Deeply impressed by the homily that the visiting priest gave, a parishioner asked:
"How did you learn to be so inspiring?"
"I have a lot of experience," he replied.
"But where did all that experience come from?" she pressed.
"From making a lot of bad decisions in life," came the answer.
This priest’s comments can teach us something important as we continue to explore the ways that the devil and the Holy Spirit try to influence us. This priest pointed to his decisions, especially his poor decisions, as a major source for the insights the Lord had given him.
Of course he learned many things in the seminary. Naturally his personal prayer life was a source of strength, inspiration, and comfort. But the most important lessons came in the laboratory of his daily life. As he brought God’s grace to bear on the daily challenges of life, he learned how to identify the work of the devil and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Looking back on his own life, St. Paul made a similar observation: "I have competed well," he wrote. "I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me" (2 Timothy 4:7-8). As his life was drawing to a close, Paul acknowledged the value of fighting the good fight every day. He saw that if he wanted to win the prize of heaven, he had to consider himself to be in training every day, putting his faith into practice in the decisions that faced him.
A Subtle Ploy. Paul’s words can help us see the connection between "religious" practices like prayer and the way we live our daily lives. It may sound odd at first, but we can spend hours praying every day and still not learn how to think like Jesus. We can attend Mass week after week, but see no change in our hearts. The fact is, if we don’t open ourselves to the grace of the sacrament or to the power of prayer, we will find it a lot harder to become more like Jesus. If we remain set in our ways, reluctant to examine our thoughts and attitudes, our minds will remain undisciplined and subject to the influences of the evil one.
Looking at the comments made by the visiting priest and by St. Paul, we can see how much the Holy Spirit wants to teach us and form us into Christ. We can also see how practices like regular prayer and the sacraments are only part of the equation if we want to be transformed. The kind of change we all long for takes place only as we allow the grace we receive in prayer to affect the ways we think and act in our daily lives.
So how does all this relate to our theme of discerning the difference between the Holy Spirit and the devil’s influence? One of the devil’s more subtle strategies is to keep our attention focused on anything that will separate us from God—even if it means letting us be satisfied by our observances without asking whether they are having a positive affect on us. He will try anything to keep us from asking questions like "What keeps me from drawing closer to God?" or "What can I do to remain in his presence all day long?" or "How can I be more loving to others?" Satan does not want us asking these kinds of questions because they open the door to the Holy Spirit’s influence.
On the other hand, the Holy Spirit longs to reveal Jesus to us and deliver us from the sins that keep us separated from him. He wants to teach us about the mysteries of our faith and tell us about everything that Jesus taught. He wants to tell us, too, that Satan has already been condemned and that we don’t have to live under his influence (John 16:8-11,13).
The Accuser versus the Comforter. Let’s take a closer look at these two basic spiritual forces: Satan and the Holy Spirit. The more accurately we can discern the difference between them, the better equipped we will be to turn away from the devil and give the Holy Spirit free rein in our lives.
Scripture calls Satan an adversary who is "prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). He is also called a deceiver and the father of lies (Revelation 12:9; John 8:44), the one who accuses our brothers and sisters day and night (Revelation 12:10).
What a contrast to the Holy Spirit! Where the devil is called an adversary, the Spirit is our "Advocate" (John 14:16). Satan is a liar, but the Spirit is called the "Spirit of truth" (14:17). Where the devil accuses us before God and each other, the Spirit tells us that we are beloved children of God, freed from all condemnation (Romans 8:1-2,16).?So how do the devil and the Spirit live up to these descriptions? Let’s take a look.
The Accuser. We said that the devil is a liar, an adversary, and an accuser. One of his primary ways of working is to spread division through his lies and accusations. Just as the serpent told Eve that God was trying to hold her back, so the devil will try to convince us that God is not out for our good. He will "accuse" God of having a hidden agenda or of not caring about our needs or our struggles. If a prayer is not answered right away or if a hardship enters our lives, the devil is right there, ready to draw us away from God. He wants to keep us in isolation and resentment.
Satan also spreads his lies by directly accusing us. He loves to remind us of our past sins or magnify our current struggles and weaknesses. He loves to tell us that we are unworthy of God’s love. He does this so that we will condemn ourselves and settle for a lesser experience of God. "Look at how badly you’ve sinned," he will tell us. "You’re not good enough for God to bother with." Or he will say, "Look at how many times you have failed in the past. How can you ever hope to get over this problem?" Related to this, the devil can also try to fill us with pride. Rather than beating us down with guilt, he will try to magnify our gifts and talents and convince us to use them only for ourselves and not for the Lord.
Finally, the devil accuses us to each other. He seeks to sow divisions among families and friends by planting seeds of mistrust, suspicion, and resentment. He urges us to dwell on past hurts or to imagine future offenses. He shades the truth about people, overemphasizing their negative aspects and convincing us to not treat them with the charity and compassion that they deserve.
Lies. Accusations. Divisions. Whenever you detect thoughts like these, you can be sure that the devil is trying to separate you from the Lord and his people. And the only thing you can do in response is reject these thoughts and turn to Jesus for his help and strength.
The Comforter. Again, what a contrast to the Holy Spirit! Where the devil seeks only to sow division and opposition, the Spirit wants to bring unity and peace. His first priority is to convince us of God’s love—and not just in our intellects. Day after day, he seeks ways to pour the love of God into our hearts (Romans 5:5). Through his still, small voice, he comforts us, showing us that God is for us, not against us (8:31-32). He counters the devil’s accusations by opening our hearts and minds to the truths of Scripture—truths about the Father’s mercy, truths about our redemption in Christ, truths about the blessings of being united with each other.
How can we tell that the Holy Spirit is working in us? When our hearts are at peace and our minds are clear and when we look upon people with kindness and compassion. To put it even more simply, the Spirit is at work whenever we are thinking good thoughts. St. James tells us that "all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17). And St. Paul urges us to fill our minds with "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious" (Philippians 4:8).
Whenever you detect thoughts like these arising in your mind, you can be sure that the Holy Spirit is trying to influence you, comfort you, and draw you closer to Jesus and his people.
Stay Alert! The work of Satan and the work of the Holy Spirit are far more complex than what we have said in this article. But even if we begin to learn how to identify these two influences, we can make great progress in our walk with the Lord. God wants to bring us to maturity in Christ. He wants us, like the priest at the beginning of this article, to learn how to make better decisions. And one of the best ways for us to learn how to make better decisions is by learning how to distinguish between the voice of the devil and the voice of the Holy Spirit. May we all follow the Spirit’s promptings!