Have you struggled with a major decision, like a career or vocational choice, while you tried to figure out what God wanted you to do? I have, on several occasions, and sometimes the process was a lot longer and more agonizing than it needed to be. In these next two posts, I hope to share what I’ve learned and perhaps save you some unnecessary misery as you go through your discernment process.
I wish I had read St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God earlier in my life. He has a lot of great advice about knowing God’s will and decision-making. I’m going to summarize the highlights here, but if you want to know more, you should check these out, especially Books 8 & 9 from the Treatise.
God’s Signified Will
If God wants something to happen as part of His absolute will, it will happen! But God also has what St. Francis calls His signified will. These are things God desires, but in his love for us, has given us freedom to accept or resist his best for us. What sort of things? God desires that we receive salvation, believe his teachings, find hope in his promises, develop a healthy fear commensurate with his warnings, love others and live by his ordinances, and follow his counsels. We should always desire to follow God’s signified will. Obedience to God’s will comes more quickly when we’re driven by love instead of fear or selfishness. Have you fallen in love with God? Is your desire motivated by this love, or by something else?
Four Kinds of Decision-Making
St. Francis describes four areas where we consider God’s will: (1) commandments, (2) counsels, (3) inspirations, and (4) the common experiences of everyday life. Let’s consider each of these.
What God commands is clearly stated in the Scriptures, but the full meaning and application of these commands are not always explicit. For example, “Thou shall not kill” is not understood by everyone that killing includes abortion and euthanasia. Fortunately, the Magisterium of the Church helps us with interpret the Scriptures so we can correctly apply them to our lives.
Making decisions about things falling under God’s commands should be straightforward most of the time. For sure, if God says we shouldn’t do something, then don’t do it! We don’t have to spend hours in prayer and discernment to make a decision!
I once knew a guy who thought that the Holy Spirit wanted him to leave his wife and marry somebody else, instead of loving the woman God had given him. He was acting all super-spiritual with this nonsense. “Inspirations” from the Spirit will not lead us to break God’s commands!
A counsel is something God recommends and doesn’t command because the area of concern is not necessarily an offense against charity. Rather, God gives counsels concerning those things that may hinder the development of charity and holiness. Those entering the consecrated life make a public profession concerning three counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience. But anything that can become an attachment and diverts us from fully loving God and our neighbor can be the subject of a counsel. For example, this could include the way you use entertainment media. Even though counsels are recommended and not commanded, our love for God should always lead us to want to follow them.
Counsels come in different degrees. Consider the counsel of poverty. A first level could be developing an openness to lending to others. A second level, to give freely to another. A third, to give away all you possess, and a fourth, to give yourself away. We should practice counsels according to our state in life. Someone consecrating his life to God (i.e. entering religious vocation) may respond at the third or fourth level, whereas a husband and father has no business giving all his material goods away and bringing his family to destitution.
Inspirations are movements of the Holy Spirit that help us to see the good and touch our heart so we are inspired to pursue it. Many people have pursued careers and ministries because of inspirations.
Sometimes inspirations come through an everyday sort of means, like a homily, a trial, hearing the Gospel, or reading about the life of a saint. They can also come in a more supernatural way, like sensing or hearing God speak to us, visions, revelations, or spiritual feelings. St. John of the Cross gives us advice concerning these latter inspirations. He observed that people hungry for a religious experience especially look for these. He also recognized that the devil would create similar experiences for some, using these false inspirations to confuse and misdirect. When receiving such an inspiration, we should not dwell on it, as God will produce the beneficial effect in us without any need on our part to obsess over it. He urges us to rely on faith rather than on supernatural events, and we should obtain direction from a spiritual director to help us with discernment.
As a further aid, St. Francis identifies 3 marks of divine inspirations: (1) that God usually does not ask us to give up something good for something better, (2) that we should follow those inspirations that are holy and give us peace, and (3) when following inspirations, always to follow the authority of the Church.
4. The common experiences of everyday life
Much of what we encounter every day doesn’t qualify as a command, counsel, or inspiration. For these, St. Francis tells us that we are free to choose whatever seems right to us according to our preferences and that we shouldn’t waste our time and energy fretting over these decisions.
I have known believers who, out of a sincere desire to honor God, try to seek God’s direction about what they should wear, the next thing they’re supposed to do, where they should turn while driving, etc. It’s doubtful the Holy Spirit works this way. God has given us an intellect to use, and we should do what seems best without wearying our minds. In matters of greater importance, like choosing a vocation, career changes, significant expenditures, or changing residence, we should take more time for consideration. But once we make a decision, we should be resolute and act decisively. Regardless of what decision we make, we should always execute our decisions with holiness.
Making Decisions When the Direction Isn’t Clear
What do you do when you have a big decision to make, and you’re not sure what direction to take? St. Ignatius of Loyola (The Spiritual Exercises, [179-183]) suggests a method we can use.
Address the question with objectivity and indifference.
That is, let go of emotional inclinations that add confusion to your decision.
Ask God’s help to enlighten you so that you may choose in a way that will give Him praise and glory.
List the pros & cons for each position.
Consider which alternative seems best, letting go of any inclinations based on carnal motives.
Once making a decision, ask God to accept it and to confirm it if it is for His greater glory.
But what about…?
I tried to give the Cliff Notes version on discerning God’s will in decision-making. In practice, we still have some details to work out. In my next blog, we’ll look at some of the lessons I’ve learned through my not-so-artful attempts at big decision-making.
Knowing God’s Will is the first of two postings on seeking God’s will in decision-making.