Many people find themselves asking, “Is the sign I’m receiving coming from God, the devil, or myself?” When it comes to discernment, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between the competing voices that are in our heads. Is it from God? Is this just my own voice? Or is this the evil one? Often times, especially if we don’t have an understanding of how the Holy Spirit works, or if we have been wounded by our past and project people or circumstances onto our own understanding of God, discerning these voices can become even more difficult.
One of the best ways to discern these voices is to look at what St. Paul talks about in Galatians Chapter 5. St. Paul clearly distinguishes the “work of the flesh” (which arise from the disordered attractions of ourselves due to concupiscence and original sin, or from temptations of the devil) from the “works of the Holy Spirit” (which are evidently from God). St. Paul lists the works of the flesh as “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.” Then, in contrast, St. Paul talks about the works of the Spirit, which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
If the sign we are receiving in our discernment falls into either of these categories, we should therefore have an awareness of what is going on. For example, if I have an older sibling who is in religious life and I see him getting all the attention from my family because of his decision, I should check to see if my desire to also follow religious life is based on jealousy or rivalry or need for self-aggrandizement, or if it is coming out of a place of generosity and faithfulness.
Next, if I am experiencing negative emotions, I must ask myself why? Doubts, anxieties, and fear are normal human emotions, but are they from God? Again, in checking our thoughts against scripture, fear has no place in discernment. Yes, it is good to have prudence and caution, but an overriding sense of fear would not be compatible with St. Paul’s explanation of the fruits of Spirit of God. Furthermore, 1 John 4:18 would say perfect love drives out fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.” Certainly, if you are asking God for a sign, and you experience one of these negative emotions, awareness of scripture should cause you to second guess yourself.
Lastly, in asking for signs, we also must realize the difference between normal circumstances of daily life and attacks from the evil one. For example, sometimes in life we experience illnesses and daily occurrences. Having a stomach ache or getting a cold are part of daily life. To say God is “speaking to us” through a stomach ache is really eliminating one’s own free choice in following God’s call. God will speak to us, but not through negative circumstances and occasions that bring fear, shame, and pain. Yes, God can teach us lessons through those experiences, but He will not bring those onto us Himself.
In other examples, we may experience a person attacking us or a mysterious situation arise that has never or rarely happened before, like car issues before coming to a “Come and See” retreat. Again, we must ask ourselves why? Is it because I have provoked an attack from someone or haven’t done a good job in maintaining my car? Or was the attack unprovoked and the circumstances of my car situation seem too coincidental? If it is the former, we may have caused it to ourselves or have fallen into a normal situation of life. If it is the latter, maybe it is an attack from the evil one. Maybe he has tempted our brother or sister to bring us down, or maybe we are experiencing demonic oppression because we are about to do something good for God’s kingdom.
All in all, discernment is difficult, but all too often we attribute everything to one source. Sometimes we see it all coming from God, all coming from the devil, or all from coming normal circumstances in life. In discernment, we must be aware that all these things come into play at different times, and we need to have the tools and graces from God necessary to distinguish one from another. Sometimes, we may need to go outside of ourselves and ask a spiritual director or priest for advice. Being humble in our discernment is key, as Proverb 26 says, “Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are safe.” May God bless you, and may He lead you in your discernment.