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Not Every Voice You Hear in Prayer comes from God

 May 23, 2023

It’s a beginner’s lesson, learning that not every voice you hear in prayer comes from God. And yet, with over sixty years of a life committed to seeking God’s will, I can still fall into that common error. So I’m forced to remind myself again and again, not every voice you hear in prayer comes from God!

Just a few weeks ago I found myself sitting in the adoration chapel, my mind filled with thoughts of something that had happened at church that it would not let go of. Here I was in this sacred spot, enjoying quiet time with God, and all I could think of was this event. Must be God was speaking to me through this, correct? Maybe, maybe not. By the end of the hour, I had determined on a course of action, because, of course, that was what God wanted of me, right?

I’ve lived long enough to know never to act immediately on such determinations. I gave myself time, wrote a letter that helped me let off steam, then let it sit for a while. I even found myself chastising myself for allowing my thoughts to run away with my time with God rather than enjoying this time together. But not for long.

I don’t beat up on myself for allowing distractions to take me off course in prayer. As long as I am sitting in God’s presence, at least I’m doing something. My intent is to pray, even if I don’t always fulfill this to the optimum level. I figured, maybe I just needed to blow off steam with God about this.

Where Do Those Voices Come From?

The Ego

More often than not, the voices we hear in prayer are our own. The ego gets in the way. Sometimes the ego tries to tell us that God wants us to do something fantastic in God’s service. Sell everything and go to a mission. Give up everything we own and live with the poor. Not that those aren’t good things to do. The question is whether it comes from God or our ego. The ego likes to puff itself up with extraordinary feats to win acclaim. It has a hard time dealing with the ordinary, doesn’t want to believe that we are in any way ordinary. So, an ordinary life of marriage and family? Meh.

Or it may puff itself up by insisting we are the worst of the worse. We are the worst of sinners, because we can’t be ordinary.

Included in the ego are all of those voices from our past that have told us, we don’t measure up, or we are losers. All of the lies we were told and believed.

Evil Spirits

Then there are other voices than can come from evil spirits. There is evil in this world, apart from human evil that we all can fall prey to. These spirits can lurk anywhere. They delight in leading people astray. The better person you become, the more they may target you.

I was dismayed a number of years ago when it seemed I saw an evil spirit dancing about while I was at Mass. I’m not prone to seeing such things and quickly dismissed it to my imagination. But when discussing the situation with other spiritual directors, they reminded me that no place is safe from evil, not even a church sanctuary in the midst of prayer. This could even be a favorite place of attack. So I told myself I had to be on guard even in sacred spaces. And I asked myself, in what way was I under attack? How was evil trying to take me off course?

How Do We Tell the Difference?

Discerning whether something is coming from God, our ego, or an evil spirit, is challenging. It requires work on our part, constantly challenging how our own ego might be involved in a decision we are making. It requires an openness to being found wrong and admitting that. Sometimes talking to others helps. Other times that produces more confusion. Who told you it would be easy? Even great saints get it wrong at times.

Thomas Merton, a contemplative monk and world-renowned spiritual writer was a man of many moods, many passions. He could vent angrily as easily as utter words of rapturous love. I imagine he must have been a challenge to live with at times.

Merton was known to complain about the loss of the Latin Mass which he had grown to love from his conversion to Catholicism and twenty-five years as a monk, while at the same time commending the heart of the liturgical reform coming out of Vatican II. His feelings were strong because of the importance of these issues to him. My feelings about my church are also strong because of the importance of church and faith in my life. If I’m not careful I can let those feelings lead me astray.

Not Every Voice You Hear in Prayer comes from God

As for the situation I was reacting to above, I asked myself, what is the temptation? What is the lie? Maybe I was once again falling prone to my own desire, quest, to find the, if not perfect church, at least a church that meets my perceived needs rather than stick around and deal with the imperfections in my current church. Or maybe what I needed was precisely what I had if I was open to it and set aside my own suppositions. How was I being challenged to grow through this?

Sometimes, in order to discern which voice we are listening to, we need to release feelings and ego and be willing to wait for God. God was speaking to me in that chapel. I just needed to get beyond myself in order to hear, which can sometimes take days, weeks, a lifetime. And even then, there is no guarantee you are getting it right. You need to pray anyway, humbly kneeling before the mystery that is God.

What about you? What has been your experience in prayer? How do you discern what voice you are hearing? How do you set aside your ego in order to hear God better?


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