The discernment of spirits is one of those things that we know is in the Bible, but are not always eager to discuss. It’s not that we are avoiding the topic, but I do think it sounds too mystical for the comfort of many Christians. After all, if we talk about discerning the spirits, we first have to admit that there are spirits to be discerned, and that is its own can of worms. And if you get past that, then how do you discern the spirits? Mostly, I would guess that our hesitance with discussing discerning spirits lies in the nature of the practice, which is experiential. In order to discern between spirits, there has to be an experience of an individual or group to be discerned, and how do you measure, criticize, and analyze such an experience? Is this even an applicable topic for Christians today, or did this idea of discerning spirits die out with the apostles?
Do not fret; Ignatius of Loyola has some advice. Ignatius once wrote a treatise on the discernment of spirits, in which he laid out fourteen rules to aid Christians in the practice. Before we get there, allow me to define some terms. In the verse in question, 2 Cor 12:10, Paul mentions a gift of the discernment of spirits. Most commentators seem to agree that this gift was an ability to determine whether someone, and/or their teaching, was of God or not. The “or not” of that last sentence is intentionally vague as some would prefer to limit that category to only human agencies, and others would more broadly include what we would normally refer to as evil or demonic forces. Ignatius, however, seems to understand the discernment of spirits as a constant struggle for most Christians as they seek to reflect on their current spiritual condition. As they reflect on their circumstances, life events, spiritual practices, etc., they should be practicing discernment to see what forces are trying to move them in certain directions. Underlying this, it would seem that Ignatius believes that in most, if not every, moment of a Christian’s life, there are forces trying to influence and direct them in varying directions. God, directly, and working through others (the Church, spiritual directors, friends and family) and circumstances desires to move us ever closer to perfect union with the Trinity. Contrarily, people, life circumstances, and spiritual forces of temptation are working to bring us further from unity with God. I realize that is an oversimplification, but it will have to suffice for now.
One final distinction: Ignatius is not giving advice for how to negotiate a decision between the angel on one shoulder and the demon on the other. The shoulder angel/demon trope is a cartoonification of temptation. The discernment of spirits is an awareness and responsive action to the pulls of various forces in spiritual directions. Temptation is a part of the discernment of spirits, but not the primary focus. For Ignatius, the discernment of spirits is the practice of a Christian striving to interpret the forces in their life so as to better make progress toward unity with God.
I hope to write on this topic a couple more times, so please watch for parts two and three. For now I’d like to provide an overview of three of Ignatius’s rules as an example of the practice of the discernment of spirits.
From rule twelve of his treatise: when facing temptation or discouragement from “the enemy,” remember to react in strength and resolve, for when you react with strength, the enemy retreats in weakness, but if you react in weakness and give in to temptation, the enemy will react with ferocity and strength. Suppose, for example, that after having a terrible day at work, you come home and are tempted to skip your nightly Bible readings and prayers because of the day that you’ve had. You’d rather just go to sleep and start over tomorrow. Ignatius would advise you to respond to this temptation with strength and resolve by sticking to your routine of reading and prayer, which will likely bring much needed peace in light of the day’s events. If you choose to skip and sleep, the temptation to repeat your disregard for your spiritual disciplines will likely increase tomorrow, and exponentially thereafter.
From rule thirteen: when facing temptation, spiritual doubts, or desolation, do not give in to the temptation of secrecy; rather, find a spiritual person wise enough to counsel you during your trials. Never think that you are alone and must face your challenges single-handedly. You are never alone, and with the support and guidance of others the enemy will not be able to keep you from perfect union with God. Temptation and sin flourishes in secrecy, but in proper confession one can move toward God.
Finally, from rule fourteen: before you even fall to temptation or spiritual attack, do your best to prevent said attacks by constantly being aware of and fortifying your weaknesses by improving in the areas we are weakest. We all have our struggles, vices, and “thorns in our flesh,” but what matters is being consciously aware of those weaknesses so that we can preemptively work to improve ourselves in those specific areas before the enemy can exploit them against us. “Know thyself” and constantly work to improve yourself, especially where you are weakest.
These three rules for spiritual discernment strike me as significantly vital for all Christians. We would all do well to implement the wisdom of these rules in our walk of faith, and the other eleven rules are equally beneficent. Going forward then, be on the lookout for the coming posts. But in the meantime, you might consider picking up a copy of The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Timothy M. Gallagher for a thorough treatment of Ignatius’s fourteen rules. I pray you find the strength and patience to apply these three rules in your life.