The Cost of Discipleship and the Discernment of Spirits

28 When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. 29 And suddenly they cried out, saying, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”

30 Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding. 31 So the demons begged Him, saying, “If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine.”

32 And He said to them, “Go.” So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water.

33 Then those who kept them fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region. (Matthew 8.28-34)


This gospel reading has always made me chuckle. If Jesus is in town, fasten your seat belts ! !

It pushes to the surface our desire for God to heal and restore, but without any accompanying cost to us. We don’t want to have to adjust – let go or take up –  as a result.

Sometimes things get worse when Jesus heals and saves us. Take, for example, the healing of the two demon-possessed men. One of the results of the healing was the loss of a whole herd of swine! We can interpret the passage allegorically as an attempt to avoid having to deal with the everyday consequences of the salvific work of Jesus, but the fact remains. Someone lost their source of income.

The people of the town beg Jesus to leave ! ! Can you imagine having Jesus answer your prayer and then begging Him to depart from you as a result of the changes that healing necessitates?!

In another place Jesus is even accused of being inspired by the devil. See Matthew 12.22-30.

Three things stand out as “take aways” or ways in which I need to adjust the way I live.

First, the discernment of spirits is very important. I don’t mean becoming obsessed with the devil, thinking he is lurking around every corner waiting to pounce on me. I think you know what I mean. I do, however, need to have a health remembrance of the spiritual struggle of which I am a part and is going on within my soul.

Second, judging by appearances is seldom, if ever, a good idea when it comes to the saving work of God. Seeking to cooperate in the purification and illumination of my heart is a much more worthy object of my time and energy.

Third, perseverance in keeping the commandments and trusting that God is performing a good and perfect work is the rock upon which I can confidently stand. God’s work of salvation is, quite often, tumultuous. I must learn to hold fast in the midst of the salvific storm of God with a clarity of vision never wavering in my trust. I must learn to be willing to let go of anything that prevents me from consistently following/abiding in Jesus. Cost what it will, lead where it may. See, for example, Matthew 19.16-22 and other passages of a similar theme. There is no “cheap grace,” to quote Bonhoeffer. The saving work of God in my life is costly. If I pray, I need to be ready to embrace the full answer.

St. Ignatius of Loyola offers some guidance for us in this regard:


Rules for understanding to some extent the different movements produced in the soul and for recognizing those that are good to admit them, and those that are bad, to reject them…

It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy.

It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtilties, and continual deceptions.

God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause. It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty. I said without previous cause, that is, without any preceding perception or knowledge of any subject by which a soul might be led to such a consolation through its own acts of intellect and will.

If a cause precedes, both the good angel and the evil spirit can give consolation to a soul, but for a quite different purpose. The good angel consoles for the progress of the soul, that it may advance and rise to what is more perfect. The evil spirit consoles for purposes that are the contrary, and that afterwards he might draw the soul to his own perverse intentions and wickedness.

It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own. For example, he will suggest holy and pious thoughts that are wholly in conformity with the sanctity of the soul. Afterwards, he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.

We must carefully observe the whole course of our thoughts. If the beginning and middle and end of the course of thoughts are wholly good and directed to what is entirely right, it is a sign that they are from the good angel. But the course of thoughts suggested to us may terminate in something evil, or distracting, or less good than the soul had formerly proposed to do. Again, it may end in what weakens the soul, or disquiets it; or by destroying the peace, tranquillity, and quiet which it had before, it may cause disturbance to the soul. These things are a clear sign that the thoughts are proceeding from the evil spirit, the enemy of our progress and eternal salvation.

When the enemy of our human nature has been detected and recognized by the trail of evil marking his course and by the wicked end to which he leads us, it will be profitable for one who has been tempted to review immediately the whole course of the temptation. Let him consider the series of good thoughts, how they arose, how the evil one gradually attempted to make him step down from the state of spiritual delight and joy in which he was, till finally he drew him to his wicked designs. The purpose of this review is that once such an experience has been understood and carefully observed, we may guard ourselves for the future against the customary deceits of the enemy.

In souls that are progressing to greater perfection, the action of the good angel is delicate, gentle, delightful. It may be compared to a drop of water penetrating a sponge.

The action of the evil spirit upon such souls is violent, noisy, and disturbing. It may be compared to a drop of water falling upon a stone.

In souls that are going from bad to worse, the action of the spirits mentioned above is just the reverse. The reason for this is to be sought in the opposition or similarity of these souls to the different kinds of spirits. When the disposition is contrary to that of the spirits, they enter with noise and commotion that are easily perceived. When the disposition is similar to that of the spirits, they enter silently, as one coming into his own house when the doors are open.

When consolation is without previous cause, as was said, there can be no deception in it, since it can proceed from God our Lord only. But a spiritual person who has received such a consolation must consider it very attentively, and must cautiously distinguish the actual time of the consolation from the period which follows it. At such a time the soul is still fervent and favored with the grace and aftereffects of the consolation which has passed. In this second period the soul frequently forms various resolutions and plans which are not granted directly by God our Lord. They may come from our own reasoning on the relations of our concepts and on the consequences of our judgments, or they may come from the good or evil spirit. Hence, they must be carefully examined before they are given full approval and put into execution.

Source: The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Translation by Louis J. Puhl, SJ


2 thoughts on “The Cost of Discipleship and the Discernment of Spirits

  1. Yes, this is helpful. I try always to be aware of my thoughts, especially around “consolations.” Doubts about where the consolation comes from crowd in and rob the joy and freedom, and I am caught wondering which is right to believe. Probably the doubts are the temptations – but it’s hard to rely on that. I fear following a wrong path.

  2. P.S. I have been learning to differentiate what comes from my trying to find God from what comes from Him without my trying. I think this trying is what Ignatius means by “cause.” When the sense of Presence comes, I am learning to just rest in it and not try to verbalize it, or jump to plans based on it, or anything else.

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