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Thoughts: from the devil or just from my own mind?

March 13, 2012 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Discernment

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 from the devil my head replay what I should have said or could have said – what will I do in response etc. I guess my main question is how do I know the source of these thoughts and then how do I battle them or manage them effectively if it is even possible or important to know?

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 are sourced in our own mind, 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, 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  and his minions can watch us carefully to learn how we react to events, people, or ideas. 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 ourselves 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.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Carol

    I was reading this article this morning and there were a bunch of comments – one of which had a website for an online Ignatian retreat. Can you tell me what happened to the comments?????

    • Dear Carol – Don’t know specifically if something happened technically. However, I did edit out a link to a specific source because I have investigated them in the past and found a significant amount of questionable material there. The FAQ on our post guidelines can be found here if you would like more info.

      • fairlady68

         I am glad you are paying such close attention to the comments and weeding things out this way. It’s easy to get led astray by links that people append to articles like these.

      • Melissa

        Hi, I had posted a link to an online Ignatian retreat under the question about prayer life a few days ago. I looked and the link is still there. I hope that is not the one you mentioned that had questionable material!Doing the retreat I posted was the start of a huge change in life for me and moving closer to God. I learned my whole purpose in life is to love, serve and praise God. If I learned nothing else, that would suffice. My priest said anything from that site (the one I posted) should be ok because they have a good reputation as a Catholic University. I hope it is ok.

  • Marie Teresa

    thank you!

  • Rowenalitorja

    Dear Dan,

    Praying to the Holy Spirit will help us the discern. Then we reflect our thoughts if they are gentle and peaceful. We can also pray to St Michael to guide and protect us as we walk to spiritual journey, it is important the silence moment to communicate to the Holy Spirit if our thoughts is from God to help us in right directions.  

  • Genny

    Does this also apply to prayer intentions? Sometimes a situation arises and when I think of praying a thot immediately pops in my head saying that it is for a selfish motive and I should concerntrate my prayers in other areas that are more important. What should I do in such situations? eg. We are looking to migrate and so far the responses we got are negative since we dont qualify. Can I pray to God about it?

    • $1650412

      I have to say here that you can pray to God about anything. You can ask for anything- and God can lead you to understanding where your thoughts, intentions and desires  are disordered or skewed or where your requests are selfishly motivated or not in accordance with His will. I am not sure it is correct, but I would not withhold myself from the Lord or from prayer until I ‘get it right’ in any circumstance, although I am sure He is honored by the desire to approach Him in a manner that pleases Him. Another thing I think, is to take EVERYTHING that is in your heart to Him. I take all of it. The good, the bad, the high, the ugly, and I beg Him to help me sort it out, to bring me into conformity with His image and ultimately to give me every grace so that I can be completely and only His own. God is so good, He can do alot with very little!

  • Mizue Inokuchui

    It’s no good at all. I donn’t know.


    I caught Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s series “Living the Discerning Life” on EWTN. It was really excellent! I can’t wait to get the book.

    • Judy – this is really a fantastic series that EWTN has put together with Fr. Gallagher. I purchased it in order to review and recommend for our readers. You beat me to it – I will probably do a post some time soon.

  • Dembia6

    I have struggled with this same problem for years. When this happens I bless myself with holy water (St Teresa of Avila was a big advocate of this practice). I ask God for the grace to think as He does. The St Michael the Archangel prayer is next. If I’m still struggling, I say the Divine Praises out loud (even if just whispered). I have never done this twice thru before the thoughts cease. After that you just treat them like you would impure thoughts. Reject them as soon as you notice them, and then repeat all the steps above. The motivation is when you are lost in that awful spiral of replaying scenes or having imaginary conversations you are missing God’s real Presence in the present. It’s not worth it! God bless you. Hope this helps.

  • Salibadoris

    i like this very much

  • Markdohle

    I have learned to not fight myself, but to simply love that part of me that is in pain, to pray and move on. If it comes back, I simply, again, love that part of myself and pray. I trust in God, not my own ability to be perfect. I do have anger issues that flow from my 2nd year, so the energy is primordial and very strong. Though as I get older (63), healing continues along with my trust.
    We long for what is deep and eternal,often seeking in ways that only increase our hunger,our longings are hard task mastersshowing no pity,just pain and frustrationuntil what is sought is embraced with all of ones heart, mind and soul.

  • Chris

    I read in a book at a monestary about the desert fathers and it said ” you are a man and you expect not to have evil thoughts?” I dismissed it because it goes against everything else I’ve learned. I have been searching to find that book again. If anyone knows of this book, please let us know.

  • Fr Roy

    I really like your answer to the above question, Dan. It is possible to give a real life example that a “thought should be good in its beginning, middle and end.?

    • Becky Ward

      Dear Fr. Roy,

      I’m not Dan, but until he has a chance to respond I think I might have an example in answer to your question.

      Suppose that I hear that my neighbor is ill. I know that he/she lives alone and has no family close by.  I am inspired to make some soup, deliver it to the neighbor and offer my assistance if they need any help. If I follow through on this, all is well and good.

      It might happen that when I get the inspiration to make the soup………….I remember how this person didn’t lift a finger to help another neighbor who recently needed it……and decide to let them reap what they have sowed and not help them.

      It has happened to me that after the initial inspiration to make soup, I hear a voice ask me, “Why not make up a nice basket, with some homemade bread and some tea to go with the soup?” And I say to myself, “That’s a good idea.”  But then I have to go to the store to get a basket…..and I don’t have time today to make bread, so I’ll finish it tomorrow……then an emergency comes up the following day and I have no time. By the third day, the neighbor is better and I am too embarrassed to deliver the basket.

      It has also happened to me that while I am making the soup, or a birthday gift for a friend, I will hear “a voice” ask me, “Did they do this for you when you were sick….or for your birthday?” Oh! How many times I have entertained a whole line of thoughts that end in a downward spiral where I am not happy with myself and am not feeling very charitable toward my neighbor/friend either. 🙁

      Finally, I can deliver the soup, have a nice visit with my neighbor who was very appreciative, and then be hit with repeated thoughts about whether or not they will return the favor……

      I try very hard to remember that I seek to please God alone, and to NOT entertain any of the negative thoughts that come to mind. It gets easier with practice…………….

      Is this anywhere near what you were looking for?

      • LizEst

         Hey Becky,

        Some holy saint often said to the devil, when a bad thought overtook a good thought or intention–I didn’t start this because of you and I’m not going to finish this because of you!!!!!

        I find this little phrase to be very helpful.

  • Rstillmaker

    This seems to contradict

    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.

    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

    • Amybrooks

      I see your misunderstanding. While the devil cannot read your thoughts, he can “whisper in your ear” so to speak. He is very, very smart, and from watching and knowing you he knows how you will react to certain things. I hope this helps clarify your confusion.

    • Becky Ward

      Amy has given a good explanation.

      By way of example, say you have a problem yelling at people in traffic. You decide to work on this and instead of getting angry you determine you will pray until the anger subsides. The devil who has watched you for your whole life, will notice that you’re not getting angry…and maybe even that you appear to be praying, so he will suggest (whisper in your ear) all sorts of things…maybe even things that have nothing to do with the driver who upset you….in order to distract you and prevent you from doing the good – praying – that you had determined to do.

  • tll

    Dear Dan,
    Please consider that you may have OCD. I a very similar experience to you — the “tapes” playing in my head, the sleepless nights, anxiety — and after much prayer I got evaluated. My treatment was very simple, a low dose anti-depressants, and my symptoms are greatly relieved. I am now free of the gut-wrenching anxiety, and I can sleep again. Please do take the gifts God puts before us in the form of those who are trained to help. Do not stop praying, do not stop praising God, and do not let the Evil One make you think this is a hopeless situation. My prayers are with you.

  • LizEst

    Hey Dan,

    Spirit Daily has linked to this! First time I’ve seen that. Thought you’d like to know.

  • Tim

    Sorry to burst everyone’s worldview but we are not a puppet or a robot manipulated from external sources. Rather God gave us a will and an intellect. The devil cannot put thoughts into our minds. Blaming bad or evil thoughts on ‘the devil’ is a cop out. Evil thoughts are simply those thoughts that do not bring us into communion with God. God has given us the grace to recognize and discern thoughts that lead us toward Him and those that lead us away from Him. But they are our thoughts. Take responsibility for yourself. If you have trouble with this, confess this so that your priest can help.

  • Lynneol

    You really should go to a doctor and see if you have OCD. Just like tll, I also have OCD with constant thoughts racing through my mind. Sometimes the same thought for 2 or 3 years. Medication can break the cycle and give you peace. You may not even need meds after your symptoms are under control.

    In the end, if you do have OCD, it is from the devil and the fall of Adam and Eve. But, God is good and has given us ways of getting relief. He also allows us to offer our suffering for the benefit of souls.

    • Dear Friend, I can appreciate your sentiments here but I too have been through this fight against the mind out of control. Growing up in an abusive situation can create deep wounds that require a great deal of healing. However, these challenges can often be overcome on both the battle fronts of the flesh and the spirit. I had to fight for control of my mind (to yield it to God for re-formation) for about a decade. As Romans 12 reveals, God asks us to work to renew our minds – and by His grace, we can. For many it is possible and even necessary to overcome this challenge as a battle of self-control and yielding to God. For a few, medication is a necessary aid. However, the first should be waged first. It can be a long hard fight but it can be won.

  • gail

    Dear Dan,
    For most of my life I was plagued with negative, destructive thoughts. Years ago, my spiritual director told me to go to daily Mass and my mind became more and more quiet. Even now, though I can’t make Mass every day, there is peace. Not only that, I recognize  thoughts that are not from God, whether they’re from the devil or my own mind. Until you find this peace, I would suggest turning off talk radio and all the other venues of negativity and unrest that clamor to get out attention.  At this point you would do well to live austerely until the voices quiet. Dan Don’t look at the waves, look at Him.

  • judeen

     God does not make junk… and I am not junk…. this told to me so many years ago… verbal abuse is worse than physical abuse.. for when they stop.. so we tend to keep it going… to our selves… nothing good enough… or done right…  then there is our sinfulness.. pride,trying to be perfect…. but also the devil.. which is always at the thoughts…  1. puting down ones self is putting down Gods work… He made each 1 of us perfect…. with love.. we need to do the best we can.. then just ask God to make it grow and be perfect… He does the rest… tempations.. of doubt, worthlessness.. – confession… to be stronge in God… and let God be incharge.. then there is war… war between my spirit and evil… the name of Jesus is so powerful evil can not enter or stay… , but if this does not work.. and evil follows you.. just say … I am God the Fathers child . you deal with Him.. and the thing will run!!! we let bad thoughts run in our minds.. stop it.. love with out wanting anything bad. or be thought good of.. ask for hugs.. and say thanks when people let you know you did good.. I needed to hear that , thanks… remember your a warrior of God… attacks are just part of it… if your not stronge God is… flee into HIs arms.

  • kat_xk8

    I blame other people for their opinions that get stuck in my mind . It’s their opinions !

  • Amy Louise Behan

    I’m really on edge. I keep hearing something or someone calling me something that is one of the worst things to be saidvto anyone, I am literally afriad of it and of myself because it hurts me to the fery core to think that this being or entity or person thinks this about me. If I don’t stop hearing these things I’m afriad I will end up killing myself and going to hell. I know that I’ve been bad in the past coz I done a few bad things but I don’t deserve this shit anymore. I notice that it has power whatever it is andwhen it calls me this horrible thing, its going to take an impact on others around me and make them think that I am. I’m freaked out and I can see the word devil written all over it. Its good that I notice this but to be honest I already hate myself as much as it is and I’m actually letting people walk all over me…. think I will turn to god soon because thisbis the only way out.

    • matt james

      your absolutly right, GOD is the way out and he will help you. surrender your life to him and pray for his guidance and mercy, remember to be patient though as GODS timeline is different from ours. ill keep you in my prayers, GOD bless

      • calvin kennedy

        I can’t sleep sleap I have been begging forJesus to save me from uuncontrolled thoughts I have begged Jesus to come back did I loose Christ did He leave me I’m horrified how can I know I’m lived and I’m list to no return.

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