Discernment, distress and the demonic

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Spiritual or religious voices are not always comforting.

In some traditions, voices range from benign influences to malevolent forces intent on leading the hearer astray. For example, in ancient Arabian and Mediterranean civilisations, the Jinnquestion icon and daemonesquestion icon, respectively, were understood as persuasive spirit-like entities that displayed ambiguous traits – sometimes tricking or tempting humans, sometimes turning toward virtue. This ambiguity, along with belief in inherently good angels, led to a tradition of discernment that still persists: the person experiencing supernatural voices needed to decide whether the voices were good or evil. Bad voices were often believed to be intent on leading the hearer away from truth, morality and wellbeing. The ability to resist such temptation – demonstrating power over the bad voices – was likewise a sign of strong religious faith.

The Temptation of Christ

The Christian Bible recounts Jesus himself facing temptation during 40 days of isolation in the wilderness. Whilst abstaining from food in the desert, Jesus is visited by the Devil who proceeds to test Jesus’ self-control. Knowing that 40 days without food has left Jesus weak and hungry, the Devil points to a rock and says, ‘If you are the son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ Jesus refuses, claiming that spiritual sustenance is all he needs. Twice more, the Devil tempts Jesus but is rebuffed. In the end, having resisted the urgings of this evil voice, Jesus returns to Galilee ‘in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.’


The Temptation of Christ by the Devil by Félix Joseph Barrias (1860).

Find out more


Chris Cook (2017). Learning to Discern, The Church Times.

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