Sometimes people raise the question how to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of the devil. It’s a good question because the devil truly is the father of lies and an expert at deception. The devil often preys upon our deepest faults, and because of this, his voice can sometimes be hard to recognize.
God allows the devil to tempt us, but God never allows us to be tempted beyond our strength. Jesus has already conquered the devil, sin, death, and all consequences of sin. So in our discerning, we seek to make sure that we are attuned to the voice of God, and not deceived by the voice of the devil.
The closer we grow to Christ, the more subtle the devil has to become in the ways he tempts us. If we are truly discerning God’s will, the devil may not be tempt us outright, but manipulates us by using our worst faults and sinfulness—especially our negative thoughts—to try to draw us away from intimacy with God. This is where the expertise of an experienced spiritual director can help us recognize a temptation more quickly than we would on our own.
The devil is not privy to our private thoughts and our conversations with God. But the devil is a keen observer of both human nature and our behavior, and thus can deftly nudge us towards thoughts that lead us away from faith and into self-doubt, discouragement, and self-righteousness—thoughts that we might easily fall into or have on our own—without our even realizing what’s happening. And the devil often uses the subtlety of our thoughts to deceive us.
A basic criteria to discerning the devil’s voice is the question: Does this [thought, choice, action] help me to grow closer to Christ and keep my focus on him?
If the thought focuses my attention on myself in an unhealthy or discouraging way, then it is most likely a temptation.
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Here is a personal example of how the devil uses one of my weaknesses—my perfectionism and tendency towards being overly self-critical. For years I thought that this was actually humility, so it took me a long time to recognize the pattern of temptation that happens to me repeatedly:
- Relying on God’s grace, I work hard to accomplish something in our mission—for example, perhaps I wrote an article. I know that the article is not perfect, but I did my best with the time and resources I had, and I entrust the results to God, praying that the readers of the article will be touched and feel God’s invitation.
- Afterwards, I’ll reflect on the article. How was it received? When I re-read it, what do I like about it? What is missing? How could I have written something that would bring more people to encounter the Lord?
- It’s during this reflection—which is actually important to do if I want to improve what I’m writing—that the devil jumps in. Rather than noticing what I could improve for next time and then humbly offering the article and its readers to God’s loving care, I’ll start to focus on the fact that I didn’t do a perfect job. My feelings of dissatisfaction that the article wasn’t perfect will start to grow, and then quickly spread to other areas of my ministry and of my life.
- Pretty soon, I’m dissatisfied with everything I do, and with myself overall. All I can see is my faults, my omissions, and what I’m not doing well. Once I’ve started riding this train of thought, I’m focusing not on what actually happened but on myself and everything I haven’t done. This is an express ride to discouragement.
- If I don’t recognize that I’ve jumped onto this train of discouragement, I may stay in a discouraged state focused on myself for days or even weeks. This kind of discouragement prevents me from taking risks in my ministry because it has sapped my trust in God and my self-respect. Worst of all, I end up focused on myself rather than on God, even though I started with the good intentions of growing in humility, and of trying to improve in my ministry.
The devil knows that being hyper-critical of myself is a place where I am vulnerable, and so preys on this weakness. Over the years, with the blessings of God’s grace, spiritual direction, and good friends, I can often recognize what’s happening pretty quickly. I still evaluate my apostolic work and efforts, but I’m careful to always conclude by offering each effort and my littleness to God, and even to rejoice in my littleness. In these times, the temptation to discouragement is transformed into an opportunity to grow in true humility.
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Our Catholic traditions of the spiritual life are all helpful in drawing us closer to the Lord and away from the devil. But three guides that are particularly helpful for growing in a spirit of discernment are: Jesus’ gift of himself in the Most Blessed Sacrament, our relationship with Mary, our Blessed Mother, and praying with the Word of God. All three of these topics deserve their own books…but in upcoming posts, we’ll look briefly at them in light of discernment.