A Guide to Ignatian Discernment: Stop and Ask for Directions

June 12, 2022

There is a large shopping mall near my home. The hallway connecting the stores forms a circle. Unless I find a map kiosk, illustrating a diagram of the mall and its stores, with a star revealing, ‘you are here,’ I tend to take the long way around. Knowing where I am helps orient me. 

Ignatius’ rules for the discernment of spirits serves as a map of sorts to help us note where we are in our relationship to God. We can get so mired in the details of everyday life that we lose track of where we are.  Ignatius asks us to stop and ask ourselves, Am I walking towards God or away from God? Is my life leaning on the will of God or am I leaning on self-will?  It seems to be a simple litmus test. But is it?

Let me share a recent example with you: I was hosting a recovery retreat for families affected by the addictions of others. Our group was discussing how difficult it is to accept that we are  powerless over the people we love when their actions are harmful. There was one quiet mom who shared that she’d finally accepted that she was powerless over her son. But then in the next breath, she was hatching a plan to change his behavior. Everyone in the group noticed what she was doing except her. I wondered how she could be so blind to what she was doing.

Six months later this same mom showed up at another recovery retreat. She was still stuck in those same patterns of behavior. I prayed for wisdom to help her wake up to what she was doing. The rules for the discernment of spirits immediately came to mind. 

I told the group that those first two rules for the discernment of spirits reminded me of what Chinese general Sun Tzu said in his book, The Art of War:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Laying out the Modis operandi (Mode of Operation) of both God and the enemy, side by side helps us notice whose voice we’ve been listening to. 

In the first rule we look at the person who is going from mortal sin to mortal sin: 

The enemy will encourage them to continue  on this path by helping them imagine sensual delights and pleasures. God will bite and sting them through their consciences to discourage this harmful path.

Simply put, the enemy is going to encourage you to choose the things that hurt you. If we remember the fall of man in Genesis 3, we know that he uses lies, fear, shame, doubt, and blame as his tools of manipulation.

God discourages any action that is harmful to us. God’s actions communicate the unconditional love that God has for us.

In the second rule, we observe the person who is working on cleansing their sins. They are moving from good to better in following God’s will for their life:

In this case the enemy will bite, sadden and put obstacles in the way, disquieting the person. God will give courage to this person. He will offer strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and remove obstacles.

In the second rule we see that their tactics flip. God encourages us along a path that leads to our good while the enemy discourages. 

For a parent, letting a child go when they are harming themselves runs counter to everything  they have done since their child was born. I asked this mom, “When the voices in your head ask, ‘What kind of mother abandons their child in a situation like this,’ where do you think that voice is coming from?” A look of understanding washed over her face. It was clear that she knew that she hadn’t been listening to the voice of God.

What if when you hear that voice, you ask God to show you the next right step? What if you pause and wait for guidance? When we edge God out (ego) of our situations, we are turning away from God. We are headed in the wrong direction. But the minute we stop and ask for help, we are heading in God’s direction.

To help visualize these rules let’s imagine that there is a map kiosk guiding us between love and fear. The rules that describe the enemy show me how he encourages me to continue in a way that hurts me. But the rules pertaining to God show me that when I am moving forward in a way that will hurt me, God discourages me. When I allow God to lead me, I am encouraged. This idea aligns with my understanding of God who loves me.

Do you know where you are? Do you know where you’re going? Will you stop and ask for direction?

Go Deeper:


Photo by Adi Goldstein on unsplash.com 


Jean Heaton is a blogger, writer, speaker, teacher, and a workshop and retreat leader. Both her husband and son are in long-term recovery and she has worked her own Twelve Step program for those affected by the addictions of others. Jean is the author of “ Helping Families Recover from Addiction.” She shares her experience, strength, and hope with others at www.jeanheaton.com.

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