A Chronicle of Renewal and Revival

Tabor College, Adelaide

Discerning between the emotional, the psychotic and the spiritual

Dr John Court was Professor of Psychology in the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, and Director of Counselling at Tabor College in Adelaide.

Article in Renewal Journal 7: Blessing as on Amazon and Kindle and The Book Depository
Also in Renewal Journals bound volume 2 (Issues 6-10)


Where we see real and lasting change,

with maturity of spirituality

and a desire to know God more,

then I believe God is at work


Discerning what is of God, and what arises for other reasons is no easy task. We may all see the same things but our interpretations will differ. Objectively, all we have to go on is the observation of behaviour. But we also draw on experience, background, context and spiritual discernment to refine these observations. Behind all that we may carry some deeply-held convictions, both theological and psychological, which tell us what to expect as normal.

History and Scripture combine to tell us certain things are to be expected when the Spirit of God is at work, and this information can help us to some degree to discern the authentic from the counterfeit. Yet we then have to qualify that, since if something unexpected occurs, fitting no known pattern, we have to choose between saying ‘This must be counterfeit’ or ‘The Spirit blows where he will and we must not presume to limit God’. With guidelines like that, practically anything can be identified as the Spirit’s work, or demonic counterfeit, or neither.

So far, I have not been very helpful. In part I think this arises because our dilemma may arise from asking the wrong questions, or the right questions in the wrong way.

Come with me and observe a scene. I see a large number of men and women, some sitting, some standing, some silent, others singing, others again talking apparently to themselves, and on coming closer we can make no sense of what they say. Some sway, others rock to and fro. Some put their hands in the air and leave them there for some time. Others lie on the ground and roll around. I try to engage them in conversation but they seem to be in a private world of their own, quite unresponsive to conversation.

What is it?

What are we to make of these unusual kinds of behaviour? Is this sick, is it demonic, is it theatrical pretence, is it ecstatic? Is God being honoured, and if so how can we know?

My picture is in fact a collage from experiences over the years. This description could well fit my time working in the chronic back wards of a psychiatric hospital before the new anti-psychotic drugs arrived – the snake-pit days, still within living memory for some. The picture might be of a Balinese festival, with extended ceremonies, prayers and fire-walking. In this case we can also add a good deal of colour and music and flowers. The fire-walkers are impressive, whether due to trance or the help of some drugs, I cannot tell.

The picture might also be that of a camp meeting with Rodney Howard-Browne, or the Toronto Blessing, but there, in addition to colour and music I would see many people falling on the ground and laughing uncontrollably. With these additions, we might also have been spectators in a large presentation of stage hypnosis by a skilled performer – a theatrical event in which these as well as other bizarre and unusual behaviours could be observed, strictly for entertainment.

My point in bringing these four together is that if we merely observe what is happening in a detached way, without a context, we shall witness a remarkable degree of similarity, but this will not answer the underlying questions of meaning. Seeking to sort experiences into the emotional or the psychotic or the spiritual by no means exhausts the categories of relevance. Emotional may be the product of something physiological, like a natural biochemistry imbalance, or a drug trip. It may be more the product of inter-personal influences, such as openness to suggestion, persuasion and imitation. Spiritual can, of course, also be sub-divided to ask whether we are responding to a movement of the spirit or some demonic influence.

Even when we have identified all the categories, a sound answer will still elude us because interactions between all the categories can and do occur. To ask about ‘either/or’ when it is both – and is to set ourselves up for confusion. This has been a recurring problem for pentecostals since the days of the Azusa Street revival to the Toronto Blessing, as many commentators have noted 1.

In particular, Harvey Cox makes some interesting comments about the confluence of thinking from faith and science when he remarks,

A rush of research has appeared in scientific journals on the significance of the so-called placebo effect, as the recognition dawns that the improvement patients frequently experience after they have had ‘nothing but a sugar pill may stem from the trust they place in the doctor. New research points to the possibility that certain ritual acts might actually trigger human endocrine and immune systems, and evidence has revealed the vital importance of a patient s perception of being loved and cared for in his or her recovery. A few medical researchers have begun to ask whether what they call ‘altered states of consciousness or trances (which the pentecostals called being ‘slain in the Lord ) can help release the body s inner healing mechanisms (1995:109).

You might want to argue that we can only discern the true nature of the events by abandoning the objective stance and being involved as participators. That argument is attractive at a Christian Convention, but I prefer not to adopt the strategy for understanding the alternatives – like becoming psychotic to understand psychosis. Nor should we risk demonic involvement in order to discern. An objective position based on Biblical wisdom should suffice. I prefer, therefore, to confront such questions by asking some strategic questions.

1. Does it matter if the behaviour looks remarkably similar in these quite different settings?

I sense that some are bothered by the parallels, but for me the answer is ‘no’. I observe the Balinese at prayer and worship and know that they are not worshipping Jesus Christ, but that does not invalidate prayer and worship as human activities. I can observe someone raise a hand in the air – it may be to worship, but it may be for many other reasons too. Stage hypnotists love to demonstrate the phenomena of hand levitation- they are simply using naturally occurring phenomena.

In the past I might have raised the question whether the behaviour was voluntary or involuntary, favouring actions undertaken by choice and expressing concern over what might be beyond personal control. I now know that the distinctions between voluntary and involuntary are meaningless, as we have learned that it is possible to gain control over apparently involuntary behaviour 2.

I might also have asked whether the behaviour was undertaken consciously or unconsciously, but here too the convenient separation we grew up with (due largely to Freud’s influence) has broken down3, so that today we speak of various states of consciousness – alert, asleep, drowsy, preoccupied, dissociated, anaethetised, hypervigilant, etc. We can track the changes through monitoring brain function and find that some tasks are undertaken better by one part of the brain than another. The psychotic’s behaviour is modified by drugs which affect specific pathways and linkages, sometimes with striking results. Listening to me now, you need your left brain to be active, to follow the logic of an argument strung together in sentences in linear fashion. However as we sing and worship together, we engage our right brains more fully, enlarging our experience to be open to beauty, spontaneity and creativity. Logic and reasoning become less important at such times, and we become more open to suggestion and group influence. Here we engage in rational thought, there we access our emotional world more readily.

2. Is one of these states more spiritual than another?

All those four settings I mentioned involve states of awareness that are different from our usual experience. Whether it be the escape from reality of the psychotic, the temporary collusion of the hypnotist and subject to dissociate, the frenzy of the religious festival, or the ecstatic response to word and music at a camp meeting, we can all recognise that an alteration occurs. Disinhibition, openness to suggestion , altered physiological states and a profound sense of things being ‘different’ are typical. The possibility of powerful change in response to an acceptable suggestion is such that many later report amazing benefits. In the Pentecostal context these benefits are attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit.

I repeat the question – is one state more spiritual than another? Is the highly right-brain focussed experience of tongues and slaying in the Spirit more scriptural than the left-brained activity of reading scripture or listening to a sermon? Are the left brained advocates of propositional truth more spiritual than those who expect signs and wonders?

I hope the answer to that set of questions is ‘no’. When we try to box in that which is spiritual, and separate it from the intellectual, or the physical, or the emotional parts of ourselves, we cultivate the kind of dualism that has confused us for centuries. Just as our conventional categories of body, mind and spirit do not reflect the Hebrew view of mankind found in scripture, so too if we try to label one experience more spiritual than another, we risk similar problems. Evangelicals look down on charismatic phenomena because they are emotional and non-rational, while prizing purity of teaching and doctrine. Pentecostals meantime rejoice in a different kind of knowing which is experientially based, and sufficiently convincing of the presence of God that sound doctrine can afford to follow on behind.

3. If the behaviour is so similar, what questions should we be asking?

The really important questions relate not to the behaviour we observe, but the meaning of this behaviour, and its purpose. In the psychiatric hospital, bizarre behaviour occurs as deeply troubled people, who feel powerless, seek to escape from reality and the demands placed on them. They enter a private altered world where they make their own rules, regardless of the wider world. Some cults do the same, collectively of course. It is not useful to ask whether this escape is chosen voluntarily, as I have already indicated that this is a problematic category. We can understand the escape behaviour a little better if we follow the view of illness that argues that the psychosis is not the problem, but it is the solution to the problem.

The stage hypnotist encourages people to explore experiences in a new way, thereby creating a form of entertainment which rewards the hypnotist not only financially, but also with a great sense of personal power. Stage hypnosis is something I stand firmly against,not because it is intrinsically evil, but because it is open to abuse of trusting people, and it carries hazards which are not justified for the sake of entertainment. The hypnotic state, or trance, is one powerful example of an altered state of consciousness, and one which is readily entered in a group setting without any formal induction being needed.

Patrick Dickson in Signs of Revival writes as a medical practitioner and one who has had a positive experience of the Toronto Blessing in England. He raises as cautions the possibilities of auto-suggestion, hysteria, group pressure of the crowd, and the disinhibition that suggestible people show in such settings4. I am fully persuaded that these concerns are well-founded, but they are no reason to reject the reality of spiritual blessing that also occurs. The dangers of group hypnosis have been expressed with regard to Billy Graham crusades also, even though the overt behavioural expression is less obvious5. What matters is not that this happens, but that we recognise and understand this so that false claims are avoided. This cannot be achieved if we simply deny that powerful suggestion is at work, and certainly not if we follow the view that hypnosis is intrinsically demonic6.

Nor do we need to fear these altered states. Not only can good clinical work be done using them, but scripture is clear that God speaks when people are in trance states. Peter’s vision which occurred in a trance state at Joppa7 is a fine example of an experience that proved to be a major cross-roads for the early church. Some of the Jews might well have supposed that such a radical message of taking the gospel to the Gentiles could only be demonic in origin, as the traditional barriers and categories were shattered8.

Apart from the two uses of the word (trance) in Acts 10 relating to Peter’s experience, the other usage is in Paul’s experience (Acts 22:17) when he reports ‘as I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus…..’ The terminology is from the physician Luke in each case, and might suggest a technical sense of the term. Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible suggests that

As other elements and forms of the prophetic work were revived in ‘the Apostles and Prophets’ of the N.T., so also was this…..Though different in form, it belongs to the same class of phenomena as the gift of tongues, and is connected with ‘visions and revelations of the Lord’. In some cases, it is the chosen channel for such revelations. To the ‘trance’ of Peter in the city….we owe the indelible truth stamped upon the heart of Christendom, that God is ‘no respecter of persons’, that we may not call any man ‘common or unclean’.9

Money, Sex and Power

Just ten years ago, I was called to travel from Adelaide to Houston, Texas, to testify to the U.S. Attorney-General’s Commission on pornography. As I left the hearings and walked back to my hotel, I paused at a secular bookshop, struck by the title in the centre of the window, Money, Sex and Power, by Richard Foster. They were actually the three temptations we had been addressing at the commission, as we discussed the pornography industry.

They are the three great temptations we always need to check out when we see something new and growing. In 1994, Harvey Cox delivered a lecture at Fuller Seminary based on his book Fire From Heaven10, his history of Pentecostalism from Azusa St to the present. These are among the cautions he raises as he sympathetically documents the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism in recent years – he also mentions the oft-repeated charge that there is a demonic element at work.

While expressing cautions, he analyses the powerful positive reasons why there has been such a tremendous positive response around the world. He identifies some of the unmet needs of the urban society, such as loneliness, powerlessness, loss of meaning, a loss of transcendental spirituality, showing how these themes are addressed in pentecostal theology. These appear to be equally powerful in Australia in understanding the response of many to the Toronto Blessing meetings.

So let us get behind the questions like ‘Is this demonic or of God?’ ‘Is this real or counterfeit?’, ‘Is this spiritual or hypnotic?’ As I have thought these issues through, the more have I realised that the questions are presented in the language of traditional pentecostal theology, which is not my tradition, so my own bias emerges as I advocate caution over such dualism.

The divine, the natural, the demonic

I am much more comfortable with a world view that embraces not only the divine and the demonic, but also allows space for the natural – our humanness, created by God, but distorted by sin. I confess my sympathy for the comments of Andrew Walker, who, in writing about Demonology and the Charismatic Movement, says throughout the Middle Ages, a sound psychology of the spiritual life developed that distinguished between God’s acts, the devil’s ploys, and the normal processes of the natural world.

A Christian world view that is divided into the tripartite arenas of the divine, the natural, and the demonic is unlikely to fall prey to a paranoia that dissects the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Charismatic theologies and methodologies that do tend to divide the cosmos into God’s kingdom of light and Satan’s kingdom of darkness are in constant danger of first adopting a paranoid world view, and then becoming entrapped and socialized into the paranoid universe.11

Discernment will not create artificial separations, but it can offer wisdom in knowing the balance of forces at work. Even the question of separating the godly from the demonic is not clear-cut since we should expect to find a mixture, like wheat and tares. The fruit will help us discern in due course, but it is risky to pre-judge the balance.

The fact is that God made us complex beings, innately spiritual so that we may relate to Him. If these unfamiliar experiences bring people into a more intimate relationship with God, then we should welcome them. At the same time there will be people attracted to the phenomena ,seeking not God but the experience. Others will be attracted by the temptations of money, sex and power. To the extent these overshadow the Godly purpose of the experience, they will compromise the gospel, yet without extinguishing it.

The most common question I hear is ‘Are we dealing with something spiritual, or something psychological, and how can we know the difference?’ The question is impossible to answer because it comes from false assumptions. The dualism in the question, spiritual or psychological, comes from Greek thought, in contrast to the unified view of mankind expressed in Hebrew thought –

Plato had made a clear-cut distinction between mind and matter. Although Aristotle had recognised they were interdependent, he still insisted mind and matter were unlike. Even Descartes, who marks the beginning of modern psychology, held to a dualism…12

Wholeness and integration

Hebrew thought emphasises that wholeness or healing can only occur when the spiritual and the emotional come together as a total entity – the self.

Religious experiences are spiritual. They are also emotional, or should be. A response to the gospel is profoundly emotional in its significance. Worship, laughter, joy all bring changes which affect the emotions well as the endocrine system such that illnesses may be reduced or even cured. There is now a respectable literature on the effects of laughter in assisting cancer sufferers13.

We cannot automatically attribute the benefits of sustained laughter to the work of the Holy Spirit. Such phenomena are also seen in other religious contexts as well as totally secular ones. Nor should we dismiss benefits because they seem unusual, or because we find them hard to understand.

I believe in a God who cares as much about my emotional health and physical well-being as he does about my spiritual condition. And I believe that all these are inextricably entwined as one entity, the person, so that benefits to one affect all the rest, just as harm to one area also impacts the rest. I have found it helpful personally to follow these questions of interaction through with David Benner, who in his book Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Quest14 develops a strong argument for embracing the Hebraic understanding of human nature, favouring the term psychospirituality as a challenge to our dualist categories.

The either-or question is the wrong one, so the question about how to discern which is which becomes moot. Graham Twelftree, writing on the demonic, remarks helpfully on the difficulty when he says

An increasing number of psychologists and therapists employ a multiple-causation approach, recognising that mental illness and the demonic are not mutually exclusive but that either, both or neither may be the cause of illness. However, there are those represented by John White, who consider that science is helpless in diagnosing the presence of the demonic: ‘I can conceive of no demonic state which cannot be explained by a non-demonic hypothesis’. Therefore, because of the subtle, incoherent and devious nature of the demonic, the pastor or healer requires a God-given facility to discern the possible demonic dimensions of an illness.15

Although this paper was invited to have a primary focus on the current manifestations of the Toronto Blessing, it it clear that the question of discernment goes much wider than this. Quite apart from efforts to discern what is of God in major movements, there is also the personal question that presents when individuals show unusual signs of activity which may have similar ambiguity. Here too a broad range of opinions exists, from those who deny the demonic, to those who percieve this to be a very common phenomenon, all too often missed by secular and even Christian counsellors.

A ministry of discernment

Here too I would offer similar cautions to those above. While I have personally no doubt about the presence of the demonic in the experience of some who come for help, I could not be certain of this or more than a handful of cases in thirty years of practice. On those occasions, a time of prayer has been helpful but I have valued being able to call on those with specific gifts who have used their deliverance ministry to bring release.

On the other hand, I have met dozens who had been reported by their pastors as being possessed or demonized, whose condition had not improved with spiritual ministry, but who were benefitted by conventional psychological treatments. This suggests that a broader knowledge of alternative explanations would be helpful among those who exercise a ministry of discernment.

The most important area these days in which great care should be exercised lest people are actually made worse is in the area of what used to be called multiple personality disorder (now dissociative identity disorder)16. It is a common pattern for such persons to reject unacceptable parts of themselves as a key part of the disorder, even calling such parts evil or demonic, as their mode of trying to understand what is happening to them. This is particularly the case where Christians are struggling to understand the splitting which has occurred in their experience. Some are also able to recognise parts which are distinct or non-self, and not just unacceptable parts of the self. It is essential to distinguish between these two aspects, since the former parts need to be acknowledged and re-integrated into the whole person if healing is to be achived, while the latter parts may be understood as evil influences needing deliverance.

Concerning discernment, the important questions are ‘What is the outcome? ‘What is the fruit?’ ‘Is God glorified?’ ‘Are his works manifest?’ ‘Is there personal spiritual growth?’ ‘Is the body of Christ blessed?’ This is not just a ‘means justifies the end’ argument. We need great sensitivity and respect for one another when altered states of consciousness occur. There is vulnerability and trust at stake, so manipulation of any kind in order to promote signs and wonders cannot be ethically justified. We all know that short term ‘cures’ can remit later and engender bitterness and disillusionment against God.

In some contexts, powerful effects lead people away from God – to seek power, or money, or self-aggrandisement or occultic involvement or, as with the psychotic, an escape from reality. Where we see real and lasting change,with maturity of spirituality and a desire to know God more, then I believe God is at work, even though we recognise that human failings complicate that truth.


1.e.g. The most obvious either-or polemical tract is Henry Sheppard’s A New Wave of the Spirit? Revival or Satanic Substitute? Paradise, SA 1995.. For a solid historical commentary see Chap 2 of Harvey Cox Fire from Heaven. Addison Wesley, 1995. Specifically addressing the Toronto Blessing and RHB, see ‘Is it Revival?’ Mainstream, Summer 1994; Nigel Copsey, ‘Touched by the Spirit’, Baptist Times, Sept 15, 1994; Harry Westcott’s Vision Newsletter No. 64; Toronto Blessing-true or false? PWM Trust, 1994; Geoff Strelan, ‘Toronto Blessing: The Facts’, New Day, Feb. 1995.

2. In the clinical area, the use of biofeedback, which grew out of psychological research in the sixties, especially through the work of Neal Miller, has been developed as a way of gaining control over functions such as heart rate, pulse and body temperature with tremendous health benefits. Pain management, muscle re-education and migraine treatment are among the striking benefits.This approach relies on technology. Other religions have taught such control, using meditation and relaxation techniques, for centuries, especially in Asia.

3. Not only is there greater complexity of thought in relation to conscious/unconscious experiences. In addition, the very negative understanding of the unconscious as the residual location for our evil impulses and secret sinful desires is giving way to recognition that the unconscious can also be the repository of creativity, appreciation of beauty and the capacity for much good that has remained hidden. This more Christian understanding challenges the negative view of the Freudians. See especially, Wanda Poltawska, ‘Objectifying Psychotherapy’, Catholic Medical Quarterly, May 1992, 18-23: and George Matheson’s entry Hypnosis and Spiritual Experience’ in Baker’s Encyclopedia of Psychology (ed. D. Benner) 1985.

4. Quoted in S. A. Baptist News, April, 1995, p.1.

5. A good historical linkage between trance phenomena and religious experience, and with reference to experiences in crusades, see George Matheson, ‘Hypnotic Aspect of Religious Experience’, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 1979, 7, (1), 13-21.

6. This argument was advanced by Nader Mikhaiel, Slaying in the Spirit – The Telling Wonder (self published, 1992). He makes a convincing case for showing that the phenomena of slaying in the Spirit are very similar to those found in hypnotic states, but then goes on to a guilt-by-association argument that hypnosis is intrinsically demonic, and therefore rejects what happens when people are slain in the Spirit. This association with the demonic is illogical and unwarranted. There really is no reason to fear the professional and ethical use of hypnosis for therapeutic purposes. Most of the objections to it arise from false stereotypes, second-hand misinformation and selective quotes from Christian authors. For an alternative view, see Court, J. H., ‘ Hypnosis revisited’, Interchange, 1984, 34, 55-60; Court, J. H., ‘Hypnosis and Inner Healing’, Journal of Christian Healing,,1987, 9,(2), 29-35, and Court J. H. (in preparation) Hypnosis, Healing and the Christian.

7. Acts 10:10

8. Acts 10:28; Gal.3:28

9. Smith, William (1863) A Dictionary of the Bible. London. pp. 1566-68.

10. Cox, Harvey (1995) Fire from Heaven. Addison-Wesley.

11. Walker, A. (1994) ‘Demonology and the Charismatic Movement’, In T. Smail, A. Walker and N. Wright (eds.) The Love of Power and the Power of Love. Minneapolis: Bethany House. p. 56.

12. Whitlock, Glenn (1983) ‘The structure of personality in Hebrew psychology’, in H. N. Malony (ed) Wholeness and Holiness. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. p. 47.

13. The emerging specialisation of psychoneuroimmunology is proving very effective in bringing healing, and conceptually challenging the traditional dualism. Norman Cousins was a pioneer in showing that laughter can be therapeutic.

14. Benner, David. (1989) Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Quest. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

15. Graham Twelftree, writing an entry ‘The Demonic’, in David J.Atkinson and David H. Field (eds.) New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology. Leicester: InterVarsity Press. 1995. pp. 296-297.

16. Dissociative Identity Disorder is the term now used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, 1994 (known as DSM-IV).


(c) John H. Court, 1995.

© Renewal Journal 7: Blessing, 1996, 2nd edition 2011
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Comments on: "Discernment, by John Court" (2)

  1. I am trying to contact Dr John Court about the possibility that he might contribute to a history of the Christianity and Psychology Interest Group of the APS. I would be grateful if you could forward this message to him.


  2. Sharon, I had contact through Tabor College, so you could contact them. https://www.facebook.com/TaborAU. Blessings.


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