Knowing God’s Will & Making Decisions: Tales from the Trenches

I have tried to seek God’s when making a big decision about vocation, career, or whatever. I often felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. As I reflect on those times, however, I can see God’s hand guiding me through each situation.

In the last posting (Following God’s Will), I shared some solid advice about decision-making from St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Today, I’m going to look back over some of the major decisions I’ve had to make and the lessons I’ve learned.

College Days

I had a conversion experience during my senior year of high school (see My Story). By this time, I had already chosen a college and field of study: electrical engineering. I was good at math and science, I liked electronics, and I wanted to do something applied. But when I gave my heart to Jesus, the Spirit also opened within me a desire to love and serve others. I knew enough to know that I didn’t have to have a job directly helping people to serve God. Still, the desire to make a difference in a tangible way led me to make a last minute change in my major, from electrical to environmental engineering.

Arriving at school, I learned that environmental engineering wasn’t what I expected, and I quickly went back to electrical engineering. That didn’t keep me from thinking about other options, though, and soon I was considering clinical psychology. Looking to learn more about that career, I went to speak with my psychology professor. He advised me to stay on the engineering track, as I could use it to get into graduate school and it would give me an income-earning position if I decided against psychology. I prayed for guidance, but I wasn’t very good at attending to the Spirit. I continued to have reservations about psychology, so when I graduated, took a job in engineering. As I prayed for guidance, I decided to take one additional course at a local college. When I finished, I had come to a solid decision that the psych option was not for me.

Lessons Learned: Part 1

  1. No job ranks higher than another in the kingdom of God.

The secular world assigns greater value and compensation to some careers (e.g. CEO of a major corporation, physician, college professor) over others (e.g. janitorial worker, restaurant server). Not so in the kingdom of God! Each person has equal value, and no position is “holier” than another, even when compared to the priesthood or religious life. We can serve God without working in a job directly helping people or serving the Church.

  1. Seek the counsel of others.

God gives us other people to help us. The advice I received from my professor came from a secular perspective, but it still was valuable. Seek spiritual counsel, but don’t discount the natural gifts of knowledge and wisdom given to others.

  1. Keep your options open, but when it’s time to make a decision, be resolute.

It made sense to defer a final career decision until completing college. I was still undecided as I entered my college senior year, but I had to make a choice, and engineering clearly was a better fit. I could have kept stalling, but that wasn’t going to bring me any closer to a decision.

A Career in Medicine

stethoscopeRealizing psychology was not for me was a big step. As it turns out, I wasn’t done. In my spare time, I enjoyed reading scientific articles related to medicine. I loved the stuff. And I still had a desire to work with people one-on-one. One day it hit me: “What about a career in medicine?” Unlike the psychology option, this felt like a good fit.

I prayed. I considered other options, like biomedical engineering. I looked at the skills and gifts I had been given and tried to decide how I might best use these to serve the Lord. I spoke about it with my wife, and she was supportive of the change. I wrote down pros and cons. I would go back over these in prayer, and eventually, I trimmed the list down to a few key items. As time went on, all the arguments fell in support of a change to medicine, except for one. My wife and I were expecting our first child, and I was concerned about the stress medical school would place on my family. I spoke with everyone I could, trying to get other viewpoints and I prayed for guidance. I wanted to do God’s will, but no matter how hard I sought direction, God seemed to be leaving this decision to me. If I had disliked engineering or had struggled with it, the choice would have been easier. But I would be making a move from something that was working to go towards an unknown. In the end, I decided to make the change.

Lessons Learned: Part 2 

  1. Write things down. Weigh all your options, and prayerfully consider the pros and cons for each.

Lift these up in prayer and ask God’s guidance. Then listen. The less important items and the ones acting as smoke screens will fall off the list, leaving the critical issues for you to review.

  1. Pray.

Open yourself to God and make yourself available to Him. Seek Mary’s intercession. As you consider each option, do you sense peace or feel unsettled?

  1. Consider your gifts, but keep the big picture in mind.

While we should always factor in our gifts when considering career or vocational moves, we likely will not make a final decision based on these alone. Why not? First, our gifts may not be the most important item to consider for a given situation. For example, the ability to generate sufficient income to support our family can trump the need to apply some of our gifts. Second, we may not currently have skills in an area, but we may be capable of acquiring these in the future, opening up other options. Third, we can use our gifts in more than one way. For example, a musically-gifted person can apply her abilities in a church music ministry or community choir, rather than pursuing a career in music performance.

  1. Your decision should be compatible with your vocation.

If the decision before you will interfere with your state of life, like a vocation to marriage, then you should look elsewhere.

Parish Ministry

At one point I was faced with a decision about taking on a ministry position. I saw advantages to it, but I was not at peace with the decision. In my willingness to serve God, I was willing to put up with whatever difficulty I might face. In the end, I correctly chose not to take the position.

Lessons Learned: Part 3

  1. Don’t  confuse a call to particular obedience with the general counsel of obedience.

When we’re open to God, we’re ready to do anything for his glory, no matter how easy or difficult. In this situation, I was not at peace with the ministry position, but I continued to consider it out of a desire to be obedient to Christ. God, however, had other plans for me. I temporarily was confusing a readiness to obey God in everything with a call to a particular obedience. Fortunately, I realized my mistake before making a decision.

St. Catherine of Siena came to care for a Sister Andrea who had breast cancer and an open, malodorous sore. It was not a pleasant situation, as the woman even hated Catherine and the stench was overpowering. On one occasion, when feeling nausea and revulsion, Catherine drank the water used to clean the wound. The abhorrence she felt left her immediately!

St. Catherine had a particular call to obedience not meant for the rest of us. In fact, medically speaking, what she did was crazy. But the Spirit moved her to do this, with a miraculous result. When God calls to a particular obedience, we will feel resolved and peace.

  1. Your decision should be affirming and give you peace.

Pay attention when your spirit is unsettled. You might experience alternating periods of affirmation and discouragement. You could be struggling with temptation from the flesh or even an evil spirit. God will give us peace when the inspiration is from Him. You may need to seek the help of a spiritual director to help with discernment.

Final Remarks

trust That’s about it. If you read this article hoping you would find some slick spiritual trick, like praying a certain novena or laying a fleece before God, I have news: there are no tricks or formulas! IF God leads you to a devotional practice as part of your discernment, then, by all means, do it! But otherwise, the expectation that performing a specific religious will give you an answer is nothing more than superstition.

What God asks us to do is to trust Him. The decision process, rather than a hurdle to jump over, becomes a journey. If you’re to move from point A to point G, God may first lead you to B, C, and so on before you can get there. Perhaps it’s because we’re not ready for point G yet. Perhaps he has others things for us to do first. Whatever the reason and that reason is almost always beyond our understanding, we’ll get where God wants us by following Him step-by-step — and that takes trust.

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