As we continue to explore the difference between the Holy Spirit’s influence and the devil’s influence, one question remains: "Can I really become a person who is led by the Spirit? Or is this just wishful thinking?"
The simple answer to this question is "Yes, we all can." If you practice the simple steps that we describe in this article, you will open the door to the Holy Spirit. You will learn how to hear the voice of the Spirit and be influenced by him. You will find yourself saying, "I can’t wait to see what the Holy Spirit wants to show me today."
Our primary goal is to learn how to discern the spiritual influences that come into our minds each day so that we can give the Holy Spirit the opportunities to form and influence us. Our second goal is to be on the lookout for the tricks and subtle work of the devil so that we can reject them and their influence.
Of course, our minds are incredibly complex, and we can never boil everything down to only satanic and spiritual influences. But at the same time, a closer examination can show us how some of our attitudes and decisions have a spiritual dimension and influence to them: Some thoughts lead us closer to Jesus, while others lead us away from him. And some of these thoughts can arise spontaneously, as if suggested from outside of our own minds. We may not always be able to pinpoint these influences as clearly as Jesus did when he rebuked Peter (Matthew 16:23). But we can grow in clarity every day as we practice three simple steps: test, record, and wait.
Test the Spirits. Writing to the believers in Corinth, St. Paul exhorted: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves" (2 Corinthians 13:5). At first glance, we may think Paul was telling them to look at their behavior in order to discern the state of their hearts. And to a certain degree he was. But immediately after these words, he asked: "Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?" Paul was also concerned that the Corinthians examine their inner lives—just as much as they examine their behavior. In a similar way, St. John wrote: "Do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God" (1 John 4:1).
Test everything. Look at the thoughts that come into your mind. Examine the attitudes and philosophies that influence the ways you think and act. Check yourself, and see how the devil may be whispering to you, trying to turn you away from Jesus and his teachings. Get into the habit of taking your thoughts captive so that you can examine them and test them (2 Corinthians 10:5).
How can we tell if our thoughts are being influenced by the devil or the Holy Spirit? One way is to look at the focus. Satan keeps us focused on ourselves. He wants us immersed in our own concerns. Whether he is trying to puff us up with pride or tear us down with guilt, the devil wants us to have a very narrow, self-centered vision. By contrast, the Holy Spirit is intent on broadening our focus. He moves us to consider not just ourselves but as many other people and concerns as we can. He wants to show us that we are one big family, the family of God called to love one another in Christ.
Focus on the Extremes. At first, detecting the influences of the Holy Spirit and Satan can be difficult. That is why it is better to begin by focusing on the more extreme situations that arise.
So try to focus on the times when you felt particularly close to the Lord. Think about the times when your thoughts were mostly pure, honorable, and loving. Ask what it was that caused you to think that way. Ask, too, how you responded to these kinds of thoughts and experiences. Did they affect the way you acted? If so, how, and for how long?
Then, look at the times when you lost your temper or said something that you came to regret. Think about the times when you were angry with God or accused him of not caring about you or a loved one. Try to find out what it was that caused you to think in these ways. Was there some negative force at work in you, urging you to get angry or sullen or selfish? Did it seem that this urging didn’t come from you but from an outside source? Why did you give in to these thoughts? How powerful were they, and how hard did you try to resist them?
Next, take some steps that will help you learn from these past events, and apply what you are learning to your present life. The best way to do this is to start writing down what you are learning. You may want to buy a notebook or journal where you can keep a record of your "extremes." Record the highs and lows, their causes, and the way they affected your behavior—and don’t forget to include the date. Get into the habit every evening of evaluating your day so that you can identify patterns of thought and action. These patterns can help you spot the influences of the devil and the Holy Spirit. Just as doctors keep medical records and lawyers keep records of crucial conversations, you can begin keeping a spiritual record. Just a few simple sentences are all you need to help you recapture an important event or an influential conversation. You will be amazed over time at how sharp your mind will become with just a little effort each day.
Wait upon the Lord. There is one more practice you can take up: Wait upon the Lord. Think about the prophet Habakkuk, who said: "I will stand at my guard post, and station myself upon the rampart, and keep watch to see what the Lord will say to me."
He stayed still and quiet. He watched and waited. And what happened? "Then the Lord answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets. . . . For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late" (Habakkuk 2:1-3).
What God told Habakkuk he tells us as well: "Wait for me. Listen for my voice." This isn’t a matter of being passive or indifferent. Rather, it involves active listening, focusing our hearts on the Lord, and patiently waiting to hear what he wants to tell us.
How do we wait? First by setting aside a special time every day to be with the Lord—by stopping all our other activities for a time and focusing our attention on him. Waiting involves listening intently for whatever God wants to say. It means trusting that God is preparing something special for us at just the right time—and we will have a harder time hearing him if our minds are cluttered with a host of distractions.
Next, make sure you are in a right relationship with the Lord. Sin blocks our hearing, so repent if you need to. Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly so that you are able to stay open to the Lord as you wait on him.
How might God speak to you? It could be in a general way as he gives you a sense of his love or as he moves you to trust in him more deeply. It could be through your emotions as you feel love or joy or peace welling up inside of you. It could come through a passage from Scripture—even as you simply open your Bible and read the first passage that you see. You may also sense that God is directing you somehow. Perhaps you feel that he wants you to serve him in a new way. Maybe you sense him saying that you need more order and discipline in your life—or maybe more spontaneity. Maybe he will show you some new ways in which you can tell your family how much you love them. Or maybe he will help you look upon yourself with a little more compassion and mercy. The possibilities are endless!
You Can Do It! God is eager to share his thoughts with us. He wants to speak to us and help us turn away from the devil’s influence. All he needs is for us to wait on him so that we can hear his voice. If we get into the habit of writing down what we hear and testing it in our lives, we will grow more and more spiritually sensitive. We will be more ready to follow his promptings during the day. And as a result, we will develop a greater sense of peace and confidence in him. Isn’t that exciting? You really can do it! All it takes is a little time and a little dedication. God will do the rest. So wait on him, and watch as the Spirit grows in you and the devil flees!