As you were making a decision, have you ever felt a sudden unease? It might mean that God is trying to get your attention!
A check in one’s spirit is a bit of an older term, and it’s one that may be fading fast among the younger demographics of the church. Usually the “check” is a vaguely unsettling, unpleasant feeling. Most of the time this feeling’s intended function is to make you stop what you’re doing and double-check that you’re making the right choice.
Once in a while, though, this term is used to describe God planting an idea in your head for you to do something (see the example in the 2008 citation below). In this case, the check might still feel uncomfortable, but its purpose is to get you to step outside of your comfort zone.
Interestingly, the “spirit” in this figure of speech isn’t the Holy Spirit. It’s actually referring to a person’s own spirit. The idea is that God can send a message from His spirit to our spirit, bypassing our head and heart in some ways. And so rather than having a check in our mind, or a check in our heart, we say that we are experiencing a check in the spiritual part of ourselves that is more sensitive to God and the Holy Spirit—hence, a check in our spirit. Note the lowercase “s” in “spirit”! I think we have to assume that God’s Spirit (uppercase “s”) doesn’t get “checked” the way our spirit does. God’s Spirit is always the check-er, and our spirit is the check-ee.
The oldest printed citation I could find for this interesting term was from 1970. Do you remember the term being in use in the 1960s or 1950s or even earlier? I’m interested in hearing your comments about how long ago you’ve heard this term being used, and whether it was mainly Pentecostals or fundamentalists who were using it. It’s the nature of slang that printed sources can only take you so far back in the history of a word or phrase. These Christianese terms are almost always part of spoken language for many years before someone decides to use them in a printed source like a book, newspaper, or magazine.
check in one’s spirit n. A sudden feeling of alarm, discomfort, or alertness that is alleged to be a signal from God about the present moment; usually the feeling is interpreted as a warning about some person or course of action, but sometimes the feeling is interpreted as an instruction to take action (see 2008 citation).
• 1970 Abundant Life vols. 24–25 81 : As I did, I felt a check in my spirit. I remembered Philippians 4:19. 1971 Poonen Finding God’s Will 000 : He should however select a vocation only after much prayer. In the absence of any check in his spirit after prayer, he should go ahead and consider the vocation he is most suited for. 1981 Barr Counseling with Confidence 82 : You will find a check in your spirit sometimes, and you will know God is guiding you and protecting you from error. 1983 Emanuelson Lost Yesterdays 86 : I began to feel a check in my spirit. Something didn’t fit. I was puzzled. A forgotten tickler began to jostle my brain. 1985 Hampton Imperfect Mates, Perfect Marriage 49 : I had a strong check in my spirit not to do it, but I did it anyway. 1987 Livesey Understanding Deception 142,143 : Somewhere along the line there was always a check in my spirt and I could not quite put my finger on it…. When I prayed on the night that he told me this, I got a check in my spirit then and I chose to ignore it. It was a Holy Spirit arrow of truth. 1989 Kollins, Grace It’s Only the Beginning: A Journey with Jesus 79 : I would often hear people in the Charismatic Renewal use a phrase, “I have a check in my spirit.” Usually they meant by this that they felt that something was wrong and therefore not from the Holy Spirit. This term, with the same meaning, was often used in Pentecostal circles. I began to employ this term myself when I felt something wasn’t right. 1992 Stanley The Wonderful Spirit-Filled Life 186 : Oftentimes in counseling, someone will be talking, and I will get what I call a check in my spirit. That is my way of saying, “I lose my peace.” In those cases I believe the Holy Spirit is guarding my mind against error or deception or perhaps just a slight distortion of the facts. 1994 Brazee Preparing for His Glory 110 : I was learning to take the time and to wait on God for direction. I would ask the Lord questions like, “Do you want me to teach?” And if there was a check in my spirit to teach, then I would ask another question and wait on God. Finally, I was learning what it meant to be flexible to move with the Spirit of God. 1998 Dayo-Odukoya Divine Guidance: 30 Ways God Can Lead You 23 : Any time you contemplate doing something (or if you have even began) and you feel a “check” in your spirit (i.e. an uneasy feeling), it is likely to be the witness of the Holy Spirit telling you not to go ahead with it. 1999 Godwin Flying Higher 44 : As I listen to someone, I may sense in my spirit that something is wrong with what that person is saying. I may not be able to pinpoint it, but I just have a check in my spirit that says, “No, that isn’t a word from God.” 2004 Musaus The Blood Magnified 45 : When Christians meet someone who gives them a “check” in their spirit—an uneasiness or an “unsettled” spirit—we need to seek the Lord and find out why. 2005 Dooley Minnesota Brothers: Four Stories 86 : God hadn’t given him that check in his spirit that helped keep him from making wrong decisions. He felt complete peace about buying the property. 2005 Cumming Bizdom Wisdom 26 : I wrote the contract and noticed something—there was a clause about commercial work that I didn’t feel comfortable with, so with that check in my spirit, I told them I couldn’t follow through but would reconsider after I got more information. 2008 Burns The Potter and His Clay: How to Know God’s Present Purpose for Your Life 249 : It was right after we ate that I spotted two young ladies walking out of the restaurant; having received a check in my spirit from God to witness to them, I immediately got up from where I was sitting and approached them with the gospel message. 2009 Paszkiewicz Hope for Heavy Hearts 55 : When a believer feels this “check” in his spirit, he needs to reconsider the direction he is taking. Alternatively, the Holy Spirit can also prompt the spirit of the believer to action. 2010 Smith Predator in the Pews 000 : Some people say they get a “check in their spirit” when situations don’t seem quite right.