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My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?
Galatians 5:16-18  (The Message)

Philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) reasoned, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”.  Centuries before smart phones, eBooks, iPods, and television, Pascal recognized the human aversion to being alone with God and one’s thoughts.  The human condition nervously grabs for some distraction.  (Just try sitting alone in a room for a few moments without something to read or some digital diversion.)  But sadly, the less attention we give to what is churning inside, the less free we will be for making wise choices.  We are left unaware of forces drawing us every which way.

It is to these contrary inner forces that the Apostle Paul wants to focus our attention in today’s Scripture:

For there is a root of sinful-self interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness.  

Paul points to the civil war raging within every person seeking to live for God.  We are pulled this way and that, pulled towards God and away.  The question that keeps coming is: “How do we know when it is the Spirit of God drawing us or our own sinful self-interest?”

For centuries Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) has been regarded as a master in helping people know God’s will.  He has proven to be a wise guide in spiritual discernment and sorting out the push and pull of spirits.

Ignatius’ own quest for discerning God’s will began as he was alone with God and his thoughts.  During a long convalescence from serious battle injuries, he observed the contrary movements within as he pondered his future.  In his autobiography Ignatius writes in the third person about becoming aware of the Holy Spirit and sinful self-interest at war within:

He did not consider nor did he stop to examine this difference until one day his eyes were partially opened and he began to wonder at this difference and to reflect upon it.  From experience he knew that some thoughts left him sad while others made him happy, and little by little he came to perceive the different spirits that were moving him; one coming from the devil, the other coming from God.

Ignatius named these warring inner movements “consolation” and “desolation”.  (See last week’s eVotional, May 30, “Are You Headed in the Right Direction?”).  He derived these terms from the Latin root, meaning “with the sun” (con-sol), and, “from the sun”(de-sol).  These contrary inner movements are illustrated in a green plant flourishing as it moves “with the sun”, and withering as it moves “from the sun’s” life-giving rays.  Similarly, movements “with” God’s Spirit bring love, joy, peace, and other fruit of the Spirit; movements “from” God’s Spirit result in confusion, doubt, despair, and other workings of sinful self-interests (See Galatians 5:16-26).

It was to help people become aware of these inner movements that Ignatius devised the Examen.  Examen is not a misspelling but is the Latin word for the pointer or indicator on a scale; the Examen points to the weight.  Ignatius proposed the questions of the Examen as an indicator of the conflicting movements within us.

The Examen begins with us first setting aside a few moments each day to do that which Pascal said is so difficult but important: “to sit quietly in a room alone”.  In those few moments alone in God’s presence we ask the following questions:

  • For what moment today am I most grateful?
  • For what moment today am I least grateful?
  • When did I feel most alive today?
  • When did I feel least alive today?
  • When did I most experience God’s presence today?
  • When did I least experience God’s presence today?
  • When did I most feel love?
  • When did I least feel love?

Ignatius found that as people took time to sort through these and other similar questions that they became aware of the Holy Spirit’s leading.  “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1).  I will sometimes journal my answers to these questions as well as my thoughts and feelings about them.  When the daily Examen is practiced over several days and weeks it can be helpful in discerning God’s movement within.  I, along with many others, regard the daily Examen as one of the most important of all spiritual disciplines.  I think that you too will find it quite helpful in your walk with God.  You might even find it life changing!  I hope you will try it!  Follow next week, as we will explore more of how to rightly discern the stirrings within us.

Grace and peace,

photo by Gino Carteciano

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