first be exposed. When they are brought into the light they can be addressed and cast out. But as long as they remain hidden and undetected, they can continue their destructive work in and through the person in whom they dwell. Discerning the presence of evil spirits can happen in different ways, and we can grow in our discernment through study, practical experience, and walking in the Holy Spirit. When I teach on discerning evil spirits, I normally mention three primary ways this happens: a demonic manifestation, supernatural revelation from the Holy Spirit, and what I would call natural discernment. I will cover these below.
One of the ways that evil spirits can be discerned is when there is a demonic manifestation. It is good to be aware that there is a difference between having a demon and having a demonic manifestation. Having a demon means that an evil spirit is present and is at work in some way. This may happen in subtle, behind the scenes ways. But when a demon manifests, it makes itself known in a visible and more obvious way. Many times in the Gospel accounts, we see demons manifesting outwardly through a person. But it is significant to note that this is not the constant state of a demonized person. Let’s look again at the example from Mark 1 that we looked at in Chapter One.
Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. (Mark 1:21-26)
Here we have a scene where Jesus is teaching in a synagogue. The text says that there was a man in the synagogue “with an unclean spirit.” In other words, he had a demon. It goes on to say that this unclean spirit began to speak through the person to Jesus; that is, it manifested. We don’t know how long Jesus was teaching before the demon manifested, but it was long enough for the people to recognize that He taught with authority and not in the way they were used to the scribes teaching. This man was not in a constant state of having a demonic manifestation. Certainly, he would not have been allowed to come into the synagogue and listen to the teaching if he were. No, he was sitting there listening to Jesus teach with the rest of them. It is as though the authority that Jesus was teaching with forced the demon to show itself so that it could be cast out.
This type of scenario is sometimes referred to as a power encounter; where the Kingdom of God collides with the kingdom of darkness, forcing demons to manifest so that they can be driven out. This type of occurrence will usually happen during a time when the Holy Spirit is moving powerfully through preaching, worship, or prayer. It is worth noting that discernment is still required to recognize that it is in fact a demon that is manifesting in a situation like this. In other words, depending on the degree of manifestation it is possible for a demonic manifestation to go unnoticed or unrecognized, especially if there is no knowledge of deliverance ministry or where there is the belief that a Christian cannot have a demon.
When discerning outward demonic manifestations, I have learned to observe three specific areas: the person’s countenance, body movements, and voice. A few years ago, I was praying for a woman at a healing service and within seconds of prayer a demon began to manifest. I had simply welcomed the presence of the Holy Spirit and she immediately began to shake. This can sometimes simply be a response to the Holy Spirit’s power coming upon someone, but as I continued to pray, the shaking became more violent and her countenance took on a tormented expression. I soon realized it was a demonic manifestation. As I commanded the power of the enemy to be broken, the woman screamed, fell to the ground, and received more prayer from those around her. Soon she was relieved as the demonic spirit left her.
I have noticed a pattern that whenever I preach and teach on the topic of deliverance from demons, some people who are under demonic influence will begin to experience manifestations while I am teaching. Sometimes this is visible: shaking, convulsing, a change in countenance, crying, or other outward signs. Many other times, it is something that they are experiencing internally but it is not observable outwardly. People have reported feeling something stirring in their stomach, feeling nauseous, sudden pain, irrational urges to leave the room, a feeling of being choked, or other inward symptoms of demons beginning to manifest. I have seen this happen so many times that I have come to expect it when I teach and minister on deliverance. I will tell people not to be afraid if this is happening, but that it is simply the evil spirits being agitated and getting nervous because they are about to be expelled.
Another way that demons can be discerned is through the gift of discerning of spirits. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists nine supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit that should be operating in the church and are available to believers. One of these gifts is called “discerning of spirits” (see 1 Corinthians 12:10). Discerning of spirits is particularly useful in the ministry of deliverance, although it is not limited to that purpose. It can be defined as the supernatural ability to perceive what is happening in the spiritual realm and judge between the Holy Spirit and demonic spirits.
The gift of discerning of spirits is not only for detecting evil spirits. It may function in recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit, like when John the Baptist “saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him” (John 1:32). It also may work in being aware of the presence of angels, like when Elisha saw the army of angels surrounding him to protect him (see 2 Kings 6:14-17). For our purposes, we are considering how discerning of spirits operates to expose the presence of evil spirits.
The gift of discernment operates through our senses. Hebrews 5:14 puts it this way: “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” Notice that it is “by reason of use” that discernment grows. The New American Standard Bible translates this phrase as “because of practice.” In other words, part of how discerning spirits works is to experience something with one of our senses, and then over time and through more experience, begin to recognize what is happening in the spiritual realm. For example, some believers report seeing the presence of a demon as a creature, serpent, octopus, black spot, dark cloud, or other image. Others may feel something on their body or sense something in their spirit indicating a demonic presence. Sometimes it may come as an impression from the Holy Spirit about demonic activity or the specific name of a demon. Some people have reported smelling a distinct smell, such as sulfur or rotten eggs, indicating that an evil spirit is present.
While on staff at a church in Texas several years ago, I was praying for a woman at the altar one Sunday morning. She was a first-time visitor I had never met before. I prayed for her as I felt led by the Holy Spirit, but there was no indication that deliverance was needed. An intercessor who was standing behind her discerned that she had a spirit of fear, so I addressed this spirit. Immediately, the woman began to manifest a demon and receive deliverance. Not only was the spirit of fear cast out, but several other demons were expelled as well. It was the gift of discerning of spirits that exposed the presence of demons so that they could be addressed and cast out.
Another type of discernment is what I simply call natural discernment. The more experience you have with deliverance, the easier it becomes to discern the presence of evil spirits. I believe this is true of the supernatural discernment mentioned above, but also when it comes to observing natural signs and gaining information from the person to whom you are ministering. Understanding the various ways that demons can influence people can be very helpful when considering whether or not a person needs deliverance. It is also good to be aware of open doors and demonic entry points. For example, if you are ministering to a person and find out that they have been involved in the occult, there is a good chance that an evil spirit needs to be cast out. If there has been physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, it is common for demons to have entered in through that door. When signs of demonic influence are present—such as bondage, torment, oppression, or affliction—and open doors have occurred, you can deduce that deliverance is very likely needed.
Jesus did not rely solely on supernatural information when ministering deliverance. Sometimes, He simply asked questions to gain insight into the situation. This is the case when He set a boy free from an unclean spirit.
Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him.” (Mark 9:20-22)
Notice first that this is another example of a demonic manifestation. The very presence of Jesus caused the demon to flare up, convulse the child, and throw him to the floor foaming at the mouth. But then also notice that Jesus asked a question to gain more information: “How long has this been happening to him?” It can often be very helpful to ask simple questions to help discern whether a demon is present and know how to minister effectively to the person in need. Several examples of questions could be given, but here are a few: How long have you been experiencing this problem? Are you aware of any open doors that allowed this spirit to be present? Did anything traumatic happen at the time this started? Are you aware of anyone against whom you are harboring unforgiveness? Are there any specific areas of sin that you think may have opened the door to this demon?
A young lady to whom my wife and I ministered was having recurring thoughts of death. For example, she would be driving down the road and suddenly imagine herself drifting off the road and crashing her car. She had overcome cancer a few years prior. Knowing her background and having learned that sometimes a spirit of death comes in during major and prolonged sicknesses, I suggested we pray for deliverance. Sure enough, as we prayed over her the Holy Spirit moved powerfully and she was delivered from the spirit of death, along with some other spirits.
A few years ago, I prayed for a young lady who had spent some time heavily involved in witchcraft before becoming a believer. She was struggling with torment, anxiety, and fear on a regular basis. It did not take the gift of discerning of spirits or a demonic manifestation to determine that there was a need for deliverance. The open doors in her life and the symptoms of demonic torment were enough to reveal the need to receive deliverance. Not surprisingly, as another woman and I prayed over her, demons began to manifest and be cast out.
I share these examples to show that discerning the presence of evil spirits can happen through knowing what to look for and being aware of the ways that demons operate. A time of deliverance does not always have to be initiated by a power encounter that causes a demonic manifestation or the gift of discerning of spirits exposing a demon. When doors have been opened up to evil spirits, and when some of the common signs of demonic influence are present, there is a good chance that a demon is at work and deliverance is needed. Keep in mind though that every case is unique and it is always necessary to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit for each situation.
Setting Captives Free is filled with biblical teaching on the topic of demons and deliverance, powerful testimonies of those who have been set free, and practical prayers that you can use for yourself or others in need of deliverance. Make sure to get your copy!