The readings that the Church presents to us today bring up an important topic in Catholic spirituality – the proper discernment of spirits. As part of a warning about false prophets who go about in the world with alluring messages, we hear an important reminder in these words from the first reading: “Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God.”
The most important scriptural principle for such discernment is, of course, the directive that Jesus gives us in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: by their fruits you will know them. Hence, the great importance of reflecting on our experiences. If we spend some time doing this sort of reflection, we will be better able in the future to understand how the Holy Spirit and the good angels are stirring in us, and we will know all the better how we can recognize and resist the Devil and the bad angels when they come to tempt us.
In addition to the need for making a discernment of spirits about any movement of spirits that takes place within our hearts and minds and feelings, we also need to make a careful discernment about what other people say and do. The reading from the First Letter of John specifically directs us to watch out for false prophets in the world.
One immediate application comes to mind with the messages that we get from our politicians, but it also applies to what we hear the media and the entertainment world and perhaps even what we hear from colleagues at work or school. When we hear, for example, a message that we can rest content and take the comfortable route without having to make any sacrifices, we would do well to be suspicious that the message will prove to be at odds with the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus. He refused to avoid the Cross, and we need to follow His example.
How are we do to this testing that Saint John recommends? There are lots of highly articulate people, lots of people who are very persuasive, lots of people who have a strong message and are well versed in delivering that message. Perhaps, in the effort to be nice and not to offend, we are inclined to be agreeable. Perhaps we are just malleable, or simply prone to accept the last thing that we have heard.
In this reading, however, Saint John urges us to make a careful discernment of spirits as a way to test the one who claims to be a prophet. He says: “This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God.”
Now, it would be nice if the voices that we hear would identify themselves at our request, but they usually do not. If they answer at all, they may well tend to say what they think that we want to hear, or to claim that what they say is compatible with the Gospel. Curiously, John Stuart Mill claimed that the Utilitarianism that he promoted is a practical way of living out the Gospel, for it involves working for the greatest happiness of the greatest number and reducing the misery of the world as much as possible. What he does not tell us, of course, is the places where this approach to morality by the calculation of values is in stark contradiction to the demands of the Gospel of Christ – a respect for the inherent dignity of even the weakest and the most vulnerable, for instance.
Similarly, Karl Marx had the audacity to root the credo of communism (from each according to his ability, to each according to his need) in a line from the Acts of the Apostles: “[believers] had all things common…. As many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet. Distribution was made to every one according to their need.” The real demands of practical charity that are found in this biblical text became savagely distorted in the communist regimes of the past century.
Perhaps these two cases are now too easy, for the contradiction between what the Gospel teaches and what John Stuart Mill or Karl Marx offered has become all too obvious. In our own day, we need to be make use of the resources of our faith in new situations and with new voices. There are many who claim the mantle of the prophet, but we must test them so as to distinguish between the true prophet and the false one.
To be ready, we need to pray for wisdom and discernment. We have God’s promise through Saint John that we will receive what we need: “You belong to God, children... The one who is in you
is greater than the one who is in the world. They belong to the world; accordingly, their teaching belongs to the world, and the world listens to them. We belong to God, and anyone who knows God listens to us, while anyone who does not belong to God refuses to hear us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit.”