About Discernment of Thoughts

Saints Barsanuphius the Great and John the Prophet. "Letters".

St Barsanuphius the Great (6th cent.)

Note: English translation and letter numbering is from the translation by John Chryssavgis. The numbering in the English and Russian translations are different.

(There are 15 letters in this article; 6 more letters on discernment are in False Visions, and also there is Letter 421)

Letter 124
Question from a monk named Theodore to the Great Old Man: 'How can I know which thoughts are from God, which are natural and which are from the demons?" Response by Barsanuphius.

My child, Theodore, when you ask a question, you should understand what you are asking and prepare yourself for work. For it is written: "Do not be haughty, but give yourselves to humble tasks."(Rom 12.16) Your questions, brother, belong to someone with high measures. Therefore, unless the inner eye is purified by means of much sweat, you cannot be detached from thorns and prickles in order to seize the grape that strengthens and gladdens the heart. If one does not reach this measure, then one is unable to discern whether one is ridiculed and deceived by the demons in trusting them. For they transform matters as they desire, especially for those who are not familiar with their tricks. Therefore, beloved one, hope in the Lord, "and he shall give you the desires of your heart."(Ps 36.4) Cut off your own will, and in all things say to the Lord: "Not as I want, but as you want,"(Mt 26.39) and then he shall treat you in accordance with his mercy.

Child, listen to the way of discerning the three thoughts, about which you have inquired. When your thought suggests that you are doing something according to the will of God, and you find joy in the matter but also find affliction resisting you, learn that this is from God and struggle to endure, according to the words of Paul: "I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified";(1 Cor 9.27) so just fulfill the will of God.

Now, if a natural thought should come to you, pay close attention and you will discern the difference. For it is said: "Therefore, a man leaves is his father and his mother, and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh."(Gn 2.24) Since, then, the Apostle knew that it was the will of God not only to leave that which comes from the demons but also to abandon that which is natural for the sake of eternal life, he said: "The flesh is useless."(Jn 6.63) Whoever is united to a woman is one flesh with her; one who is united to the Lord is one spirit with him."(1 Cor 6.16-17) Therefore, for those who desire to be spiritual, he advised the rejection of the flesh. For whatever is not beneficial is also harmful; and whatever is harmful must be rejected. For those who live in the world and desire to lead a pious life, he proclaimed: "Marriage is held in honor,"(Heb 13.4) and so on.

As for the thoughts that come from the demons, first of all these are troubled and filled with sadness; they also subtly and surreptitiously drag one backward. They dress in sheep's clothing, that is to say, they suggest thoughts of righteousness; "but inwardly, they are ravenous wolves,"(Mt 7.15) that is to say, they seize and "deceive the hearts of the simple-minded"(Rom 16.18) with their apparent sweet-talk. Since, then, it was written about the snake that "it is the most crafty,"(Gn 3.1) always watch its head(Cf. Gn 3.15) in case it finds itself a nest and a home inside you, thereby devastating everything. So if you, too, wish to become spiritual, then reject the things of the flesh. For whatever one denies, one also rejects. Listen to the Lord himself, who says: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."(Mt 16.24) How else do people deny themselves except by leaving behind their own natural desires and following him? This is precisely why, knowing that he is speaking about natural desires, he advised that one should deny oneself and not what is contrary to one’s nature. For if one were to renounce the desires that are contrary to nature, then one has in fact left behind nothing of one's own for the sake of God, since these are not properly one's own in the first place. If, however, one renounces one's natural desires for God's sake, then such a person always cries out with the holy Apostle: "Behold, we have left everything and followed you; what, then, will remain for us?"(Mt 19.27) Indeed, you shall hear these blessed words like a promise of life. Therefore, what is it that Peter boasted about renouncing, when he was not wealthy, unless he abandoned his own natural desires? Unless a person dies according to the flesh, that person cannot rise to life according to the Spirit. For just as natural desires no longer remain within a person who has died physically, so also they do not remain within a person who has died according to the flesh spiritually. Now, if you have died according to the flesh, how is it that natural desires still live inside you? If you have not reached the spiritual measure, but are still on the fleshly level, then humble your intellect and submit to your teacher, so that he might instruct you with compassion. And "do nothing without counsel"(Cf. Sir 32.19) even if it appears to be good to you; for the light of the demons is later revealed as darkness. If, then, you hear or think or see something, with the slightest turmoil in your heart, then learn that this comes from the demons.

Therefore, accept these things, written briefly, being confident that with sweat you shall make progress in them and that the God who gives to all will also grant to you always to be with his saints, concelebrating and rejoicing with them and inheriting his goods with them, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom are due, as to the Father, together with the all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, glory, honor, and might, now and always and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Letter 405
Question from the same person to the same Old Man: "Is it possible for the demons to do good to anyone? And how is it revealed whether this good comes from the demons? And what is the difference between this and a divine gift?" Response by Barsanuphius.

There is a possibility, theoretically, that good can come someone from the evil one with the purpose of deceit. Every good, however, that comes from the devil in order to deceive us, upon closer examination, is found only to be disguise. For he is a liar, and one cannot find truth in him, as the final result will display. Indeed, the final result of his light is darkness, according to the Apostle, who says about the angels of the devil that they can be disguised into ministers of righteousness: "Their end will match their deeds";(2 Cor 11.14-15) and according to the Savior, who says: "You will know them by their fruits."(Mt 7.16)

So if you investigate with knowledge and discernment, you will certainly find that, in the supposed good that comes from the devil, there is no trace of good but only vainglory or turmoil or something else similar; on the other hand, God's good always abounds in illumination and humility of heart, bringing us to calmness. Now, if we unknowingly suffer some harm from the deceit of the evil one, and later learn about this temptation, let us return to ourselves and take refuge in the one who alone can abolish this temptation. It is also necessary to know that the saints immediately and easily perceive this difference, whereas sinners only perceive it at the end. Just as when an experienced goldsmith receives gold, he is able to say what it is even before putting it through fire, whereas an inexperienced person will know only after putting it through fire.

Letter 406
Question: "Once the supposed good of the demons is exposed, explain to me how one can escape the danger that derives from it." Response.

We are always obliged to regard good as being good. If, however, the good is tested in practice and found in fact to be evil, then it is necessary to reject it in the same way as someone who finds something to drink and thinks that it is good, but upon tasting it discovers it to be bitter. And immediately one spits it from one's mouth, even while one's mouth becomes numb through bitterness. The same happens with chestnuts, almonds, and the like. Of course, that person is not to blame for the taste. If, however, the same person learns about its bitterness and still persists in consuming it, filling his stomach with the bitterness, then one can only blame oneself. The same also applies here. Therefore, if a person is deceived but afterward learns and says: "I have been deceived; Lord Master, forgive me," he will forgive that person; for he is merciful. Learn this, too, beloved one: God does not allow us to be tested beyond our strength."(Cf. 1 Cor10.13) So in all things, let us offer supplication to him, and he will distinguish for us the good from the supposed good. To him be the glory to the ages. Amen.

Letter 407.
Question from the same person to the same [Old Man]: "If something appears to me to be good, but an opposing thought contradicts it, preventing from putting in into practice, as not in fact being good, how can I perceive whether it is truly good?" Response.

If the matter appears to you to be according to God and an opposing thought contradicts this, then this is the way of testing whether it is truly from God. If, while we are praying, our heart is strengthened for doing good, and the good increases rather than decreases, then even if the opposing thought persists in afflicting us or whether it does not persist in doing so, we should know that this matter comes from God. For the envy of the devil causes affliction in order to oppose everything good, whereas good increases abundantly through prayer. If, however, the supposed good has been suggested by the devil, which is the reason also for its resistance, then this supposed good will decrease together with the apparent resistance. For the enemy appears to be resisting the thought suggested by it, in order that we may be deceived by it, and in order that we might believe it to be good.

Letter 408
Question: "So what happens when good occurs without any affliction; is it not from God? And when I happen to perform a small act of charity and find that my thought is not afflicted, have I done this in vain, and will the deed not please God? Please enlighten my heart, father." Response.

If someone does something good and finds that the thought has not been afflicted, then that person should not feel confident that it will completely pass without affliction. For every good comes from God's way; and God is not lying when he says "The road is narrow and hard that leads to life."(Cf. Mt 7.14) Indeed, even if the affliction does not occur at the time of enacting the good, nevertheless one must certainly undergo affliction after the fact. And when one performs the good deed eagerly, then that person may not even perceive the affliction, nor again does that person perceive the variety of ways in which this affliction may occur. If, however, we are willing to examine closely, we shall certainly find it either concealed through vainglory—for this, too is a result of afflictions—or else in some person who hinders us, or again through our need afterward of the goods that we have given away in charity. Since we do not have it in our hands, we regret [having given it]. And then? Where do we find the thought that is without affliction?

Therefore, this is why we should not become too confident. For to those who lack prudence, the devil preserves the affliction for the very end. Yet one who is always prudent expects at all times to find affliction, whether today or tomorrow, and therefore is never troubled. "I prepared myself," it is said, "and was not troubled."(Cf. Ps 118.60) And blessed is the one who always holds before one's eyes the phrase: 'The earth is the Lord's, and all that is within it,"(Ps 23.1) believing that he is powerful enough to take care of me, his servant, as he wills. Such a person does not regret what he has given away. And so, if we find affliction, let us learn that God has allowed this in order to test us. For he never overlooks those who fear him, and especially those who do anything for his name.

Letter 365
Question: "My master, how many times must I pray so that my thought maybe assured about this?" Response.

When you are unable to ask your elder in regard to this, then you should pray three times about everything. Afterward, you should observe where your heart inclines, even to the slightest degree, and act accordingly. For the assurance is clear and certainly becomes apparent to the heart.

Letter 366
Question from the same [brother]: "Should I pray three times on different occasions or on one and the same occasion? For sometimes, it happens that there can be no delay in the matter." Response by John.

If you have some leisure time, then pray three limes on three different days. If, however, it is a matter of urgency, then take as your example the hour in which the Savior was betrayed—when it was certainly very urgent—and recall how he withdrew three times in order to pray the same thing.(Cf. Mt 26.44) And if it appears that we have not been heard, since the divine economy certainly has to occur, we are nevertheless taught in this not to grieve when we pray and are not heard for the time being. For he knows even more than we what is beneficial for us(Cf. 1 Cor 6.12) Let us not cease giving thanks, and we shall be saved.

Letter 367
Question from the same [brother]: "If, after praying, the assurance delays in coming, what should I do? Indeed, if it is my fault that this is concealed from me, how will I understand this? " Response.

If assurance does not come to you after praying three times, then you should know that the fault clearly lies with you. If this failure is not apparent to you, then blame yourself, and God will have mercy on you.

Letter 394

Question from the same [brother] to the same Old Man: "Often the memory of godly fear comes to me, and immediately I remember the judgment and am touched by compunction. How, then, should I receive such a memory?"

Response. At whatever time such a memory comes to you, namely, compunction over what you have done wrong either in knowledge or in ignorance, be careful lest this occurs to you through the action of the devil unto greater condemnation. And if you say: "Then, how do I distinguish genuine compunction from the one caused by the devil?" listen. Whenever such a memory comes to you and you strive to show correction in your deeds, this is genuine compunction, through which sins are forgiven. If, however, you see that you are touched by compunction after this memory, and yet you still fall into the same sins or even worse ones, then you should know that this memory comes from the enemy, who suggests this memory to you only in order to condemn your soul. Therefore, behold, the two ways are clear for you. If you want to fear condemnation, avoid its works.  

Letter 21. Response from the same Great Old Man to the same, when he intended not to order anyone to do anything, but instead decreed for himself some obvious matter, so that he might only focus attention on himself.

Brother, the more I write to you, the more you should strive to understand the things that I write to you and not to invalidate them. For my words are spoken in understanding and in a stable condition of soul. You know, brother, that whoever does not endure insults does not behold the glory; and whoever does not lay aside the gall does not taste the sweetness. You have been placed in the midst of other brothers and their affairs in order to be burned and tried. For unless gold passes through Hre, it is not proven. Do not give yourself any order at all, since you are already going through warfare and concerns, but with fear of God test those things that are appropriate for each moment; and do “nothing” at all “in contentiousness,” (Phil 2.3) but do everything you can to be foreign to wrath, becoming a model that is beneHcial to all, neither criticizing nor condemning anyone, but counseling them as genuine brothers. Instead, love those who test you. For I, too, often loved those who tested me. If we are prudent, it is such people who bring us to progress. (Cf. Abba Zosimas, Reflections 3. For an introduction to and translation of the Reflections, see Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers(Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Books, 2003), 123–50)

Therefore, do not set any decrees for yourself. Become obedient and humble; and be demanding of yourself each day. For the prophet also indicated what should be done daily, in telling us: “And I said, Now I have begun”; (Ps 76.10) and Moses also said: “So now, O Israel.” (Dt 4.1and 10.12) Therefore, you, too, should keep this “now.” If, however, it is necessary for you to give any order to someone, then test your thought to see whether this arises from some emotion. And if it still appears beneHcial to you, conceal it beneath your tongue, immediately remembering the one who said: “What will it proHt anyone to gain the whole world, but forfeit the soul?” (Mt 16.26)

And learn this, too, my brother: every thought that does not previously possess the calmness of humility is not according to God but is clearly a form of righteousness coming from the left hand. For our Lord comes with calmness, whereas all that comes from the adversary occurs with turmoil and the commotion of wrath; indeed, if they seem to put on “sheep’s clothing,” you should know that “inwardly, they are ravenous wolves.” (Mt 7.15) So they are manifested by their turmoil. For it is said: “You shall know them by their fruits.” (Mt 7.16)

May God grant all of us this understanding, so that we may not be led astray into their [forms of] righteousness. For “all things are naked and laid bare” to him. (Heb 4.13) Therefore, beloved, do everything that prospers in your hands, setting the fear of God before your eyes and giving thanks to him. For his is the glory, might, and power to the ages. Amen.

Letter 166. Another one of the fathers asked the same Old Man: “How does one guard the heart? And in what way does the warfare come from the enemy? Should one contradict temptation? And concerning the thought of fornication, should one block its entrance? If it does enter, what should one do? And about food, what should one do: weigh the exact measure of ounces or simply guess and exercise caution?” Response by John.

Guarding the heart means having the intellect vigilant and pure of the one against whom one is at war. Initially, perhaps, we treat the thought with contempt; but when the enemy sees this contempt, he struggles to engage us in warfare. Indeed, if you wish to learn whether you are dealing with friend or foe, say a prayer and ask: “Are you with us or against us?” (Sayings, Nau 99, Joshua 5.13)

And he will respond with the truth. Therefore, betrayal comes through negligence. Do not contradict temptation; for that is what the demons want, and then they will never stop. Rather, resist it by taking refuge in God, casting your weakness before him; for he is able not only to shut their mouths but also to abolish them.

As for the demon of fornication, it is good—in fact, it is very good—to block his entrance. If, however, he seizes the entrance and comes in, then wrestle with him and cast your weakness before God, praying to him, and he shall cast him out.

As for the question about food, regulate your life by guessing and guarding. And pray for me for the sake of love.

Letter 419. Question: “There are times when I can see in my heart that evil thoughts are surrounding my mind like beasts, without, however, any of my thoughts being harmed in any way. What does this mean?” Response.

This is deceit from the enemy, concealing within itself a sense of pride in order to persuade you that evil thoughts cannot bring any harm to you, and in order that your heart may be thus elated. You should not, however, be deceived; rather, remember your own weakness and sins. And invoke the holy name of God in order that he may assist you against the enemy.

Letter 422. Question: “Father, when I asked you about patience, you said that it, too, like every other good deed, is a gift from God. Yet now you have said, in regard to prayer, that the assistance is not in fact from God. Therefore, please clarify the difference between the two.” Response.

If the good deed, namely, prayer, occurred according to vainglory from the very outset, then it was undoubtedly diabolical. Nevertheless, if vainglory was not its beginning, but was in fact received only later, then in this case what originally was begun as good has been destroyed through vainglory, just as when someone builds a wall and then turns around to tear it down. If, however, vainglory has beset you, and you did not consent to receive it, then it did not harm you at all.

Letter 423. Question: “Often, as I recite the Psalms, I feel that I am growing proud. What, then, should I say to my thought?” Response.

When the heart is elated during recital of the Psalms, remember what has been written: “Let the rebellious not exalt themselves.” (Ps 65.7) Rebellion signifies that we are not in fact reciting the Psalms prudently and with fear of God. Examine, then, whether your thought wanders during the recital of the Psalms. You will surely discover that it is indeed distracted, and that you are therefore provoking God.

Letter 265. Question from the same person to the same Great Old Man: “Compassionate father, I implore you, for you see the blindness of my soul. Again I ask that you request for me the illumination of my heart, that I may be able to discern the proper thought from that which is concealing something crooked; for I am afraid to trust it. I know—although often I do not see—that I sometimes give something to someone with passion. And I have tested my thought, to see whether it has the same pleasure when the same thing is offered through another person, without [the recipient] knowing that it actually came from me; yet it was not as pleasurable for me. And again, it happens that I do not notice that I am beginning to do or say something with passion, but afterward, while I am doing or saying this, my thought begins to take pleasure in it. What should I do, wretched as I am? Then, there is another way in which this matter afflicts me, or rather my ambitious heart is afflicted. For it happens that some people will be talking to me about something, and before they actually finish speaking, my thought gives consent and takes pleasure, believing that it is wise. I ask you, father, to pray that I may receive the strength to keep silent. For I am surprised how it is that my heart knows that these things are worth nothing but that they only empty a person of everything good, and yet it still takes pleasure in them.” Response by Barsanuphius.

It is not possible for anyone to discern the thoughts without the heart laboring. Therefore, I pray that God may grant you this. Your heart will of course labor a little, but God will grant it to you. In fact, it is the same with all these things. When God grants you this gift, you will always be able to discern one thought from another through his Spirit, through the prayers of the saints, and through the labor of your heart. When you see that a particular matter gives rise to some concept within you, then be silent, just as you heard from my genuine son according to God, [Barsanuphius is referring here to John the Prophet, the Other Old Man. See also Letters 224 and 305] to whom you should listen in regard to your every thought. For he is not speaking to you of his own accord, but is only saying whatever God grants him for everyone’s benefit. And may God protect you, granting you the strength to keep silent in knowledge and the grace to know when it is necessary for you to speak without passion. For your heart does not fully know that these passions empty a person; otherwise, it would not allow you to take pleasure in them.

Read more about discernment of visions.

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