Test Every Spirit: How We Begin Our Path to Discernment

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

— Romans 15:13

St. Ignatius of Loyola was a bad man before his conversion. It is said of him that he probably had broken every commandment by the time a cannonball ripped through his leg in a battle he initiated in his native Spain.

During his convalescence, the Lord opened his eyes to the reality of the spiritual battle around and within him. His sister-in-law gave him books about the saints, and he had no better way to pass the time than to read and think. Bedridden during his long recovery, he discovered that when he would fantasize about worldly conquests and adventures, he would begin to feel desolate.

In contrast, when he considered what it might be like to become a saint, he was drawn to consolation. This was the beginning of the remarkable, life-changing wisdom that St. Ignatius has given the Church, known as discernment of spirits.

Ultimately his wisdom blossomed into a very clear set of guidelines to help us understand how the devil works — how he seeks to influence us to hell and anxiety and how God works and seeks to draw us to heaven and peace. He called these guidelines “Rules” for discernment. The understanding and application of these rules have aided many to become saints.

Years ago, I began to teach a course at the Avila Institute called “Discernment of Spirits 101.” What surprised me most about the course was its impact on the students. These students included hundreds of laity, deacons, priests, and religious. Almost universally they would report that they too had experienced what they would categorize as a total spiritual transformation.

What follows is an outline and a kind of field guide to these powerful guidelines that, when practiced, will do the same for you.

This article is adapted from the book Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits. Click image to learn more.

What Is Discernment?

To discern is to understand and decide on a course of action regarding inspirations that influence our thoughts, words, and deeds either toward God to heaven or away from Him to hell.

In the New Testament and the lives of the saints we have clear examples of the need to test every spirit and determine if they are from God or represent God’s will or from the enemy of souls and represent his desires. St. John in his first epistle said, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God (1 John 4:1). St. Paul warned of the same need in his first letter to the Thessalonians where he admonished the Church to “ test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Finally, in 1 Corinthians 12, we have the discernment of spirits listed as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Clearly this is something that the Holy Spirit desires that we pursue with all diligence in order to understand the forces that seek to influence us, human, divine, and demonic. Now let’s turn our attention to understanding the basics about the sources of inspirations and then the process of discernment.

Where Do the Inspirations Come From?

Inspirations have three sources:

  1. The “Good Spirits”: These good spirits cause consolation and seek to lead us to God, to the Good, to selflessness, to union with God, and ultimately to heaven. These spirits are dispatched by God and only seek our good.
  2. The “Bad Spirits”: The bad spirits cause desolation and lead us to the world, the flesh, the devil, selfishness, and ultimately hell. These spirits only seek to do us harm.
  3. You: Your sensual appetites, sickness, addictions, be­liefs, desires, strengths, weaknesses, and diseases due to original sin can cause many kinds of non-spiritual consolation and desolation, and your own makeup can also amplify spiritual consolation and desolation.

What Is the Process for Exercising Discernment of Spirits?

The process of discernment has three steps:

  1. To Be Aware: We are aware of ourselves — whether or not we are in consolation or desolation; we rec­ognize the forces that are at play on a daily basis for and against our holiness, our peace, and our progress to God.
  2. To Understand: We accurately interpret the forces at play on us or in us.
  3. To Take Action: We take appropriate action depending on the movements of these spirits.
    • Bad Spirits — Resist: We resist the movements of the bad spirits.
    • Good Spirits — Embrace: We embrace the move­ments of the good spirits.

Rule #1: For Those Moving from Mortal Sin to Mortal Sin

In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy will propose apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to enslave them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses a contrary method, pricking them and disturbing their consciences through the process of reason and moral judgment.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits

This first rule is simple and straightforward. St. Ignatius reveals that this rule is for someone who is stuck in a cycle of moving from mortal sin to mortal sin. Said another way, this person regularly and habitually chooses to commit the same or many mortal sins over and over again and has yet to begin to fight against this life pattern. In this case, here’s how the good and bad spirits work:

  • Bad Spirits: Will propose apparent pleasures, making the person imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to enslave them more and make them grow in their vices and sins.
  • Good Spirits: Will prick the person’s conscience through the process of reason and moral judgment.

Let’s take a very common example of this situation in which the worst kind of advice is often heard: A man and woman are living together, or are sexually involved together, outside of mar­riage. In this case, it is safe to assume that both persons are living in habitual mortal sin because sexual activity is reserved for mar­riage, and its practice outside of marriage is always a mortal sin.

How does the good spirit act in this case? The good spirit robs both of them of peace! To prick is to cause mental or emotional discomfort. The goal of the good spirit is to convict this man of sin and thereby help him to choose to break this pattern of sin by either ending the relation­ship or ending the sinful behavior.

How will the bad spirit act? The bad spirit will remind the man that he loves and desires the woman and that she loves and desires him. In particular, the bad spirit will point out how good they feel when they are together. The bad spirit will whisper in both of their ears, “You both love one another; how could this possibly be wrong?”

What is fascinating about this situation is that the most com­mon advice given to folks attempting to discern what to do in a situation like this is to follow where peace leads — follow your heart. In this case, the bad spirit is the one giving a kind of pseudo-peace by reminding the couple how good they feel when they are together. We can rightly argue that this peace is not authentic peace, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that if peace is the measure chosen and the bad spirit produces something that feels like “peace,” then the advice given would be deeply harmful to this couple.

In contrast, the good spirit has actually caused the opposite of peace and seeks to create inner turmoil. “Peace” in this case is not the measure of how to discern. The fact is that when one is in habitual mortal sin, we need to embrace the good spirit and listen to the arguments of how this or that act is immoral and damaging. We need to embrace the sorrow of the situation and allow it to turn us to repentance and seek to exit as quickly and decisively as we can. This cleansing sorrow, though it is hard to understand, is actually a kind of consolation.

Finally, it is important to note that St. Ignatius not only wrote rules of discernment; he also wrote rules for thinking with the Church. Suffice it to say that if we ever have “peace” about something that leads us away from the Church or to some belief or action that is contrary to the magisterium and Tradition, this “peace” is a false peace from the bad spirit and contrary to the will of God.

Questions for Reflection

  • Have you ever experienced the bad advice to “follow your heart?” What was the result?
  • Do you struggle with habitual sin? If so, are you aware that you can be totally free of this habitual sin through the sacraments of the Church and your cooperation with God?
  • What steps can you take to begin to fight more diligently against mortal sin or any habitual sin in your life?

This article is adapted from Dan Burke’s latest book, Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits. It is available as an ebook or paperback from your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash

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Dan Burke is the founder and President of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, which offers graduate and personal enrichment studies in spiritual theology to priests, deacons, religious, and laity in 72 countries and prepares men for seminary in 14 dioceses. Dan is the author and editor of more than 15 books on authentic Catholic spirituality, including Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits and The Contemplative Rosary. Most importantly, Dan is a blessed husband, father of four, grandfather of one—and grateful to be Catholic. You can find his articles, podcast, and videos at SpiritualDirection.com.

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