“Deus vult!” “God wills it!” That was the cry of the first Crusaders in the late 11th century. What began with more or less noble intentions as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which, by the way, had been under Muslim control for several centuries), quickly descended into a military campaign. Conquest, not coexistence, became the goal.
I think I’m safe in saying that none of us have participated in a bloody crusade, at least not knowingly. None of us have gotten it in our head that that was our mission from God. Still, all of us have gotten it in our heads, at least on occasion (and frequently, more often than that), an idea that turned out to be ill-conceived.
In the first letter of John there is a warning to his readers to beware of that. “Beloved,” he says, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (v. 1). False prophets abound, but we need not believe a false prophet to get a crazy idea in our head—an idea we think is from God!
Let me give you an example. This was about my proposed plans for life.
In my final semester at Middle Tennessee State University, I got the idea in my head that I should quit school and go to California.
My major was Political Science, but with my exploration of faith—Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Zen—I began to see myself as a seeker of truth, wandering the Earth. Combining that with my great love of music, I decided that I should return to the land of my first memories of life, San Diego, and get a job in a record store. I even went to the school library, looked through a San Diego telephone book (this was before the internet), and I found a store near the ocean.
So I made a phone call to my mom and told her what God was leading me to do! She didn’t have very much to say. She didn’t ask me, “What in the world are you thinking?” She simply suggested that I go ahead and finish out the semester, since I was so close to graduating anyway, and then see what I thought. If God really wanted me to make this major change in my life, waiting a few more weeks wouldn’t hurt. That turned out to be some pretty good advice.
After a couple of days had gone by, it occurred to me God really did not want me to run off to San Diego! Who would have thought it?
The author of 1 John says to “test the spirits.” What are “the spirits”? Are they supernatural beings? Are they powers and forces in culture and society? Are they emotional states of being? Are they all of those and maybe something else?
The final day of this month, the 31st, is the feast day for St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius was a military officer in 16th century Spain. As a young man, he was a wild one. He was a gambler, and kept himself well-groomed, because he loved the ladies. While fighting the French in the north of Spain, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin. (If that cannon ball were a few inches higher, well, forget the ladies!) Ignatius endured many painful months of recovery.
While bedridden, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry. They weren’t available, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints. He experienced his conversion while reading those books. Ignatius decided to use the energy he formerly devoted to warfare to the cause of Christ. He founded the order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.
Ignatius wrote a book entitled, The Spiritual Exercises. In it, he includes a section on “Discerning the Spirits.” His use of the word “spirits” reflects a concept that today we might call “inclinations.” One of his main ideas is the difference between what he calls “consolation” and “desolation.”
It’s been noted that, for Ignatius, “consolation means love of God and our fellow human beings. It is a genuine relationship that moves and fulfills. It is faith, hope, and [love] and ‘every interior joy which calls and attracts one toward heavenly things.’” Desolation is the opposite. It is “darkness of soul, confusion of spirit, attraction to what is base and worldly, restlessness caused by many disturbances and temptations which lead to lack of faith, hope, or love.”
That note about “confusion of spirit” might describe me when I was pitching the idea to my mother about quitting school and taking off for California.
It is not a good idea to make a major decision while in a state of desolation. It’s not a good idea to do that while in a state of crisis. That state of crisis might include great anxiety, despair, or a very strong feeling of being rushed into something. I’m not sure how aware she was of this, but with her word of caution, my mother was utilizing an Ignatian principle!
There are a number of ways to “discern” or “test the spirits.” Is it the Holy Spirit, or some other spirit? Kirsteen Kim provides some examples. The first one is what we see in our scripture text: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (v. 2). That one’s really important; we’ll come back to it.
The second way she mentions is to ask, “Does it demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?” Thinking of Galatians 5, we ask things like: does it help us to be more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, better able to exercise self-control? Does it help us to be more Christ-like?
Another way of testing the spirits would be the presence of charismatic gifts, like healing and speaking in tongues. Still, in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul points out that these gifts must be exercised in a spirit of love. There can be a temptation to say, “Look at me! Aren’t I spiritual?” Other gifts of the Holy Spirit may include empowerment to teach, to give, to exercise compassion (Ro 12:7-8). In reality, there are numerous gifts of the Spirit.
The final thing Kim mentions is the Spirit leads us to be concerned about the downtrodden, however that appears. The Spirit wants us to seek justice. In Luke 4, the Spirit leads Jesus to announce “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” and letting “the oppressed go free” (v. 18).
But what’s going on with that business regarding a spirit from God confessing Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?
At one level, it simply means that Jesus lived as a flesh and blood human being. It means that Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, was embodied just like you and me. He wasn’t just a spiritual being, without physical substance.
The thought that follows in verse 3 is that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (v. 3). There’s an alternate reading that says “every spirit that does away with Jesus [or “dissolves Jesus”] is not from God.”
Here’s another meaning: if Jesus were not incarnate, in the flesh, our faith in Christ need not be in the flesh. We would do away, or dissolve, Jesus. It would be enough to go through life thinking or wishing something were so, but without doing anything in the body—without taking action in the real world.
Again, some words of wisdom from my mother apply. At one time or another, I expressed my belief that praying for someone or some situation was enough. It was now in the hands of Jesus. But my mom asked what was I going to do about it. That’s a good and often uncomfortable question. I said, “I’ve prayed. Isn’t God all powerful?” Her response was that by now acting on it would “give my prayer wings.”
I realize there are times when things really are out of our control. Sometimes there are forces at work we can’t help. At those times, it really is in the hands of God. But prayer is also about changing us; it’s also about changing our vision towards the world.
Notice how verse 3 ends. A spirit that does not confess Jesus “is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.” The spirit of the antichrist: a word which, by the way, does not appear in the book of Revelation. What is this antichrist?
Here’s one answer. It’s the spirit that says we need not live as though we belonged to Christ. It’s enough to have the idea, but don’t dare put it into practice! The spirit of antichrist says that faith should be a strictly private matter. Just keep it to yourself. Hide your light.
Johannes Baptist Metz has an interesting take on this. “Satan wants the Incarnation to be an empty show, where God dresses up in human costume but doesn’t really commit totally to the role. The devil wants to make the Incarnation a piece of mythology, a divine puppet show.” I like that. A divine puppet show. Again, it’s about not living our faith in the flesh.
Here’s a question. What do we make of verse 6? “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
If we take the time to test the spirits, if we take the time—with God’s help—to listen to the Holy Spirit, then we can develop the capacity to know the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Even so, we are not infallible; we make mistakes. And we should be ready, we should allow ourselves, to be surprised. We should allow ourselves to be surprised by what, and who, we once would have rejected out of hand. Returning to my original image, we can go on our own crusade, but without love, we’re just being self-righteous.
So, what is love? That has been asked by many people. That includes Haddaway, in his 1990s dance song, “What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me),” a song that inspired a popular skit on Saturday Night Live.
Is love just a dreamy, sentimental state?
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once quoted, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. [People] will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last too long but is soon over, with [everyone] looking and applauding as though on the stage.”
(Maybe even a stage with a puppet show?)
Love can be a harsh and dreadful thing. It can be painful, because it takes time. It isn’t just one and done. And as our friend Dorothy suggests, love can mean taking actions and making decisions for the sake of Christ which might not be popular with others.
So, as our scripture ends, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God,” that involves testing the spirits. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Imagine that. Loving our neighbor, loving each other and giving ourselves to each other means loving God, giving ourselves to God.
How can we act as though Jesus Christ has come in the flesh? Is there something you have tested and know is from the Holy Spirit? What are we waiting for? The love of God does the heavy lifting. That’s when we can truly say, “Deus vult!” “God wills it!”
 in Susan Rakoczy, “Transforming the Tradition of Discernment,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 139 (March 2011): 96.
 Kirsteen Kim, “How Will We Know When the Holy Spirit Comes?” Evangelical Review of Theology 33:1 (January 2009): 95.
 Rakoczy, 107.