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On Discernment Of Thoughts

On Discernment of Thoughts - St Shenouda Monastery Pimonakhos

It is our duty to discern our thoughts, in order to know their origin and thus avoid being fooled by the Devil. “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (1Jn 4:1).

There are thoughts that come to us from God, the Holy Spirit that dwells in us. These are thoughts that urge us to repent and confess, or to go early to church, have communion or pay our tithes. There are also thoughts that originate from our own minds, like thinking about doing one’s shopping, laundry or mowing the lawn. And there are thoughts that come from the Devil, like thoughts of anger, revenge, condemnation and unclean fantasies.

There are also thoughts that come from the Devil, but are not quite obvious. These are thoughts that are actually evil but appear outwardly to be virtuous. Of these the book of Proverbs says: “There is a way that seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Pr 16:25). Saint Paul also reminds us that “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2Co11:14).

It is our duty to discern our thoughts, in order to know their origin and thus avoid being fooled by the Devil. “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (1Jn 4:1). The Fathers of the church liken these deceiving thoughts to counterfeit currency, bankers can tell these from the real thing. We are exhorted by the same Fathers to learn how to become “experienced bankers”.

The Bible has several examples of such evil thoughts that masquerade in the guise of virtuous ones. The first book of Samuel tells us of king Saul who thought that offering sacrifices to God was more pleasing to God then obedience (1Sam 15). There is also the story of King Ahab who believed that showing mercy to the King of Syria is preferable to executing God’s harsh command to destroy that King (1Kin 21).

The results of failing to discern the thoughts were disastrous to these two Kings who were chosen by God to rule over His people. In the case of Saul, he lost his Kingdom, and the spirit of the Lord departed from him (1Sam 13). King Ahab paid with his life for this lack of discernment, for the Lord later tells him: “Because thou hast let go out of thy hand a man whom I appointed for utter destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life” (1 Kings 20:42).

These two examples show us the importance of discerning the thoughts even if outwardly they seem good and pious. A wise “banker” should examine every thought patiently before accepting it as good and acting on it. The Fathers of the church have left us valuable pieces of advice that can help us become wise bankers able to tell counterfeit money from real currency.

The first thing is obviously to examine the thought to see whether it is in accordance to the teachings of the Bible. If it is not then we have no problem. If it seems to agree with the teachings of the Bible then we should cautiously proceed with further examination of the thought.

We should then examine the feelings surrounding the thought, is there 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. 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.

The Bible has a lot to teach us in this regard: “If ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts … this wisdom descends not from above but is earthly, sensual, devilish … but the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle and easy to be entreated” (James 3:14_17).

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. Always remember that the Lord speaks to us in a still small voice.

Next, we should examine the motives behind the thought. Sometimes a thought is totally in accordance with the teachings of the Bible, it comes to us amid feelings of serenity but if we search deep down in our souls, we may discover that the motive behind the contemplated action is embarrassing or annoying someone else! Saint Paul encountered this in his ministry, “Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife .. of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds” (Eph 1:15-16). Here we have people doing the most pious work ever; preaching Christ, but the motives behind this are most impious!

Inquire seriously about your motives in doing this most virtuous deed, is it to show off how cleaver and innovative you can be? Is that good deed contemplated solely for the glory of God? .. or is it tainted by vainglory.

A further step recommended by the Fathers is to measure the proposed deed against the acts and witness of the Apostles. If it looks to be whole, complete, and in conformity with the latter, then let us hold on to it, otherwise, let us cautiously and carefully reject it.

Finally, raise your mind to God, so as to be clear whether it is the direct will of God that you should perform such actions and whether they would be acceptable to God. Pray, even as our Lord did in the garden and say, “not my will but Thine be done” (Lk 22:41). Moreover make sure that over and above the exercises we mentioned above, the advice of your father confessor should be sought in all major decisions you adopt.