Fourteen Rules for Discerning Spirits (Part 2)

In my previous post, I began a summary of Ignatius of Loyola’s fourteen rules for spiritual discernment, which I would like to pick up again now. Rules twelve through fourteen contain what is categorically gnomic wisdom for how to navigate temptation and spiritual weakness. Rules one through eleven, however, take up the issue of spiritual movement. Assuming that, at any given moment, a Christian is either moving toward or away from God, then a critical awareness of one’s direction, speed, and cause of movement can improve one’s effort to obtain unity with God. Generally, Ignatius makes frequent reference to two categories, or factors, that can potentially effect one’s movement to or from God: spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. In Ignatius’s own words, these are “rules for becoming aware and understanding to some extent the different movements which are caused in the soul, the good, to receive them, and the bad to reject them.” [1]

In this post, I would like to spend some time highlighting Ignatius’s advice for how to respond to spiritual desolations, which he describes as spiritual and worldly forces that hinder, obstruct, distract, lie, and tempt us in an effort to further us from unity with God. Some of his rules on spiritual desolation are designed to bring attention to the ways in which the enemy (to use Ignatius’s own language) operates, while other rules are oriented toward defending and counter-acting the enemy. I hope that an overview of Ignatius’s thoughts on spiritual desolation might provide some hope and strength to someone in the midst of such a desolation.

Rule two: when you’ve been having a good streak, “intensely purifying your sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, the enemy will bite, sadden, and place obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, so that the person may not go forward.” [2] In these times, it is crucial to not dwell on the lies of the enemy which might tell you that you are too guilty to be loved by God, that you are not worthy of the sacrifice of Jesus, or that you will never be better, so why bother trying to improve yourself? During this form of desolation, the enemy would like to lie and mislead you into believing you have no business achieving unity with God – that you are incapable, and unworthy. This is a lie designed to divert you from the spiritual movement and progress you are making to transform your life into the imago Dei. Pay no heed. Buckle down and keep with your disciplines.

Rule four: the enemy moves to tempt you into a “darkness of soul …, a movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad, and as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord.” [3] This spiritual depression (different in many critical ways from John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul) is a moment of sheer apathy toward God that is followed by an indulgence in sinful behavior. I imagine this is what Paul addressed when he wrote to the Romans about doing the things he doesn’t want and not the things he does, or when he asked the question of whether we keep on sinning. The deception of the enemy here is if you will never be good enough, then why not just give in to temptation? This lie perpetuates deep-rooted sinful behavior. “I can’t stop x behavior so I might as well do it again.” Remember here rule twelve from my last post: face the temptation with strength, and it will flee.

Rule five: “in time of desolation never make a change, but be firm and constant in the proposals and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation.” [4] If before a time of spiritual desolation, depression, or darkness, you resolved to commit yourself to a schedule of daily readings and prayers, do not deviate during the desolation. If before desolation you committed yourself to be a guest speaker at a conference, do not cancel during the desolation. Do not be hasty in making changes when your mind is clouded with temptation, apathy, sadness, grief, anger, and the like.

Rule nine: there are three likely reasons why you are experiencing desolation. Perhaps this desolation is the natural consequence of being negligent in your spiritual exercises. Didn’t Jesus say that an empty house, though previously cleaned, will have seven demons return to it if it is not filled (Matt 12:43-45)? Or perhaps this desolation is a moment of testing intended to strengthen our faith and dependence on God. The story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness comes to mind here, as does Lamentations 3. Or, finally, perhaps this desolation is intended “to give us true recognition and understanding so that we may interiorly feel that it is not ours to attain or maintain increased devotion, intense love, tears or any other spiritual consolation, but that all is the gift and grace of God.” [5] God alone sustains us, and no strength or heroism of our own can ever achieve in us what God could if we merely had the faith of a mustard seed. Sometimes it takes the desolation of the prodigal son to realize that with the Father, everything he has is ours and he is always with us (Luke 15:31).

Looking at these four rules collectively, Ignatius reminds us that when we are in a time of spiritual desolation, we must fight temptation, and when we can fight no more to rely on God to fight for us. We must not believe the lies of the enemy, but believe more fervently in the truth of God’s gospel. We must not give in to the desolation’s lies and temptations and deviate from our Christian behavior. And we must, most importantly, strive to objectively view ourselves to determine why we are in desolation and what good can come from the moment, so that when we are through the darkness we are closer to unity with God, not farther.

My prayer for all is that in your times of desolation the strength of God preserve you, the patience of Christ give you peace, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit guides you closer to God.

[1] Timothy Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005), 7.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 8.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 9.
Chess serves as the pulpit minister at Gateway Church of Christ in Queen Creek, Arizona. A born and raised Texan, Chess earned a B.A., M.Div., and M.A. in New Testament from Abilene Christian University. He is passionate about God and his family, and deeply desires to help others fall in love with God so that they may imitate the life and love of Christ. Chess loves to read, learn, and have deeper conversations about God. He also enjoys Formula One racing, playing golf, working on and rebuilding cars, and translating and studying dead languages.
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Author:  Publish Date: September 13, 2017

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CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

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