Test the Spirits – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

1 John 3:18—4:6

“You don’t have to believe everything you think.”

It’s a phrase that seems to appear everywhere these days, from bumper stickers to headline articles in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. It captures, in a brief and memorable phrase, some real wisdom about the nature of the mind. The mind is capable of being held hostage, by seemingly demanding and imperious thoughts and feelings, all day long. “What the hell is his problem?…I need to buy milk!…I love her so much I would die without her…That is the cutest puppy I’ve ever seen!… Why am I so worthless?” The mind is also capable of gentle, inner observation, quiet equipoise, and spacious non-judgment, capacities which can open a space of sanity and healthy detachment in our experience of self. Through the development of an inner, witnessing presence, we can begin to see the truth in that phrase: “I don’t have to believe everything I think.” We can forgive ourselves for the negative thoughts that arise and we can avoid the ego’s swift, smug self-congratulation for positive thoughts that all too quickly dissolve. We can actively engage our thoughts in prayer with a certain level of objectivity, as in the Ignatian spiritual practice called the examen of conscience – also sometimes called “examen of consciousness.” We can cultivate our inner muscle of release or self-emptying of thoughts through even older forms of contemplative prayer. We can begin to find in our thoughts essential clues to our integration and our salvation. We can lay claim to the thoughts that tell our true story.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets are at large in the world.”

Like all of the world’s major religious traditions, Christianity has cultivated practices for the training of the mind from its earliest days. While it’s easy to be distracted by the language of spirits and demons that characterize such writings, it’s not difficult to see how ancient people used such concepts to get a handle on the vast range of invisible, intangible, incorporeal influences that impact human well-being. The earliest monks and nuns in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine heard Jesus’ exhortations to “repent” and to “keep awake” as keys to the conversion of the whole self – beginning with the basic building blocks of our thoughts. Evagrius of Pontus, writing in the fourth century, advised: “If there is any monk who wishes to take the measure of some of the more fierce demons so as to gain experience in his monastic art, then let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity, their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall. Let him note well the complexity of his thoughts, the demons which cause them, with the order of their succession and the nature of their associations. Then let him ask from Christ the explanations of these data he has observed.” (Praktikos, 50).

The author of the First Letter of John offers some disarmingly simple but spiritually profound advice on what Christian tradition has come to call “the discernment of spirits”:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”

If we think of spirits in this context as any invisible force or influence that manifests within our attention as a thought or thought pattern, the implications are radical: some thoughts themselves “confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” and some thoughts don’t.

Let me clarify. It’s easy for us as Christians to see the value in the thought “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” a thought that opens the door to active participationin the believing community. “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” is a consciously, manifestly Christian thought. Scripture and the tradition of the Church help us make such manifest confessions of Christ a permanent feature of our psychic landscape. At deeper and more mysteriously levels than the conscious mind, they shape contours of our spirit.  But what about all those thoughts and feelings that have no consciously Christian content? I think what the author of First John is trying to do – in ways that can seem very black-and-white at times – is to instill in us an increased, conscious awareness of the Christian or unchristian nature of all thoughts. I think First John is saying that the content of the thoughts we choose to believe is rarely neutral. But even more, I think First John is suggesting that how we think the thoughts we choose to believe is the crux of the matter – the true baptism of our minds. All changes in our believing and our behaving, our perception and our presence, proceed from that point – where we are not only toward God but from God.

As we kick-start our journey through Epiphany this morning, this season that celebrates the mystery of hidden things made gloriously, consciously, undeniably manifest, I mostly want to leave us with some questions: Do the thoughts and patterns of thought that ebb and flow on the tide of our minds confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh? Can we invest conscious energy in thoughts that confess Jesus Christ and withdraw attention from that ones that don’t? As we believe in and confess Christ with our thoughts, can we also aspire to think and act with, and though, and in the mind of Christ?

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  1. Lorna Harris on January 13, 2017 at 06:14

    I really enjoyed your insights and explanations. Epiphany indeed!

  2. Ruth West on January 12, 2017 at 23:56

    This is such a significant sermon. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Br. Keith. I thought of the scripture found in Philippians which says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death…” I also remember a favorite little hymn that I sang often many years ago (when I COULD
    sing!) entitled “May the Mind of Christ my Savior.”
    It had six stanzas, but the first one is the one I loved: “May the mind of Christ, my Savior, Live in me from day to day, By His love and power controlling All I do and say.” Psalm 59 is a great one which speaks to deliverance from the enemies of our souls.
    As Brother Lawrence did, we need to practice the presence of God, daily, continually in all experiences and circumstances of our life. I confess that I do not follow this admonition as I need to do. So often it comes down to: “Do as I say, and not as I do.”
    But my best spiritual times are when I do as Jesus the Christ modeled, and God empowers me with His Holy Spirit.

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