Q: Dear Dan, my thought life is sometimes out of control. When I get angry or disturbed it seems like these feelings press a “replay” button on the scenes of my struggle to the point where I want to scream to make it stop. Sometimes I lose lots of sleep. The tapes in my head replay what I should have said or could have said - what will I do in response etc.
A: Dear Friend, the great thing about this question is that you realize that you are being influenced or burdened in a way that is not in keeping with what God desires of you. As you probably well know, the unmanaged musings of an injured soul can easily lead us away from the peace that Christ has for us and into further sin or destructive behavior. Your self-awareness is a very important first step in the right direction.
Let’s start with the first part of your question, knowing the source of our thoughts. It is both possible, and important, to learn the discernment skills necessary to understand if our thoughts come from our self, the devil, or God. Your mention of an automatic ‘replay button’, and the struggle and unrest that come with it are good indicators that these thoughts are not from God. That leaves us two final options, the self, or the devil.
Thoughts Rooted in our Own Minds
On a natural level, our memories are trained by years of repeated behavior. There are automatic negative thoughts that some of us experience when, for instance, we make a mistake. “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” We can go on forever beating ourselves up to no good end. This is not of God. (St. Therese of Lisieux has a lot of good advice in regard to being kind to ourselves.) We need to retrain our memory so that we break the tapes. A good way to do this is by simply adopting any short prayer that we commit to repeat every time these thoughts surface. This prayer can be as simple as “Lord Jesus I trust in you” or a hail Mary.
Discernment About Thoughts from God and the Enemy
Although the devil cannot read our thoughts, he watches us carefully for our entire lives and he knows just how we will react to certain things. As well, he will supply all the rationalization and arguments we need in those “shoulda, coulda, woulda ”conversations , and even when our thoughts start out on a positive note, he will seek to lead us off track and right back to the old familiar patterns. In The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, (Rules four and five for the second week.), he tells us in to watch the scope of our thoughts from beginning to end. They must be good in the beginning, middle, and end, to be of the good spirit (from God). If they fail to be good in any part, then we have likely been influenced by something that is not of God.
Learning to tell the difference between thoughts that come from our self or from the devil takes a lot of practice and discernment, and is best done with the help of a spiritual director. But a good starting point is to begin by learning what is of God, and what is not of God. When thoughts are from God they are gentle and peaceful. If He chastises, He does so in a way that does not condemn but seeks to restore. A good example of this is when we see with complete honestly, and often humor (“Oh man! I knew better than to do that!”), that we’ve done something wrong, and we simply do what’s necessary to make it right and not dwell on it.
Some people are always thinking. Yet God makes them this way, and He provides all the grace needed to keep some sort of order in our thought processes. It will often happen that while musing on an issue like giving advice to a friend, we will suddenly understand that a particular thought is the perfect solution to a dilemma of our own. You can be sure that the Holy Spirit is behind these redemptive insights.
Knowing one’s ‘root sin’ is also helpful in determining some of the reasons why our thoughts drift in certain patterns. Once we do understand them, then we can work on changing them. It’s also good to remember to look for the fruit of our thoughts. Are they productive or did I just waste a bunch of time? If we are wasting time, it is not likely that the source is good.
These are just a few tips. You might find a book on Saint Ignatius Discernment of Spirits to be helpful. The best one I am aware of is by Fr. Timothy Gallagher. You can learn more about that book here.