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What is your will, O Lord?: Practical steps to listen to God and discern God’s will

By Father Greg Cleveland, OMV
Director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality

Decisions matter.  Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.  We all know how difficult it can be to make decisions, and sometimes we prefer not to make them.  Fortunately, we are not alone in making our choices. God comes to our aid with his Holy Spirit and equips us in myriad ways so that we can do his will. During the Archdiocesan Discernment Process, we have been considering God’s will for our families, our parishes, our diocese and our universal Church. The process of discernment through prayer, dialogue and listening to the Spirit has been invigorating and has yielded some impressive proposals. Likewise, many people are asking how they can discern God’s will on a personal level. Let’s explore some of the principles and practices for discerning God’s will.

Defining ‘God’s will’

What do we mean by God’s will? It is his conscious deciding, willing and choosing to do something, especially with our cooperation. God is supremely free, and his will is effective, accomplishing what he pleases. When we freely cooperate in doing God’s will, we will be happy and contribute to building his Kingdom. We pray in the Our Father, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  God’s will is certain and universal for us on two counts. First, he desires our salvation. “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4).  Second, he desires our sanctification, our growing in holiness and love.  “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thes 4:3). Every decision we make should be in keeping with these two goals.

Beyond these universals, God wants us to use our minds and hearts to discern how to live according to his plan, which he has revealed. God is interested in the details of my life. In his providence, he loves and cares for me and the common good of all. He desires that I actively seek and find his will and cooperate in choosing and executing it. Why is this so challenging?  Well, it certainly makes us grow in virtue, developing our gifts of intellect and will in wisdom, prudence and in so many other good qualities. We need to be enlightened, equipped and empowered by God, that he would accomplish his will in us.  “Now may the God of peace…equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight” (Heb 13:20-21).  

When we freely cooperate in doing God’s will, we will be happy and contribute to building his Kingdom.

The Lord already reveals his will for us in so many ways when we form our consciences in Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church. We are given instructions such as the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, as lived by Jesus. The Church elucidates and teaches us truth about who we are and how to live our Christian lives. The duties of our state in life informs our choices. For instance, in marriage the twin goals of unity and procreation have plenty of implications about how to live that vocation. The Church’s moral teaching on the virtues shows us how to live well in each situation, such as moderation in pleasure, courage in the face of obstacles, justice in giving each person his or her due and prudence in applying principles. Even with all this help, choices can still be difficult.  

What is our image of doing God’s will? A lot of people envision the process like the relationship of boss and employee. God, the boss, gives me orders on the job, like digging a hole or moving bricks, and I receive a reward or paycheck for doing it. Not much communication or relationship there!  A better image is that of two spouses, a husband and wife. Both persons express their opinions and desires for expected outcomes. There is a loving dialogue in prayer between myself and the Lord. I see his point of view and he sees mine. There is mutuality in deciding and each person tries to please the other in doing what is best for everyone according to the situation. In keeping with this image, my relationship with God is center-stage, and the decisions flow from prayer. Sometimes the Lord even manifests his will to us through our desires. “It is God, who in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement” (Phil. 2:13). In all this there is a foundation of trust and love for God. He has plans for us and desires our greater freedom in choosing them. Once we are held dear by God, at peace in his embrace, we will experience moments of clarity — some stronger than others — about what he has in store for us.

How to discern and follow God’s will

Now that we have an image of God’s will, how can we discover and practice it?  St. Ignatius of Loyola, a master of discernment, counsels two preconditions to dispose us to finding God’s will. The first is to always keep my supernatural end in mind — the praise and service of God and the salvation of my soul.  Everything else is a means to that end and should fit into that context. Second, Ignatius wants us to be detached and open to God’s will. Often, we have attachment to our own desires and agenda and we would only like God to rubber stamp our predetermined projects. Ignatius counsels us to ask God for the grace of indifference to either of the two or more good options so that we can be free to gravitate toward the choice he indicates. To achieve this holy indifference, we must avoid clinging to our own agenda.  

Photo by Lawrence OP via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Ignatius then shows us three different ways in which God reveals his will to us. The first is, “When God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that a devout soul without hesitation, or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it” (Spiritual Exercises 175). For instance, St. Matthew acted in this way in following Jesus’ call to him. Pope Francis experienced certitude about his call to the priesthood while receiving the Sacrament of Penance at age 17. This first way includes God’s direct, clear action and results in our own certainty beyond doubt that the call is from God. It also includes our immediate willingness, brought about by God’s grace, to follow his invitation. God enlightens our minds and conditions our will to choose in true freedom to accept his invitation.

Ignatius’ second way in which God calls us is, “When much light and understanding are derived through the experience of desolations and consolations and discernment of diverse spirits” (Sp. Ex. 176).  Ordinarily, God moves us toward his will through spiritual consolations, and the enemy spirits (the world, the flesh and the devil) seek to discourage us from doing God’s will through spiritual desolations.  Here we benefit from an understanding of Ignatius’ teaching on discernment of spirits (see the book by Father Timothy Gallagher, Discernment of Spirits) and a spiritual director who can help us make sense of these motions within our hearts.  

The third way of discerning God’s will is through the use of our reason enlightened by faith (Sp. Ex. 177).  For this deliberative method, St. Ignatius recommends listing the advantages and disadvantages of any decision and its consequences, especially having eternal life as one’s primary goal. He recommends weighing the different criteria for the decision based on their relative importance. For instance, in deciding whether to marry a person, one might place a heavier weight upon the criterion of the future spouse’s religious convictions than on his or her ability to provide a high standard of living for the family.

In this deliberative method of making a choice, supernatural prudence — -a knowledge of reality that is enlightened by faith — -will play an important role. Supernatural prudence will help us to know what is good and right according to revelation and universal principles such as the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the theological and cardinal virtues, and our moral values and principles. We must also be in touch with reality, what is happening in our concrete situations. We will also want to place our ideas and proposals before the judicious views of friends, authorities and associates. They may be able to direct us to other sources of information, wisdom and proficiency. Finally, we need to recognize the role God’s providence may play in the future, having the foresight to estimate future events and effects. 

Decisions do matter.  They forge our course in life and our identities as persons. Making decisions can be challenging, but when we pray and put our mind to it, the Lord comes to our help and manifests his will for us. 

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