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The Catholic Catechetical School offers a two year study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A portion of the second year of our study of the Catechism is dedicated to studying Christian prayer. This time is by far the favorite for virtually every student. And during this time spent studying prayer students will inevitably ask how they can tell if the “insight” they get from prayer is from God. Being that the experiences we have in prayer can come from God, the devil our enemy, or even the double stuffed pepperoni pizza we had last night, the question is a fair one. Also, being that our spiritual health comes from doing the will of the Lord, and that his will is often communicated to us in prayer, the question is also a significant one.
In the next 700 words or so I want to give some basic tips—or “rules,” if you will—for how one can properly judge if what one receives in prayer is from the Lord or from another source. Since this topic can be overwhelming I am going to limit the scenarios to those in which we receive a command of some sort.
The first consideration we must focus on is knowing the state of our own soul. If one is in a state of mortal sin, the rules and tips discussed below are not applicable. So if you are in this state, don’t bother reading the rest of this blog—your time will be better spent finding a priest to hear your confession!
If you are not in a state of mortal sin, however, and you are trying to pursue the Lord, then the following does apply.
The Bible Tells Us So
Second, if we receive a command in prayer we simply have to use our common sense and check it against Sacred Scripture. If the command breaks any of the Ten Commandments or goes against any other Scripture, then clearly the command was not from God. God is Truth itself and God will never contradict Himself.
So, for instance, if I am praying about a difficulty in a relationship and I hear, “Put arsenic in the food”—implying I should poison the other—I can rest assured this is NOT from God. The 5th commandment expressly forbids this kind of behavior and no matter how convenient the solution might be, God will never counsel partaking in something intrinsically evil. If you are not sure if something is prohibited by Scripture or the Church, then this is an excellent excuse to sign up for the Catechetical School or Biblical School!
Peace, Pure and Simple
Third, if it is the Lord that commands, it will be marked first and foremost by a residing peace. In fact, peace is such a telltale sign of God that some have called peace the language of God. Perhaps this is also said in order to distinguish the language of the devil, which is incapable of producing peace. Peace is something that the devil, even in all his cleverness and might, cannot reproduce.
Now peace should be distinguished from satisfaction or relief. Novices can sometimes mistake these for God’s peace, though the difference is immense. Without going into a detailed explanation, satisfaction is usually self-centered. It usually results from some action or thought I have conjured or some goal I have achieved. Notice the emphasis on the “I” rather than on God. There may be nothing wrong with feeling this type of satisfaction, but it is not the peace I speak of here. Neither is relief. Relief can sometimes stem from resignation. If one is resigning from walking the path of justice because it is an arduous journey, then the sense of relief this might produce certainly is not from God.
The peace that comes from God is markedly different. It is a peace that, perhaps paradoxically, is powerful. It brings forth life, and often the one who “hears” God’s peace is filled with hope and even confidence. This is confidence not in one’s own resources, but in recognizing God’s bountiful care and concern for the person. Often this peace also entails a profound experience of belonging to God and the beautiful dignity and worth that is concomitant with being a beloved child of God.
Contrast this peace to the way we often feel when the devil is accusing us. In this situation we often experience worthlessness, shame, fear, and debilitating confusion. All of this is often very stormy and is the antithesis of the peace of God.
There are many other things that could and should be said about this topic. The above tidbits only begin to scratch the surface. For those who want to delve more into discerning God’s voice in prayer I recommend The Discernment of Spirits by Fr. Timothy Gallagher. Your investment of time spent studying his work will be well rewarded.