Monday, April 27, 2020

Discernment of Thoughts - Saint Symeon the New Theologian

Saint Symeon gives advice on how to properly discern which thoughts are good for us to act on and which ones will lead us away from God. For him it is very clear: Check to see if your thoughts are in agreement with Holy Scripture, the teachers of the Church fathers, and other holy persons. Those that are in agreement go ahead and act on them. Those that are not, aggressively discard them. Here is how he says it.
“We must carefully discern the thoughts that come on us and set against them the testimonies from the divinely inspired Scriptures and from the teaching of the spiritual teachers, the holy father‘s, so that if we find them to agree with these witnesses and correspond to them we may all with all our might hold fast these thoughts and boldly act on them. But if they are not in harmony with the “word of truth” we must expel them from us with much anger, as it is written, “Be angry and not sin.” 
Holy Scripture tells us where we can find truth we can rely on. Saint Paul says,
“In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Eph 1:13-14)
Saint Paul further emphasizes how important this is. He says because of our hope of eternal life we need to carefully discern the thoughts we should pay attention to. The words that we need to pay attention to are found in the Gospel which is Truth. He writes,
“Because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, which has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth” (Col 1:5-6)
Then in Psalms we see that we must have anger and remorse in what we make up in our hearts, that which is not I accordance with Scripture.
“Be angry, and do not sin; Have remorse upon your beds For what you say in your hearts.” (Ps  4:5)
Saint Symeon points out that it is Jesus who has told us to place our Trust in the Scriptures. We read in John’s Gospel,
Accordingly we need great soberness, great zeal, much searching of the divine Scriptures. The Saviour has shown us their usefulness by saying, “search the Scriptures.“ (John 3:38-39) 
We find recorded in John where Jesus is rebuking those who do not believe in Him. Those who do not heed or properly read the Scriptures, will not find the eternal life He promises. He says,
“But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (John 3:38-39)
Saint Symeon encourages us study the Scriptures and pay attention to what they say about what we are to believe and what we are to do. It is only in this way that we will understand God’s will and know the difference between good and evil. This is the way we can recognize the thoughts we are to honor and those we must reject. He says,
“Search them and hold fast to what they say with great exactitude and faith, in order that you may know God’s will clearly from the divine Scriptures and be able infallibly to distinguish good from evil and not obey every spirit nor be carried away with harmful thoughts.”
Saint John warns us about the many voices who proclaim falshoods, who misinterpret Scripture or have no belief in Jesus Christ as our savior. He writes,
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”  (1 John 4:1-3)
Paul, too, reminds us to learn from those who have faith in Jesus and have been called to teach us.  If we are not careful we can be manipulated like children and lead down a path that takes us away from God. He says,
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,† for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” (Eph 4:11-14)
Saint Symeon looks at the word of God as a two edged sword. It helps us to recognize and cut off our bodily desires that can dominate our thoughts and lead us astray, and it can also give us the needed zeal that motivates us to make changes in our lives by only giving credence to the thoughts that lead is closer to Him. He says,
“For the word of God is “like a two edged sword“, which cuts off and separates the soul from every bodily lust and feeling. Even more, it becomes like a burning fire in that it kindles the zeal of the soul. 
We find this teaching also in the writing of Paul.
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb 4:12)
How well we are able to control our thoughts, only allowing those that are good for our relationship with God to influence our actions, determines not only our salvation but also the quality of our life. Saint Symeon says,
“It causes us to despair all life’s painful experiences and to count as joy every trial that assails, and to desire and embrace death, which is so frightening to other men as life and the cause of life.”
This discernment of thoughts is the front line in spiritual warfare. It is our thoughts that always come before our actions. If we can win the battle in the mind we can take actions that are pleasing to God, that lead us toward a union with Him. They way to do it is to compare them with Scripture and the teaching of our Church fathers. We must remember that our aim is to realize our hope of eternal life with Him. Saint Symeon reminds us that this is a never ending battle. We must be ever vigilant of our thoughts, ever discerning between those that are good and those that are evil.
“Warfare goes on constantly, and the soldiers of Christ must at all times be armed with their weapons.”

Reference: Saint Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses, Chapter 3, pp 67-68.

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