When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. John 16:13
Discernment doesn’t mean choosing between something morally right and something morally wrong; obviously we must avoid anything sinful. Discernment involves deciding between two or more courses of action that are morally good or at least morally neutral.
The saints often had just as much need for discernment as the rest of us do. Some of them found that the Lord’s will for us is revealed by other people. In the twelfth century, St. William of Vercelli wanted to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but his friend St. John of Matera assured him that God had a different plan in mind. Ignoring John, William set out, but soon afterward he was attacked by robbers. Taking this as a sign that John was right after all, William returned home to his true calling: living for a time as a hermit and later becoming the abbot of a monastery.
God’s will for our life is sometimes revealed very dramatically, but usually it’s made known in a simpler, more ambiguous way. The fifth-century bishop St. Hilary of Arles was torn between the possibility of a successful worldly career, for which he was well-trained, and the possibility of a religious vocation, which his friend and mentor St. Honoratus strongly suggested. Writing later about this period of his life, Hilary stated, “On the one side, I felt that the Lord was calling me, while on the other hand, the seductions of the world held me back. My will swayed backward and forward, now consenting, now refusing. But at last Christ triumphed in me.” Having discovered and accepted God’s will for him, St. Hilary gave his money to the poor and followed his friend Honoratus into religious life.
Many of the saints had to choose between several paths; their holiness lay not in having a direct line to God, but in being completely open to doing His will once they had discerned it.
Each of us is called to do the Lord’s will, for as St. Ambrose says, “The will of God is the measure of all things.” Moreover, St. Basil the Great tells us, “It is the duty of those who are zealous for God’s good pleasure to make inquiry as to what is right for them to do.”
According to St. Rose of Lima, “When God is consulted sincerely, He gives a clear answer” — but in what form will this answer come? St. John Vianney assures us, “God speaks to us without ceasing by His good inspirations,” but it’s still necessary for us to listen attentively. “In important matters especially,” writes St. John of the Cross, “we must seek clear lights from God. It happens often that we do not do the will of God, but our own, since we don’t seek to know God’s will by much prayer, seeking counsel, and much reflection.” Prayer is very important; as St. Theophane Venard advised his younger brother, “Pray simply, humbly, and fervently to know God’s will, and your path will be made clear. Then you must follow the inspiration Divine Mercy puts into your heart.”
It is, of course, essential that we truly seek to do the Lord’s will, instead of our own. But how do we know for sure what the Lord is asking us to do?
This was a major concern of St. Ignatius of Loyola, one of the great spiritual geniuses of history, so he created what he called a set of “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits.” Very simply, Ignatius states that if we receive a direct, unmistakable revelation from God as to His will for us, we should obey as completely and wholeheartedly as possible. Such a revelation, however, is relatively rare, and usually we will be required to discern the proper course of action using the abilities and gifts God has given us.
- Intellect. Analyze the situation logically. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action? Do the advantages of one choice substantially outweigh the other choices? Which decision seems best from a rational point of view?
- Feelings. What feelings, if any, are raised as you consider each possibility? Is there a strong sense of desire or excitement involved in one option (which may be an indication it should be chosen) or a sense of dread or unhappiness over another (which may indicate that this choice is not God’s will for you)?
- Imagination. If someone came to you for advice about the situation you’re facing, what would you say or urge that person to do? If you imagined yourself on your deathbed, looking back at all the choices and actions of your lifetime and knowing that you’d soon be reviewing them with God, what decision — from that perspective — would you want to have made?
Ignatius warns that, once we’ve prayerfully made our decision and offered it to God and feel a sense of inner peace over the results, we may have second thoughts — in particular, an experience of doubt, restlessness, anxiety, and temptation, which he calls desolation (See also the chapter on depression). Quite often this feeling is not from God, but from the Devil, for it’s natural that Satan would try to dissuade and upset us if we’ve made a choice that’s pleasing to God. Ignatius stresses that we must never change our decision (or make our decision in the first place) during an experience of desolation. Our response to any doubts or second thoughts should be “Lord, if You want me to change this decision, I will — but not now; I’ll do so only when I feel completely at peace in Your presence.” When we’ve followed this process honestly and humbly, we can be sure that God is pleased with us and that the results will aid our growth in holiness.
For Further Reflection
“Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.’” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1782
“Reflect that your guardian angel does not always move your desire for an action, but he does always enlighten your reason. Hence, in order to practice virtue, do not wait until you feel like it, for your reason and intellect are sufficient.” — St. John of the Cross
“Every Christian must refer always and everywhere to the Scriptures for all his choices, becoming like a child before it, seeking in it the most effective remedy against all his various weaknesses, and not daring to take a step without being illuminated by the divine rays of those words.” — Pope John Paul II
Something You Might Try
- Prayer is at the heart of discernment. When one of her students asked her, “Can you advise me about my future?” St. Edith Stein replied, “Let us pray together to get an answer from God. We must ask Him to let us know what He wants from you.” It’s unlikely we’ll ever know God’s will for us unless we take the time to ask Him. Once you’ve prayed about a decision or situation, you’ll be ready to use St. Ignatius’s “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits,” described above.
- According to Thomas à Kempis, a fifteenth-century monk known as the author of the Imitation of Christ, “We should not trust every word we hear or every feeling in our hearts; rather, we should bring such matters before God and carefully ponder them at our leisure. . . . Instead of following your own notions, consult someone who is wise and conscientious, and seek to be guided by one who is better than you.”
Wisdom 9:10-11; Psalm 25:4-5; Psalm 143:8.
Be kind to Your little children, Lord.
Be a gentle teacher,
patient with our weakness and stupidity.
And give us the strength and discernment
to do what You tell us,
and so grow in holiness.
May we all live in the peace
that comes from You.
May we journey toward Your city,
sailing through the waters of sin
untouched by the waves,
borne serenely along by the Holy Spirit.
Night and day may we give You praise and thanks,
because You have shown us that
all things belong to You
and all blessings are gifts from You.
To You, the essence of wisdom,
the foundation of truth,
be glory for evermore. Amen.
—St. Clement of Alexandria