Pope Francis has warned us many times about how the devil likes to present himself as an angel of light. In fact, he was created as such before his fall and one of his titles, Lucifer, literally means bearer of light. This warning of Pope Francis is of course an ancient warning found in Scripture. As St. Paul wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, who masquerade as apostles of Christ. This is no wonder—for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light. So it is not strange that his ministers also masquerade as ministers of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (2 Cor 11:13-15).
This fact—that many people who are dangerous for our spiritual health appear on the outside to be good and focused on the Lord—means that there is great need for discernment in who to trust. Thankfully Scripture gives us many tools to determine the difference between those who truly and faithfully represent the teaching of the Lord and false prophets who only appear to do so.
Judge them by their fruits
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them.” (Mt 7:15-20)
The most effective means for discerning whether something is or is not of God given to us by Scripture is to judge the fruits.
In the above passage from Matthew’s Gospel, you can see Jesus warning his disciples about a situation similar to a warning often given by Pope Francis—of people who appear good on the outside but are actually dangerous. Sometimes such people will make claims that suggest they are judging the fruits, but they do so by using quantitative analysis. For example, they might point to the number of people leaving the Church to prove that the fruits are bad. But let’s not forget what John’s Gospel says following the Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6: “As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6:66). If you were to use quantitative analysis here, you would have to conclude that Jesus’ teaching was wrong, because it caused many to leave. But Jesus spoke the truth, and the disciples’ reason for leaving was, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60). Rather than distinguishing between good and bad fruit by means of quantitative analysis, we should used qualitative analysis. Thankfully, Scripture gives us many examples of how to do this.
“What is not God”
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5: 19-21)
Here we see how to determine the bad fruit, and we see many examples of this around us. Most of these speak for themselves, and are well understood. It would serve us well, however, to discuss a few of them. First of all, Pope Francis in Desiderio Desideravi condemns sorcery (or magic) as, “the opposite of the logic of the sacraments because magic pretends to have a power over God, and for this reason it comes from the Tempter” (DD 12). Also, idolatry is defined in the Catechism as, “divinizing what is not God.” Any time we place our faith and hope in anything that is not God and His Church we practice a form of idolatry. These two continue to be of great temptation even to believers.
Finally, note that rivalry, anger, dissension and factionalism—which are regretfully common even in Catholic discourse—are clearly condemned by St. Paul.
Where God is found
“In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Gal 5: 22-23)
As useful as the list of bad qualities of fruit is, I find this contrasting list of good fruit much more illuminating.
Here we see the traits of the good fruit that comes from the action of the Holy Spirit. Following this list alone is usually sufficient to discern whether someone is truly of God or is a wolf dressed as a sheep. When you read or listen to someone’s words, are they full of love, peace, and joy, or are they not?
Discerning the fruit is much more effective than a purely intellectual evaluation. The devil is much more intelligent than we are and is quite adept at deceit. That said, he cannot be what he is not. He does not have the fruits of the Spirit, because these are the product of humble submission to God. No matter how intellectually convincing someone’s argument may be, if we do not discern the presence of the fruits of the Spirit, we should be wary, at the very least.
Desiring good things in a good way
“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” (James 3: 13-18)
Here, St. James applies the idea of discernment that we are discussing. Certainly it is important to determine whether someone seems to be speaking the truth. But this is only the intellectual part. Some false prophets appear to be wise and understanding, but that wisdom can come from either above or below. Once again, we must look at the fruits. Is this person humble, peaceful, gentle, compliant (submissive), sincere, and full of mercy and good deeds? Do their words seek peace? If so, you can be sure that this is wisdom from above. But if their words seem to come from jealousy or selfish ambition, then this comes from below.
In Searching for and Maintaining Peace (one of my favorite books), Fr. Jacques Phillippe says, “Not only must we be careful to want and desire good things for their own sake, but also to want and desire them in a way that is good.” We must use our God-given intellect to attempt to determine what is good, and we must also pursue it in a good way. Very often, the manner in which we seek the ideal is the most crucial part. This is because it shows what is truly in our heart (whether we are rotten or good). If we pursue the ideal in a way that is devoid of the gifts of the Spirit, we are—as St. James says above—“false to the truth.”
 Scripture texts, prefaces, introductions, footnotes and cross references used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Image: Adobe Stock. The Sea of Galilee and Church Of The Beatitudes, Israel, Sermon of the Mount of Jesus. By graceenee.
Adam Stengel started out studying to be a medical doctor, then moved to Honduras to start a family and pursue a love for missionary work. He now lives in rural Arkansas with his wife and three children and is employed as a custom cabinet maker in a family owned shop.