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Discernment of the spirits is one of the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10. The Bible exhorts us to discern the spirits, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” (1 Jn 4:1) It was the gift King Solomon asked God to give him, “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad.” (1 King 3:9)
Saint Antony ranked discernment as the virtue that should be coveted more than any other, because without discernment, the practice of other virtues may not be pleasing to God.


There are many thoughts that move within the human soul. These thoughts may have one of three origins:
1. From man himself, as we are told in Psalm 94:11: “The LORD knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity.”
2. From God (the Holy Spirit abiding in us) as we are told in Matthew 10:19-20: “But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.”
3. From the devil as we are told in John 13:2: “And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him.” and also in Acts 5:3: “But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?”
Discerning the origin of the thought can be very difficult since a thought can be coming from God, to be quickly followed by a thought coming from Satan. An example of this is shown to us in Matthew 16: And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. (Matt 16:16-17)
From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. (Matt 16:21-23)
As you see, in St. Peter’s mind, a thought from God was quickly followed by a thought from Satan. St. Peter could not discern the origin of the thoughts because he had not yet received the Holy Spirit.
Although the Bible exhorts us to “try the spirits whether they are of God,” we are not given an exact method for discerning the thoughts. Again we have to go to the Desert Fathers seeking their experience in this matter. Here is a summary of what they say:
1. Examine the thought to see if it is filled with the fear of God.
2. Is it filled with goodness towards every one?
3. Does it agree with the witness and actions of the Lord and the Apostles?
4. Does the thought evoke peace and tranquillity? or is it surrounded by anger, bitterness and turmoil? The most pious thoughts should be suspected if they deprive us of our inner peace.
Many a time we are lead to believe that we are being moved by the zeal of the Lord while we are actually succumbing to anger, condemnation and partiality. This happens to us time and again because we neglect this important step of examining the feelings surrounding the thought. An example of how God speaks to us is given to us in 1Kings 19, God wanted to talk to Elijah the prophet, and we are told, A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (1Kg 19:11-12)
The voice of the Lord is a still small voice, not a great wind that breaks the mountain, or an earthquake nor a fire. A thought that is surrounded by feelings of pride, stubbornness, selfishness, confusion, anxiety, violence, envy and partiality, then it is certainly from God. Thoughts that are from God fill us with serenity, joy and humility.
5. Does the thought come with a sense of urgency about it? Do you feel compelled to do it right away? If so, then be very careful, for most probably it is from the Tempter. Stirrings of the Holy Spirit come to the soul gradually and gently and not impulsively.
Saint Macarius the Great once had a thought to go and visit the monks in the surrounding area. He kept the thought within him examining it for two years lest it be from the devil!
You may do all these steps and still the devil can fool you!The most important test of where the thought is coming from is to reveal your thoughts to your Father in confession. The Fathers valued this more than anything in discerning the thoughts. Saint Macarius used to reveal his thoughts to Amma Sarah, one of the Desert “mothers” Saint Moses the Black used to reveal his thoughts to Abba Zacharias, who was 18 years old, but full of the Holy Spirit.
Never trust in your own judgment especially concerning important matters. I personally learned this the hard way!Here is how it happened.
Long time ago in the early years of my priesthood, we were starting a new project in the church that caused a lot of controversy and alienated several members of the congregation. Two weeks before the start of the project, I had this thought constantly in my mind that love and harmony are better than projects. I thought that God was telling me to stop the project and try to reconcile the people that were against it. I spoke to the members of the Board about what I decided to do, when one of them told me, “Abouna, you taught us always to reveal our thoughts to our Father in confession before deciding anything, have you consulted your Father in confession?” I really felt ashamed that I forgot this very important step. I called my Father in confession and revealed my thoughts to him and he told me, “This thought is from the devil!” He also told me that His Grace Bishop .... was going to be in town shortly, and that I should consult with him before making any decision.
I went to meet His Grace and told him about my thoughts, and he told me, “It is from the devil” I felt really humbled. I asked him, how could your Grace and my Father in confession discern the thought and I couldn’t? He smiled and said, “We just have more experience!” The Bishop told me, “The devil wants to scuttle the project, so he stirs up controversy about it and then appealing to you in the name of love and harmony, he convinces you to stop it. But here is what you do, you go on with the project and in a short while the controversy will die when the people see the project come to completion.” That incident taught me a great lesson about never trusting in my own judgment without consulting. I hope it will teach you the same.



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