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James Martin, S.J.January 21, 2021
Jack Sharp/Unsplash

Not long ago a woman came to me for spiritual direction. As most spiritual directors do, I started by setting out some guidelines: how often to meet, what times, what direction will entail.

Then I asked her what she hoped for in spiritual direction. The first thing she said was, “I want help in understanding what’s coming from God and what’s coming”—she pointed to her head—“just from here.”

As this woman realized, not everything that pops into your head comes directly from God. Of course all prayer is mediated through our consciousness, but when I say, “What’s coming from God and what’s coming from me?” most people know what I am talking about. There is a difference between God’s voice and our voice.

There is a difference between God’s voice and our voice.

Let’s say you are praying about the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, the Gospel story in which Jesus feeds an immense crowd with only a few loaves and fishes. You reach the phrase “loaves and fishes,” and the word “fish” hits you. You remember a bad meal you had last week at a seafood restaurant. You’re still not sure if it was food poisoning, but it definitely came from that salmon mousse. Your mind wanders, and you promise yourself never to return to the restaurant.

After a while you think, What is God telling me here? Am I not supposed to follow Jesus? Is following Jesus somehow going to make me sick?

In response I would say that this is probably something that just popped into your mind and there may not be any deep message here. It is most likely a distraction.

Now imagine that you are praying with that same passage, and something different comes up. You have a desire to sit down and eat with Jesus. Not simply out of physical hunger, but out of a desire to be with him. You imagine how good it would be to spend time with him, as a companion. You have never thought about what it would mean to eat a meal with Jesus, and then you have a memory of eating with your beloved grandfather when you were younger. He was always so kind and listened so attentively to you, as if you were the only person in the world, even though you were just a child. Your grandfather made you feel special and loved. You see him as a real wisdom figure.

Strangely, you start to think of Jesus in the same way that you do your grandfather—someone you would want to spend time with, someone who loves you.

That second memory sounds different from the first, doesn’t it? So what distinguishes the two? How can I discern what’s coming from God and what’s coming from me? What’s a distraction and what’s not? Or perhaps a better way to put it is: What should I pay attention to?

How can I discern what’s coming from God and what’s coming from me? Or perhaps a better way to put it is: What should I pay attention to?

Let me be clear: There is no one way to discern these things, and what I offer here are only a few questions to ask in these situations, which I’ve found helpful in my own life and in helping others in their prayer.

First, is the “evil spirit” involved?

Let’s return to your getting sidetracked by a thought about that piece of bad fish. If that causes you anxiety, disquiets your spirit, or moves you away from your prayer, it may indeed be not simply a distraction, but what St. Ignatius Loyola calls the “evil spirit,” an impulse that moves you away from God and prevents your spiritual progress.

In this case, the evil spirit is trying to move you away from God or, more precisely, the evil spirit is using the distraction to do so. The last thing that the evil spirit wants is for you to get closer to God. Even using a piece of fish will do, for its purposes. Likewise, you could be thinking of following Jesus and then start to think, If I follow him, I’ll probably have to work with the poor, and then I’ll get sick! Just like when I ate that fish. That’s clearly not coming from God either.

In general, the evil spirit tries to move you toward either evil purposes or, initially, a feeling of despair and hopelessness. As St. Ignatius writes in the Spiritual Exercises, in a good person the evil spirit seeks to “cause gnawing anxiety, to sadden and to set up obstacles. In this way he unsettles them by false reasons aimed at preventing their progress.”

A simple way to understand it is that if you are feeling despair, hopelessness or uselessness, this is not coming from God, because, as Ignatius understood, these feelings lead to the “prevention of progress” in life.

If you are feeling despair, hopelessness or uselessness, this is not coming from God.

Also beware of the “universal” language that is usually characteristic of despair, especially when coupled with negative statements about yourself. Anytime you find yourself saying things like “Nothing will ever get better,” “Everyone hates me,” “No one loves me,” “I’m always failing,” or “I’ll never be able to change,” it’s often a sign of the presence of the evil spirit. Catch yourself when you use those universal terms and try not to listen to those impulses. By contrast, writes Ignatius, the “good spirit,” the spirit that leads to God, is one that acts as follows: “It is characteristic of the good spirit to stir up courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and tranquility. He makes things easier and eliminates all obstacles, so that the person may move forward in doing good.”

The evil spirit can be recognized when you feel despair; the good spirit when you feel hope.

So when you are trying to discern what is and what is not coming from God, this is a good place to start.

The evil spirit can be recognized when you feel despair; the good spirit when you feel hope.

Let me give you an example from my own life. For some time as a young man I struggled with a mild case of hypochondria. It was not debilitating, but it made me overemphasize physical problems and be overly fearful of getting sick; in the process it led me to focus on my own well-being in a selfish way.

Twenty years ago I was slated to have some surgery, which brought up a welter of emotions and triggered some hypochondria—and some “universal thinking”: “This is the worst thing ever.” “I’m always getting sick.” “I’m never going to be able to get through this.”

But I also felt a pull in the other direction: toward greater freedom, toward a letting go of the overweening ego that always made me focus on myself, toward hope.

In the midst of this, I saw my spiritual director. So I laid it out in the form of a question. “It’s a new experience,” I told him, “of feeling freedom and hope when it comes to illness. Yet I feel pulled back to the despairing feeling. And that feels like the evil spirit. But the more thoughtful, positive, hopeful feeling, even though it’s new, seems as though it might be coming from God. That’s a new place for me to live, but I’m wondering: Is that the good spirit?”

He practically leapt out of his chair and shouted, “Yes!”

When you feel despair, don’t listen to it; when you feel hope, follow it.

When you feel despair, don’t listen to it; when you feel hope, follow it.

Second, does it make sense?

If I am praying during a difficult time in my life, and I spontaneously remember another time when God was with me during my struggles, perhaps I can see in that memory God’s desire for me to trust. Or perhaps I have a memory of a place that brings me a great deal of calm, and I relax. This is one way that God has of calming us.

By contrast, if I am praying during a difficult time and remember an email that I forgot to answer, the thought may not be coming from God. In the context of what I’m praying about, it doesn’t fit. Remember, you want to know if it makes sense. Does it make sense that God would reach out to me and invite me to trust? Yes, that seems to make sense, or at least squares with what is going on in my life at the moment. Does it make sense that during a period of prayer about something serious God would remind me to answer my emails? Probably not.

Third, does it lead to an increase in love and charity?

This standard comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus says, “You will know them by their fruits.” God’s voice can be known by its effects. If following this impulse leads to an increase in charity and love, then it is most likely coming from God.

Does it lead to an increase in love and charity? God’s voice can be known by its effects.

Let’s say you are praying about someone you dislike. Perhaps you are asking God for help in dealing with this person. Suddenly you get enraged by something that he has done to you. Oh, I would love to just punch him in the face! you think.

Vinita Hampton Wright, author of Days of Deepening Friendship, offers a way of understanding these feelings. You would probably realize that even though you had that feeling during your prayer, God is not moving you to punch this fellow in the face. So you move from that initial desire to thinking about how you might confront him about some fault of his that drives you crazy. You might even pray about what you would like to tell him about his fault—to get things off your chest. That seems to make sense, so you might be tempted to think that God was behind it.

“Yet upon further reflection,” as Vinita explained, “you realize that the confrontation might be quite satisfying to you but would probably not increase your love for this person, nor would it help move this person to change for the better—so, no increase in love or charity.”

If an action doesn’t lead to an increase in love and charity— somewhere—its impetus is probably not coming from God.

Fourth, does it fit with what I know about God?

Does it fit with the God you know from Scripture, tradition and your own experience? If you are a Christian, does it fit with what you know about Jesus?

God is not going to make you hate yourself or believe that nothing can ever go right again, because that’s not the God of the Old or New Testament, that’s not the God of church tradition, that’s not the God revealed in Jesus, and that’s not the God you know. God gives hope, not despair.

God is not going to make you hate yourself or believe that nothing can ever go right again.

For many people God is often manifested in a feeling of calm. As this happens for you, you can start to recognize what God “feels” like in prayer. St. Ignatius started to see that this was the way God worked in him.

In a sense, you come to know God’s voice, so that when you hear it again you can recognize it.

Fifth, is it a distraction?

Sometimes it is obvious that a stray thought that comes into your head may not be from God. If you’re praying, your stomach growls and you think about having a nice hamburger with all the trimmings, that notion is probably not coming from God. The more you pray, the more you will be able to sift through distractions.

Think of it as a conversation with a friend. If you are talking with someone about an important issue and you suddenly notice a spot on your shirt, get sidetracked and start complaining that the dry cleaner ruined your clothes, you would realize that you are distracted.

It is the same in prayer. You can usually tell what is part of the conversation and what is not. Likewise, with practice you can tell when a distraction is an invitation to another, new conversation.

The more you pray, the more you will be able to sift through distractions.

Sixth, is it wish fulfillment?

This is perhaps the most difficult question, and one not often addressed in books on prayer. How can you tell if it is what you wish God would say to you?

This is where it’s especially important to test things out. Sometimes what we want to hear is indeed what God tells us. If you’re anxious, pray to God for relief, and feel calmer, that is probably God. There is nothing wrong with getting what you want in prayer. This is not necessarily wish fulfillment; it is God giving you what you need.

By contrast, you need to be careful not to simply conjure up the response in prayer that you desire. The best antidote for this is patience, waiting for the time when God speaks clearly.

Often in these situations it takes time, and the way God responds is not the way that we would initially imagine God responding. Thomas Green, S.J., author of Opening to God, writes, “If the prayer is authentic, God comes when I don’t expect it, and sometimes when I would prefer God not come, so that I find myself not controlling the situation.”

Seventh, is it important?

In my experience, God enters our prayer in these direct ways most often when there is an important matter at hand. This is not to say that God cannot enter our consciousness whenever God wants or about any matter whatsoever. But usually (again, in my own life and in my experience as a spiritual director) if this entrance comes during a time of urgency, it can be taken as a sign of God’s presence.

Discerning what is coming from God and what may be coming from you is more an art than a science. But it’s an especially important art to master in the spiritual life.

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