How Do I Know I’m Experiencing God?

By William A. Barry, SJ
From A Friendship Like No Other: Experiencing God’s Amazing Embrace

Fortunately, in order to discern what is of God, we do not have to figure out all the influences—for example, what is due to what we ate for dinner or how we were brought up by our parents. Discernment of spirits does not require an archaeological dig through all the layers that make up every experience. We just need to pay attention to what we experience and then apply a few simple rules.

The Orientation of Your Life

In Ignatius’s rules for the discernment of spirits, his first piece of advice is to ascertain the orientation of your life: Am I straying from the right path, or am I trying to live a decent Christian life? As a reader of this book, you should have an easy time answering this question! You would not be reading this if you were straying—that is, if you were turned against God and God’s way. Scrupulous people may say that they are afraid they are on the road to hell, but the fact that they are trying so hard to make sure that they do not sin shows the fallacy of their assessment.

Rule One

Just to be complete, let me explain what Ignatius says about the different ways God’s Spirit and the evil spirit operate with those who have deliberately and seriously turned away from God. The evil spirit tries to get such people to rationalize their behavior and attitudes: “I’m not such a bad guy. I may steal money, but it’s only what I deserve for all that I have done for this company.” “Compared to Helen, I’m a saint.” “I take care of my wife and kids; my affair with Jane doesn’t hurt them because they don’t know.” In other words, the evil spirit tries to douse the conscience pangs of anyone who is acting contrary to what is right. The pangs of conscience, on the other hand, come from God’s Spirit. They do not attack us, but rather raise questions about our behavior: “Are you really happy acting this way?” “Don’t you feel a twinge of regret when you come home to your wife and family after an evening with your mistress?”

An Example: Alcohol

A real example may help. I don’t think I was deliberately turned from God, but my consumption of alcohol was troubling others and me. Still, I did not want to look at the issue. I remember telling myself things like “You need a drink to relax after a hard day,” “You never lose a day’s work because of drinking,” and “Your health is good. It’s not having that bad of an effect.”

These were rationalizations induced by the bad spirit and by my own unwillingness to take an honest look at my alcohol consumption. On the other hand, I had recurring feelings that something was wrong. I wondered at times about what alcohol was doing to my health. I blushed with shame when I remembered how harsh I had been with someone after having a couple of drinks, or when one of my friends expressed concern about my drinking. I believe that God’s Spirit was trying to get me to look seriously at my drinking habits and do something about them, and the evil spirit was just as happy to see things remain as they were.

Finally, by the grace of God, I paid attention to the good spirit. I mention this personal experience to show that discernment of spirits is not esoteric. It just means paying attention to our experience in order to live more in accord with the way of God.

Rule Two

Now let’s take up the orientation of most of us, who are trying to live honestly and uprightly to the best of our ability. In this case, Ignatius says, the good and bad spirits act in ways opposite to how they act with those turned away from God’s path. The bad spirit raises doubts and questions that cause inner turmoil and self-­absorption, while the good spirit tries to encourage us and to increase our peace, joy, faith, hope, and love.

If you are trying to live as a good Christian, you might have thoughts like these: “Who do you think you are—some kind of saint?” “Everyone else cuts corners in this office. What’s the matter with you? Are you ­holier-than-thou?” “God doesn’t have time for the likes of you.” “Most people, even if they believe in God, don’t try to live the way you do.” Such questions and thoughts have only one aim, to trouble your spirit and keep you troubled and questioning. Moreover, you will notice that all the questions and doubts focus on you, not on God or God’s people.

The good spirit, on the other hand, might inspire thoughts like these: “I’m genuinely happy with my decision to make amends with my estranged sister.” “I wish that I had stopped drinking a long time ago. I’m much happier and healthier now, and easier to live with.” “God seems so much closer to me since I began to take some time every day for prayer, and I feel less anxious and insecure.” I hope you can see in your own experience how these two spirits have led you.

An Example: Retreat Derailed

Here’s an example. Some years ago, a woman had three days of very consoling prayer on her annual retreat. She felt close to God, happy, and full of life and faith. Then, on the fourth day, she told me, “This is too highfalutin for me. I need to spend time preparing for my classes instead of praying.” The next day, she could not pray and was ­miserable. When we looked at what had happened, it turned out that the closeness to God had frightened her. Instead of telling God that she was frightened, which would have continued the conversation, she let her feelings of unworthiness get in the way of her experience. The evil spirit used her fear of closeness to God to move her to focus on her classes instead of on her joyful prayer. The interruption in prayer did not lead her to prepare for her classes, but only to a miserable day in the retreat. This is how the bad spirit operates with those who are trying to lead a life in conformity with friendship with God.

In summary, if you are somehow out of tune with God in your life, God will try to move you to change, and you will feel pangs of conscience. These pangs of conscience, however, will not lead to anxious self-examination and self-­absorption, but will gently point out where you have gone wrong. The bad spirit, or your own desire not to change your life, will whisper rationalizations, trying to convince you that nothing is wrong. On the other hand, if you are trying to live in tune with God, God’s Spirit will console you and encourage you, but the bad spirit or your own fear of closeness with God will try to make you doubtful of your experience. One sign of this bad spirit is that you become self-centered, rather than centered on God and others.

Ignatius provides a good example of how the bad spirit works with someone on the right road. At one point he had the thought “And how are you going to be able to stand this life [of prayer and penance] the seventy years you’re meant to live?” Ignatius quite rightly answered, “Can you promise me one hour of life?” Alcoholics know this temptation well, hence the advice of Alcoholics Anonymous to take things one day at a time.

Rule Three: Spiritual Consolation

Ignatius believed that God wants us to be happy and fulfilled and that the way to be happy and fulfilled is to be in tune with God’s dream for the world and for us. In the terms of this book, the way to be happy and fulfilled is to accept God’s offer of friendship and to live in accordance with that friendship. If we are trying to do this, according to Ignatius, “consolation” is the order of the day. This does not mean that life will be without pain and suffering; it means that God wants to be a consoling presence to us even in the inevitable pains and sufferings of life. Therefore, the agonies of scrupulous people cannot come from God, since they are trying to live a good life. Ignatius himself, after the first fervor following his conversion, had a terrible bout with scruples about confessing his past sins. Things got so bad that he contemplated suicide. He finally came to the conclusion that these scrupulous thoughts could not be from God and decided never to confess past sins again.

What, exactly, is consolation? Consolation refers to any experience of desire for God, of distaste for one’s past sins, or of sympathy for Jesus or any other suffering person. It refers, in other words, to “every increase in hope, faith, and charity, and every interior joy which calls and attracts one toward heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, by bringing it tranquility and peace in its Creator and Lord” (The Spiritual Exercises, n. 316). Paul’s letter to the Galatians lists the fruit of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23). When you experience this group of movements in your being, you can be relatively sure that God’s Spirit is moving you.

Rule Four: Spiritual Desolation

Desolation is the opposite of consolation. Ignatius gives these examples:

Obtuseness of soul, turmoil within it, an impulsive motion toward low and earthly things, or disquiet from various agitations and temptations. These move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love. One is completely listless, tepid, and unhappy, and feels separated from our Creator and Lord. (The Spiritual Exercises, n. 317)

Provided that we are trying to live as friends of God, experiences of feeling out of sorts, ill at ease, anxious, unhappy, listless, and so on are experiences of desolation. They do not come from God.

If we are trying to live as friends of God, we can trust that our experience is of God’s Spirit when we find ourselves more alive, more peaceful, more energized, and also more concerned about others than about ourselves as a result of the experience. These simple rules of thumb are not absolute guarantees that we are right or that our way of proceeding will succeed, but they give us some assurance that we are on the right path. If we follow the impulses of such experiences, we can move forward with confidence, trusting that God will continue to show us the way.

Excerpt from A Friendship Like No Other: Experiencing God’s Amazing Embrace by William A. Barry, SJ.

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Video: Discernment of Spirits narrated by John Brown, SJ