By Bruce Tallman.
The purpose of life, at least if you are a believer, is to live a life pleasing to God. Life is made up of many great and small decisions, and therefore you naturally want all your decisions to be in sync with God’s will. However, how does one discern what God’s will is?
The method for “discernment of spirits” which I outlined in a previous article is a sub-category of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s method for “discernment of God’s will in general.” So let’s look at this broader method.
To discern God’s will in general, start with some basic principles. God wants you to know what God’s will is, but God does not force his will on anyone. Thus, the first thing you need to do is to pray that God will reveal what God’s will is to you.
Ignatius noted that there are three modes of discerning God’s will: the gut, heart, and head modes. He also wrote that, before you begin to work through these modes, try to narrow things down to two options.
For example, do I switch jobs or not? Then ask your gut what it says about these two options. If God is working in you on the gut level, it will be obvious what you are supposed to do. You know instinctively and your conscience tells you what the right decision is. In some rare cases, people have visions or hear a voice. For example, St. Paul on the road to Damascus was blinded by a flash of light and heard Jesus telling him what to do.
If nothing definite happens on the gut level, go to the heart level and ponder where you feel consolation or desolation. Considering one option you might feel joy, peace, and love, but the other option creates feelings of doubt, anxiety, or sadness.
However, as I wrote before, you have to be careful when considering consolation or desolation. Depression, suffering, and hardship can lead us to God, and a false sense of peace and happiness can lead us away from God. Again, the key question here is always: where is this feeling leading you: towards God or away from God?
If nothing happens on the heart level, go to the head level and use your God-given brains to list the pros and cons of the two options. Also weigh each pro and con. One pro could outweigh ten cons or vice-versa. The key question here is: where can I serve God the most? Or where does my deepest joy meet the world’s deepest need?
Then ask yourself if the Bible and/or church teaching have anything to say about these two options? Next consult your legitimate authorities, that is, people who have a stake in your decision. This would be your wife or husband if you are married, your bishop if you are a priest, your supervisor if you are an employee. Also talk to trusted friends, advisors, and spiritual directors.
You can also look for signs, but you have to be careful with this. The farmer’s son who wanted to be an evangelist said “Look father, those clouds look like a ‘p’ and a ‘c’ – God is telling me to preach Christ!” But the father said, “No son, God is telling you to plant corn!” The question here is: are we just reading into things what we want, or is this genuinely the will of God?
If when you consider everything, it all points in one direction, that is probably God’s will for you. However, if you are getting conflicting messages, keep praying and discerning until God’s will is clear.
Once you have decided, persevere in your decision, knowing that difficulties are normal if you are doing something worthwhile. On the other hand, if it becomes obvious that what you are doing is not God’s will for you, you can always return to discernment.
It is important to be zealous, that is, willing to do whatever God wants, not stubborn, that is, willing to do what you want no matter what the cost. Hopefully, what you truly want and what God wants will coincide.