Am I Listening to God or the Other Guy? Three Rules for the Discernment of Spirits

By Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D.

What is the discernment of spirits, and why do we need rules for it? We make decisions every day that require good judgment and prudence, but some decisions are simply too large to be left to our judgment alone. Important life decisions – choices that set our direction in life – require spiritual discernment as well as prudence. The choice in question may involve a career path or a vocation; the person you marry or the role models you emulate; your daily habits or prayer life; or the principles and virtues you follow and practice. All of these choices affect our journey with God, and discernment of spirits is essential to ensure we are living the prayer,“Thy will be done.”

This raises the question, how do we know we are listening to God and doing His will? How do we know we’re allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us, and not just pursuing our own headstrong desires, or worse, being tempted and led astray by the enemy? In Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life, Fr. Robert Spitzer offers some practical guidance on the discernment of spirits. Here are some excerpts.

When decisions, resolutions, or patterns of action increase love and trust in God in the long term, that’s a sign that they are consistent with the workings of the Holy Spirit and can therefore be called spiritual consolations. Conversely, decisions or actions that gradually decrease love, trust, and hope are not consistent with the workings of the Holy Spirit, and they result in spiritual desolations. St. Ignatius of Loyola attributes the latter propensities to the “evil one.”

For example, say you decide to try a new career direction because it offers more pay. Then gradually, over weeks or months, you regress in your conversion. You become more prone to impatience and anger. You find yourself boasting more and taking pleasure in others’ misfortune. You start to develop doubts about your salvation, or even to doubt God loves you and desires your salvation. All of these are pretty good signs of spiritual desolation. If there hasn’t been some other change in your life that might help to explain the desolation, you probably need to adjust your new direction, and see if that adjustment provides increased consolation.

In addition to these spiritual consequences, our decision can also impact our emotions and sense of wellbeing. The term affective refers to our feelings, which is why decisions can lead to affective consolation – consolation we can feel intensely or gently – or affective desolation, if we are going the wrong way or if God is calling us to deeper conversion (which is a topic for another day).
St. Ignatius recognized that affective consolation and spiritual consolation frequently run hand in hand but not always. That’s also true of affective desolation and spiritual desolation. Hence, he saw the need to formulate three rules for the discernment of spirits.

Discernment of Spirits: 3 Rules

Rule 1: Be attentive to false consolations.

Affective consolation is usually the work of the Holy Spirit, unless it eventually leads to less trust in God, hope in salvation, or love. So the first basic rule of discernment of spirits is, follow affective consolation (feelings of peace, love, joy, and unity with God) unless it begins to result in long-term spiritual desolation. When that occurs, you should stop following the seeming consolation, because it’s very likely to be a false consolation sent by “the enemy of our human nature,” to quote St. Ignatius. Spiritual desolation means we are moving away from God. That’s always a signal to reexamine any decisions or actions that might have led to the false consolation masking a spiritual estrangement. It is usually a good idea to do this with a person or persons of spiritual experience and maturity.

Rule 2: Never make a life decision in a time of affective or spiritual desolation.

Both affective and spiritual desolation can impair judgment and induce confusion and sadness. For that reason, desolation will almost always lead to bad long-term life decisions, which is challenging to grasp even with the benefit of spiritual consolation. This is why St. Ignatius counseled that you should never make a life decision when you’re experiencing desolation, either affective or spiritual. He hastened to add that the desolation will soon give rise to consolation, at which point you can make much better decisions. It is always worth the wait. Some followers of the saint considered this his most fundamental and important rule for making progress in the spiritual life.

Rule 3: The evil one can come as “an angel of light.”

The devil usually dissuades us from our good intentions by trying to discourage us, but sometimes the deceiver offers thoughts that appear to be aimed at building our spiritual life. However, the real intention of these temptations is to discourage us in the long term. For example, say you’re in a state of fervor about improving your spiritual life and your love of neighbor. In the midst of this fervor, a thought might come to you: “If half an hour of daily prayer is good, then three hours must be better.” You begin your new discipline, but you find yourself growing progressively tired. You don’t have enough time for your family and work. You find yourself snapping at people and looking down on them (“They should pray as hard as I do!”). You start to believe that God is a taskmaster who expects at least three hours of prayer each day from you, and you resent that He isn’t giving you the graces you expected from all this effort. In the long run, you can feel cynical and discouraged about your faith, and all because the evil one succeeded in pushing you beyond your limits. This is why discernment of spirits is so important!

When the devil can’t tempt a person to give up prayer and turn from God, he can tempt you to try to do something perfectly good but in an exaggerated manner. He’ll encourage you to adopt an unrealistic timeframe (“I want to attain purity of heart tomorrow”) or take on too many spiritual goals at once. He may try to make you think you can grow spiritually through your own willpower without help from God, and present an image of God that is stoic and demanding (“Spitzer, this is God speaking. Why aren’t you already perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect? I’m tired of waiting for you to get that right!”).

If we find that a pious decision or resolution might be exaggerated and burdensome – so much so that it’s leading to spiritual and affective desolation, then we simply need to ratchet it down a few notches to correspond to our own potential and to the timetable and will of the Holy Spirit.

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