“Be sober; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8).
The apostle Peter calls us to a sober-minded watchfulness. Far from fear-mongering, he is calling us to a calm and confident vigilance with Christ and with each other. He is calling us to be awake, to be aware, and to abide in the present moment. When we do so, we grow into a very special spiritual gift: the gift of discernment.
Discernment yields a threefold benefit: 1) It unmasks the subtle lies of the devil; 2) it increases our self-awareness and maturity; 3) it tunes us in to the still small voice of God. Recall John’s words: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). At any given moment, in the depths of our heart, there are many movements. Some are from the Holy Spirit, some from the evil one, and some representing our own needs and wants. The wise and discerning person is able to see with ever greater watchfulness and clarity.
Discernment is a marvelous gift from God. Like many of his gifts, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured through consistent effort. It is not at all like riding a bicycle. It is more like playing the piano or speaking a foreign language. Most of us will need to apply ourselves diligently before seeing significant progress – but it’s worth it in the end. Yes, there are varying degrees of natural giftedness (or in this case, supernatural giftedness). But the gift only flourishes when practiced regularly. It stalls or stumbles when we become inconsistent.
As the passage from Peter indicates, discernment begins with sobriety and watchfulness. It is worth taking a peek at the Greek here. So much gets lost in translation. Peter issues a twofold command: “Be sober” (nēpsate) and “be watchful” (grēgorēsate). We should notice that he uses the second person plural (“Ye” or “Y’all” or “Yous guys” – depending on where you live). Sobriety and watchfulness and discernment of spirits cannot be exercised in isolation. We do so in a faith community, abiding in love and truth with other members of the Body of Christ. The devil’s oldest tactic is to divide and conquer. We are so much more susceptible to his lies and distortions when he gets us isolated. By contrast, when we surround ourselves with wise people who are deeply attuned to our heart, who truly care for our well-being, and who speak the unvarnished truth with love, then we will find ourselves making much more progress in the ways of discernment.
“Be sober” means much more than avoiding drunkenness. The Greek suggests self-denial and fasting, moderating the pleasures of our five senses. So, yes, “be sober” includes choosing against addictive behaviors such as drunkenness, gluttony, narcotics, fornication, pornography, or masturbation. But why? Because they pull us out of the present moment, stealing away our freedom to give and receive love. They are drugs of choice to numb our pain. They leave us fragmented and empty. They are the opposite of watchful discernment. Our “no” to over-indulgence and self-gratification must be combined with a “yes” to the present moment – choosing to be truly present to God and others and self.
Notice that Peter pairs the word nēpsate (“be sober,” “fast,” “deny yourself”) with grēgorēsate (“be watchful”). The Greek here suggests staying awake, keeping vigil, being like a night watchman. A true watchman notices everything and discerns carefully. Some sights and sounds are attention-getting, but insignificant. A skilled watchman knows not to be distracted by them. He calmly ignores them, gently refocusing on what truly matters. Conversely, he is attuned even to the slightest change of environment. No detail is too small if it is new or out of place. The more intimately familiar he is with his environment, the more skilled he is in his watchfulness and appropriate responsiveness. He is also no fool in trying to confront certain evils alone. He knows when to consult a companion for advice, when to call for help, and when to sound the alarm.
So there are three basic steps here: 1) Watch; 2) Discern; 3) Respond. Habitually doing those three things in the present moment (aided by God and others) will yield profound growth and fruitfulness in our spiritual lives. It’s so simple. Why do so few of us do it?
I suppose one of the main reasons is that watchfulness involves much self-denial and discipline. The classic Christian understanding of nēpsate and grēgorēsate is to engage in fasting and prayer vigils. Early Christians, particularly monks and religious, did so for centuries. Although it is not advisable to fast or pray in a way that harms our health or hastens our mortality, nonetheless most of us these days err in the opposite extreme of over-indulgence. Our “no” muscles could use more frequent exercising as we gain freedom from the things that enslave us.
A second obstacle is trying to do it ourselves. We resist being vulnerable to others, sharing our struggles and asking for help. It is easy to deceive ourselves with our own willfulness and ego. It is easy to pretend to be religious, all the while serving ourselves. That is why it is so important to open our discerning hearts to a third-party perspective – perhaps a trusted spiritual mentor, perhaps Church leadership, certainly the whole of Sacred Scripture and the collective wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian Tradition.
As we enter into the depths of our heart with greater watchfulness, we can begin discerning which spirits are moving there. Jesus offers a simple litmus test: “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). St. Paul lists several rotten fruits (Gal 5:19-21): self-indulgence, sensuality, lust, factions, rivalries, division, anger, hatred, jealousy, etc. We can add other rotten fruits: obstinacy, rebelliousness, paralyzing fear, discouragement, and despair. The Holy Spirit will never prompt us to these attitudes and behaviors. If we experience them, it is a sure sign that we are not being led by the Holy Spirit and that we need to turn to God and ask for grace and conversion. By contrast, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. If we experience those positive attitudes in the depth of our heart it is a sure sign we are being led by the Spirit.
Finally comes our response. If we discern the work of the evil one, Peter urges us to resist him with faith. If we resist him firmly and directly, he will flee (James 4:7). By contrast, if we discern the Holy Spirit leading us, we respond with docility. He will act. We need only abide and cooperate freely.
How can we grow in this great gift of watchful discernment? In addition to daily Lectio Divina, there are a couple of other prayer methods that help immensely. I look forward to sharing those in the weeks ahead.