‘She Has a Spirit of ______.’ But Are Such Phrases Biblical?

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“She has a Jezebel spirit!”

I was confused, as I neither knew who Jezebel was, nor how her spirit had invaded this young woman. Yet the man speaking seemed passionate. Apparently, a young woman in his church was being a problem—gossiping or some such matter. Of course, I was a new Christian at the time, visiting the local Pentecostal church to see what it was like. Turns out in this instance, it wasn’t so great.

As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time in Pentecostal/charismatic circles, and I’ve heard similar language. “Let’s ask God for a spirit of peace” or “I sense a spirit of fear,” for example. My point here isn’t to adjudicate the truth of these claims, but to assess the usefulness of this language. What are we talking about when we talk about the “spirit of” this or that?

Or, put in charismatic parlance, there’s a spirit of confusion afoot here. Let’s see if we can cast it out.

Biblical Language

The Bible doesn’t shy away from talking about spirits—and not just the third person of the Godhead, though he’s certainly paramount. Yet there are other uses of “spirit” language that may surprise us Reformed types. Here’s a few:

  • A spirit of skill: “You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill” (Exod. 28:3).
  • A spirit of jealousy: “. . . and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife” (Num. 5:14).
  • A spirit of wisdom: “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom” (Deut. 34:9)
  • A spirit of another person: “Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him opposite them, they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha’” (2 Kings 2:15)
  • A spirit of confusion: “The LORD has mingled within her a spirit of confusion” (Isa. 19:14).
  • A spirit of slavery: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” (Rom. 8:15).
  • A spirit of love and gentleness: “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21).
  • A spirit of antichrist: “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3).

Since the Scriptures don’t avoid “spirit of” language, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss those who do. We may be dismissing wisdom.

Hard to Define

All this forces the question: what does the Bible mean when it speaks this way? The answer is complicated. Sometimes, “spirit of” language seems to describe a demonic being or Satan himself. Other times, it seems to describe an especially significant dose of one of God’s communicable attributes (for example, “a spirit of love” or “the spirit of wisdom”). Still other times, it describes an emotional state connected with spiritual activity (e.g., “a spirit of jealousy” or “a spirit of confusion”). All other usages describe the spirit of a person.

We must remind ourselves, first, of the biblical words for our English word spirit. The root words (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek) all point to ideas like breath, wind, or force. The uniting idea behind them all is the concept of energy. It turns out the Bible’s spirit language is as difficult to grab as the windy energy to which it points. And yet, when we feel it or see it move things, we all know what we’re talking about.

Second, we must resist the urge to make Scripture speak univocally about a thing when it simply doesn’t. As noted above, “spirit of” language is varied in at least four ways (and that’s just a brief survey). Those of us who love tidy theological language balk at what feels like messy verbiage. If we’re not careful, though, we may be balking at the Bible.

Is the “spirit of confusion” a supernatural agent or a mental state of affairs? Hard to say, given the Bible’s use of the words. This is really where the rubber meets the road, however. Because we feel like it must be one or the other.

Unbiblical Binaries

I get it. When we hear a Christian describe someone’s bad attitude as “a spirit of rebellion,” we may be inclined to correct them. It’s not a spirit, you think, it’s a bad attitude. But why are we so quick draw a line between what’s spiritual and what’s natural when the Spirit’s book does not?

To the Hebrew mind, the whole world is God’s. There was no sharp line marking off the natural world from the spiritual or supernatural. That’s our recent, Enlightenment revival of ancient Epicureanism. When we blindly collude with Epicureanism, we’re not helping our mission to make Jesus known to the world. We’re playing the game by the wrong rules. God doesn’t like unbiblical boxes and, it appears, neither does his Word.

Should We Cast It Out?

Given what we’ve discovered, how then do we live? For some of you reading this article, you’ve never considered anything to be a spirit of anything else. Others of you are more inclined to overspiritualize everything, finding a crouching demon behind every bad-behavior bush.

Briefly, here are four practical steps to navigate the spirit-saturated world we inhabit:

1. Listen lovingly. Remember, “Love believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). That is, the heart posture of one Christian to another—yes, even Christians with whom you disagree on a number of issues—should be loving trust, believing what they say as best you can.

2. Ask what they mean. Nothing clarifies like a well-placed question. If someone says something you don’t understand, don’t assume you do understand by not asking.

3. Ask God. According to the New Testament, discernment is a spiritual gift. We should ask the Lord if the thing we’re seeing is an emotional state or a demon. One needs casting out; the other may need counseling.

4. Respond appropriately. If someone has a spirit of skill, celebrate and praise God. And by all means let them create. If someone has a spirit of antichrist, pray and prepare to cast it into the abyss. We won’t know what we’re dealing with, however, if we assume unbiblical categories.

I’m still not sure if that woman had a Jezebel spirit. Or, more accurately, I’m not sure what was meant by that comment. But I trust the future will provide us with opportunities to hear such language biblically, lovingly, discerningly, and responsively. If we do, I’m sure our problem with the spirit of confusion will clear up, and we’ll hear each other once more.

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