You've started to pray. You talk to God and listen to Him. When you do, thoughts and images come to mind. And you start to wonder: How do I know this is really God speaking to me? We know that God is active in our lives and in the world, but there is another spirt, who scripture calls a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). And maybe we're just coming up with things ourselves. How can we learn to discern the spirits?
Johnny comes running up to his teacher: "Billy hit me!" "No I didn't!" says Billy. Tommy chimes in, "Teacher, Johnny's the one that hit Billy." Johnny responds, "I did not!" How does the teacher sort it out? The more people that are lying, the harder it is to tell what really happened. But maybe she saw part of it, and she knows the personality of each kid. She asks a few questions and compares them to what she already knows. Things start to become clearer.
In a village live two kinds of people: those who always lie and those who always tell the truth. Everybody knows each other in the village and therefore knows whether a particular villager is a liar or a truth-teller. Strolling around the village we meet a group of four villagers. We ask to each one of them: "How many liars are in this group?" and we get four answers: One, Two, Three, Four. How many liars are in that group? *
Knowing that someone is lying is half the battle. If we assume everyone always tells the truth we will quickly get in trouble. Our faith is very helpful. First, we already know a lot about God from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. They contain the authentic voice of God. We also have our reason to work with and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Let's practice discerning spirits:
Aeham el-Ahmed is a 27-year-old Syrian who was filmed playing his piano in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. An ISIS fighter stopped him as he attempted to flee Syria and said, "Don't you know that music is haram ." He poured gasoline on the piano and lit it on fire.
Is this the voice of God, or the voice of The Liar? The answer is pretty clear: only Satan would forbid music. The Bible is full of references to praising God with music and instruments. Christian tradition has always used music in the worship of God. God created songbirds. God does not forbid music. What ISIS claims to be God's honest truth is, in many cases, lies from the mouth of Satan.
Unfortunately, ISIS isn't the only one to believe his lies. Satan has been drowning us in lies and propaganda even before we are born. When you grow up believing lies from an early age, it can be hard to recognize God's voice. Which of these two is the truth:
- You are precious. Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. I have loved you with an everlasting love. I died for you. You are mine. Come to me and I will give you eternal life.
- You are worthless. You are a miserable failure of a human being. You were an accident. No one wants you and no one loves you. You'd be better off dead.
That's easy, right: the first one matches with reason, revelation, and Church teaching. Unfortunately, as we read the second one, we can probably hear voices of people from our past. We know that voice; it is the voice of the accuser. Unfortunately, the devil has "fathered" many lies, and people who should have known better have been repeating Satan's words.
St. Ignatius tells us that if people are generally moving away from God, living lives of selfish pleasure and habitual sin, then the enemy will tend to comfort them and present them with apparent pleasures to keep them moving down the road of sin. The voice of God, on the other hand, will tend to make them feel sad and prick their consciences. God is trying to warn them and stop them. His voice will sound a little strange.
On the other hand, when we have started to walk in the ways of God, the evil spirit tends to bite, sadden, and place obstacles in the person's way. The good spirit, on the other hand, will tend to encourage and give strength and consolation. A good indicator here is peace. The soul feels totally at peace in God's light and truth. The evil spirit tends to bring disquiet, unease, and a troubled feeling.
When God gives us something, it can be confirmed by its fruits. I remember praying once about a person who was really frustrating me. "Just love him," was the answer I heard back. I tried to treat him with more love, and things went better. Keep in mind that you don't start at zero. You start with a sense of God's voice but you may also have deep-seated lies in your life that make hearing and believing more difficult.
One final caveat. God gives us a little at a time. If God seems to be saying things that are a little far out, we should be skeptical and resist. For example, perhaps a married woman starts thinking God is telling her to be a nun. That sounds like a contradiction. She should be skeptical and seek advice from a wise spiritual person. If she is just making it up, her ideas won't stand up to scrutiny. If it is really God, it will eventually be confirmed and become a reality. God's word is Truth.
Let's review the basic points of discernment:
- If you have been living a Christian life, the voice of God is already familiar to you. What you hear in prayer will sound similar.
- God will never contradict himself. He is always reasonable, consistent with Scripture, and consistent with Christian teaching and tradition.
- Sometimes things need to be tested, and the fruits will prove the voice of God.
- Look for the feeling of peace.
*If you haven't figured it out, the group has three liars.