As we begin a new year, and as we contemplate our resolutions, let’s take a look at a few predictions from the past.
• In 1873, Sir John Eric Ericksen, the Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria, said, “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.”
• In 1876, American president Rutherford B. Hayes told Alexander Graham Bell, “The telephone is an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one?”
• In 1895, Albert Einstein’s high school teacher said, “It doesn’t matter what he does; he will never amount to anything.”
• In 1939, The New York Times proclaimed, “The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.”
• In 1949, mathematician John von Neumann said, “It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology.”
Fortunately for all of us, projects like the computer, the telephone, and modern surgery had champions as well as naysayers. These great ideas came into reality because of people who were able to dream about what might be, rather than hold fast to what everyone else said could not be.
A God of Limitless Power. Now it’s one thing to question the value of the computer or the telephone, but it’s another thing altogether to question the power of God to work in our lives. So as we begin this new year, let’s put aside any doubts we may have about the Lord. Let’s believe that he does want to do a great work in our lives and that he really does want to open our eyes to the spiritual realities all around us.
Of course, like any other New Year’s resolution, our desire to have the Lord open our eyes will be fulfilled only if we do our part. If we had resolved to lose twenty pounds this year, we would have to make sure we are eating less and exercising more. If our resolution is to read six good novels this year, we would have to be sure to set aside the time to make sure we complete one book every two months. Likewise, if we want our eyes opened to the work of the Lord, we have to be willing to do the necessary work. So let’s begin.
The first thing we should do is ask ourselves two important questions: “Do I believe that God has a plan for my life?” and “Do I believe that at the heart of this plan is his desire to lead me and teach me through his Holy Spirit?” Next come two related questions: “Do I believe that there is a devil, who wants nothing more than to see me turn away from the Lord?” and “Do I believe that the devil has his own plans in trying to spoil my faith and keep me in darkness?” If we can say yes to these four questions, we are in a good position to start looking at our lives to discern where the Holy Spirit is influencing us and where the devil is influencing us.
Devilish Purposes. To help us get clearer on the question of the devil’s influence, let’s look at a few Scripture passages. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul warns: “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil” (6:11). He likewise warned the Corinthians against being “taken advantage of by Satan,” because Paul was “not unaware of his purposes.” Later in that same letter, Paul cautioned them again about how shrewd the devil is: “Even Satan masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:14).
What are the devil’s “purposes”? More than anything else, Satan wants to keep us from enjoying God’s love. He wants to thwart our desire to have a relationship with the Lord. To that end, he and his demons try to discredit God. They suggest thoughts to us that are full of deception. They try to convince us that God isn’t real, or that he isn’t really on our side, or that the world can give us everything we need.
Sometimes, the devil’s tactics are more obvious as he tempts us into sins of lust, gluttony, or greed. But other times, they are not so obvious. Pretending to be an “angel of light,” the devil will suggest something to us that sounds good and acceptable, but that only leads to confusion and isolation in the end. Perhaps he will suggest that a man spend all his waking hours working so that he can provide more money for his family. At first glance, it sounds good. But in the end, that man will have spent no time with his family, and the stress of all the work will have taken a devastating toll.
“Get Thee behind Me!” Hearing the voice of the Spirit—and distinguishing his voice from the voices of our fallen nature, the devil, or the world—is something we need to learn over time. The apostle Peter gives us a good example of this. He started out following Jesus full of enthusiasm and wanting to please the Lord in everything he did. At one point, Jesus asked: “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Messiah,” Peter replied, “the son of the living God.” It was a spiritual breakthrough for Peter, and Jesus even said so: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Matthew 16:15-17).
Something was happening in Peter that allowed him to see Jesus in a new way. He saw Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah. And Jesus congratulated him and rewarded him for his insight. But not long afterward, Peter showed how far he still had to go. For Jesus began telling his disciples that he was headed for Jerusalem, where he would be captured by the authorities, put to death, and then rise again on the third day. Hearing this news, Peter—probably still excited about his insights—tried to tell Jesus what to do. “God forbid, Lord!” he cried. “No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Peter could not handle the idea of a suffering Messiah. He couldn’t imagine that Jesus would allow himself to be mistreated and even put to death.
Jesus’ response was swift and direct: “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Peter must have been shocked. In both cases, it was his own voice speaking and his own mind at work. Yet Jesus said that his first response came from God, while the second one came from Satan.
The Trap of Good Intentions. Peter’s story shows us that even with the best of intentions, we can still be influenced by the lies and schemes of the devil. His story also shows us how important it is that we learn how to identify the voices in our minds. This can sound like quite a daunting task, but God wants us to know that it really is possible. Look at Peter as an example. In time he came to understand why one thought had a godly origin and the other came from the devil. He eventually understood that Jesus had to die—in fact, that Jesus wanted to die—for our sake. He understood that Jesus rebuked him because humanity needed to be saved, and the cross was an integral part of God’s plan of salvation.
So that we don’t dismiss Peter’s experience as just another Bible story, we should recognize that the same kinds of things happen today. It is all too easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus didn’t have to die for us, or to think that we don’t have to deal with the ways in us that are opposed to Jesus. Often enough, the devil tries to convince us that it is enough for us to try to be good on our own. He takes our good intentions—like Peter’s—and magnifies them to the point where we think that all we need is to try hard if we want to go to heaven. He takes our acts of service and convinces us that we have a right to receive recognition for them. Or, if someone disagrees with us or appears to disregard our work, he urges us to get upset.
Take Just One Step. We really can learn how to distinguish the Holy Spirit from the devil. We may not become spiritual experts overnight, but we can all make progress this year—and that progress will show itself to the glory of God. Even if we take just one step by deciding to examine our consciences every evening or by reviewing our highs and lows each week, we will make significant headway.
So let’s begin this year by removing the limitations we place on God. Let’s give up every doubt, every thought in us that says we can’t know his voice. Let’s dream about what the Church might look like if more and more people learned how to hear the Spirit—and how to stand up against the devil!