One of the most prominent questions in spiritual direction and discernment is this: When I have a spiritual experience, how do I know it’s God and not my imagination or wishful thinking? I’d like to be able to give an iron clad answer to that question, but it’s just not possible, given the nature of God (as in, invisible). However, there are guides we can use to test our impulses, desires and insights. And those guides come in many forms, but I’ll start with the Bible.
In the Hebrew scriptures, apocrypha, and New Testament, there are a number of lists naming the attributes of God. These lists are helpful for discernment.
God’s desire is planted in our hearts. Deuteronomy 30. This chapter not only explains the covenant between God and Israel, but it offers some guidelines for righteous living. Choose life over death. The word is in your heart to observe. I (God) am with you through it all.
Pay attention to the little voice. Isaiah 30:21. When you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
The nature of Wisdom. Wisdom of Solomon (Apocryphal book) 7:22-8-1. The Wisdom of God is described in this listing of virtues (Wisdom, in biblical wisdom literature, is personified as a woman). Some of the virtues useful for discernment: holy, clear, humane, steadfast, free from anxiety, penetrating through all spirits.
Beatitudes. Matthew 5–7. The Sermon on the Mount (or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain) includes excellent benchmarks for discernment. Is my choice merciful? From a pure heart? Just? Does it contribute to peace?
Fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22. You can test your choices by this list. Even though it is not an exhaustive list, it gives us a pretty good picture of what God is like. Jesus frequently spoke of knowing what is holy by the “fruit produced.” Love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.
Think on these things. Philippians 4: 8-9. Another list to help you make choices and test “spirits.” Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, any excellence, anything worthy of praise — keep your mind on these things.
Wisdom from above. James 3:17-18. God’s wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
These lists offer us some guidance and benchmarks for evaluating our choices. Because we are human, we’re not always going to get it right. But, we’ll do a lot better in discernment with these attributes of God as our guide than without them.
Teresa Blythe is a Phoenix based spiritual director, author and trainer of apprentice spiritual directors. To learn more about spiritual direction, check out her book Spiritual Direction 101. For a primer on spiritual practices, look at her first book, 50 Ways to Pray. Her website www.teresablythe.net contains a lot of information about the art and practice of spiritual direction.