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How to discern the will of God

God spoke to Abraham. Moses saw the burning bush and heard the voice of God. Samuel was roused as a young boy by God saying his name in the sanctuary. Simon Peter was confronted by Jesus after a miraculous catch of fish. In all of these beautiful stories, God speaks and acts very clearly and obviously around a particular person’s vocation. The number one struggle I encounter in young men and women discerning the will of God is an ignorance around how to hear the voice of God.

God speaks to us in a variety of ways. God spoke and creation came into being. The beauty of nature can speak to our hearts and souls, because it is the implicit word of God constantly presenting itself to us. How many of us hear God speaking to us through creation and natural beauty? If we cannot become aware of God’s call through basic levels of communication, how do we expect to hear him in the more spiritual and refined modes?

God speaks to us through our thoughts, feelings and desires. Do we take time to reflect on our thoughts throughout the day? Or our feelings? I would like to pause for a moment here on desires. Many young people that I talk to about vocation often tell me that they know God is calling them to marriage or to priesthood because it’s what they desire. I disagree. Simply because you desire to marry a handsome young man does not mean that you will. There are many factors that must be in place in order for a particular woman to marry a particular man. And just because you desire to be a religious sister does not mean that God is necessarily calling you. The call is different from the desire. I believe the desire can be an indicator of the call, but we cannot unequivocally say that the call and your desire are the same thing.

When I was a young man, I had a strong desire to get married and to have children. My life was moving in that direction until I began to let go of my desire and open my heart to God’s plan for my life. I never desired to be a priest until I began to discern God’s will. I share this story because I am concerned that too many young adults presume that their initial desire must be God’s will and they never take the time to actually learn how to discern.

Another basic principle of discernment is that you cannot drive a parked car. What I mean is that too many of us are so worried about making a mistake or making the wrong choice that we end up paralyzed and do nothing at all. Young people who find themselves in this situation will often say things like, “I’m still discerning,” also known as perpetual discerners. Perfection has no place in the spiritual life or in the act of discerning God’s will. God has a beautiful plan for your life, but he’s usually waiting for us to turn the key and rev the engine. What do I mean? Go on a date! Visit a convent! Talk to a religious sister! Visit the seminary! It’s no good just sitting around waiting for God to send a spiritual email. In my experience, God always starts talking when I start walking. If I run into a dead end or receive “no” for an answer, praise the Lord! At least I have found an answer.

Many of us are afraid of rejection, but in discerning God’s will, a “no” is just as good as a “yes.” When I first started working as vocations director, I used to feel bad and frustrated that I had to tell certain men “no.” They wanted to apply for seminary but for whatever reason I discerned that it was not the right time or not a good idea for this particular man. I felt like the bearer of bad news. I felt like I was ruining lives. So, I prayed to God and asked him to help me see my role in his plan for these men who I had to deny. God answered my prayer, and I saw an image of myself as Gabriel the Archangel bringing the good news to the Blessed Virgin Mary. God was telling me that I am not the bearer of bad news, but I am an angel of glad tidings. Is it difficult to tell someone “no”? Yes! But do I see it as a necessary part of the discernment process in order to help this man know God’s will? Yes.

During National Vocations Week, I encourage everyone to take a few moments to reconsider how God is speaking and acting in our lives. When we all engage in discernment, God’s will is done.

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Featured image by Josh Applegate | Unsplash

During National Vocations Week, please consider providing much-needed support for priestly formation by making a financial contribution to the annual seminaries’ appeal online at sjvrm.org

Father Ryan O'Neill
Father Ryan O'Neill
Father Ryan O'Neill is the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Denver.

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