We all face choices in life. Minor ones come up all the time. Then there are the more significant decisions, such as: What is my vocation? Is God calling me to this work? Is this the person I should marry? Should we home school our children?
We don’t have to guess. There are specific principles for discerning God’s will.
Father Jonathan Morris, director of the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM Radio and religion and ethics contributor for the Fox News Channel, says the No. 1 question we should ask is: “Is what I am considering doing going to bring me closer to heaven? And if it’s not, then we don’t do it.”
If we’re still not sure, seek answers from the Bible and Church teaching.
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, host of EWTN Live and author of How to Listen When God Is Speaking: A Guide for Modern-Day Catholics (The Word Among Us Press, 2011), explains this method.
“The first and most basic principle is that a person needs to have enough humility to accept God on his own terms,” he says. That means accepting what the Lord has revealed about himself in Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium.
“Discernment comes into play quite legitimately when you have two options, both of which are good in and of themselves,” Father Pacwa adds.
For instance, discovering what state in life one is called to: priesthood, married life or religious life.
“All of these in and of themselves are apparently good,” he says. “The question is of knowing which one of those goods is the best way for me to give greater glory to God.”
Two attitudes help us better able to discern God’s will, Father Pacwa says. “One: What is for the greater glory of God? How am I going to give him better service and greater glory in my life? Two: being truly equal-minded toward all good things.” This means wanting to do whatever God wants because I trust that he has the greatest good for me involved in that.
After this groundwork, says Msgr. Charles Pope, “we have to start with our state in life, where we are now — young or old, single or married, physically strong or challenged.” Msgr. Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, discusses discernment on his blog for the Archdiocese of Washington (Blog.adw.org).
He says one’s state in life will reveal open and closed doors. For instance, a young woman may feel called to pray four hours a day. If she’s single and discerning religious life, this is a good idea — not so if she’s a wife with small children who need attention and care during that time.
Father Morris suggests asking ourselves, “Is it helping me or hurting me to fulfill the duties of my state in life as a parent, husband, wife, mother, student, priest, and so on.”
Next, examine your gifts and talents. In discerning the will of God, “we have to carefully ponder if it will make good sense or bad sense based on our skills and talents,” says Msgr. Pope. Consider: Are my God-given gifts and talents a good match for what I want to do or am being called to do?
Desire is another important factor. “When God wants to inspire us to do something, he puts within us a desire to do it,” says Msgr. Pope, cautioning that when it comes to following doctrine and moral law, our feelings and desires are largely irrelevant. We must follow God’s teaching.
But regarding various courses of action that are good (like marriage and priesthood), Msgr. Pope explains, “feelings and desires do matter and may help indicate the will of God for us. For when God wants us to move in a direction of something good, he most often inspires some level of desire for it. God’s will for us gives joy.”
Consequently, true peace is a major factor for discernment.
As Father Pacwa puts it: “The normal way we experience that discernment is through various interior movements in our spiritual life, movements of peace and consolation or movements of disturbance and desolation.
“When somebody begins to find peace in regard to a certain option and then finds that that peace remains and lasts a serious amount of time, that is probably going to be the way God is leading you.”
In his case, as an 18-year-old in college, he thought momentarily of asking a young woman he was dating to get married because of the depiction of marriage in a movie they saw together, but he didn’t because he also believed he was called to the priesthood.
Both were good options, but he continued to feel a greater sense of peace and attraction to the Jesuits than to getting married.
“Less than a month later, I received my acceptance into the Jesuits,” he recalls. “I’m very convinced I made the right choice. Something like the experience of a movie can give a positive feeling, but it won’t last. But the peace I felt about joining the Jesuits did last — and has lasted 44 years.”
Father Morris agrees. Momentary peace doesn’t necessarily mean that something is God’s will. What St. Ignatius calls “true discernment of spirits deals with figuring out what’s going to bring lasting peace, lasting serenity — a deep, profound, spiritual serenity and peace from being in the very center of God’s will for us.”
Today, many parents discerning whether to home school can see these principles in the decision that Dr. Manuel and Adriana Gonzalez of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., made 15 years ago to home school their seven children. The Gonzalezes are the founders of Catholics Called to Witness, an evangelization apostolate.
Now the two oldest Gonzalez children attend Ave Maria University, while their five younger brothers and sisters — from 6 to 16 years — remain schooled at home.
“Our oldest was about a year old when we were introduced to the idea of home schooling,” says Adriana Gonzalez. “We wanted to be as much hands on with our children and teach them godly principles. Our motivation was that we wanted to instill biblical and Church teaching.” Because they prayed about the big decision, she naturally advises people to “ask the Lord for his clear will in this area.”
Father Pacwa offers further counsel. “Look at the positives and negatives and use your rational mind to weigh the differences,” he says. “That’s also a very good way to discern.”
The option comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola, who recommends laying out the options and under each option listing all the reasons in favor of choosing it. After exhausting the positive, write all the negative reasons for each option. This is a basic pro-con list.
For educating children, the options would be public school, Catholic school and home school.
“One of the things that confirmed over and over our decision to home school was to see what schools are teaching the children,” says Adriana Gonzalez.
“As parents we need to understand that God charges us with the privilege and also with the duty of raising our children and protecting them,” she says. “The input that the family can give to a child that is home schooled is tremendous — so is the protection from negative influences.”
Another discernment principle then solidified their decision.
When their oldest, a boy, was 4 — and they also had a baby girl and a toddler — they decided to put him in preschool. Adriana describes it as a lovely school, “but we felt a lack of peace about this — that spiritual sense of peace from the Lord that is different so that you know it’s him. We didn’t have it when we signed him up for the school. Literally, it was a sense the Lord was saying, ‘No.’”
“Then we started homeschooling in earnest,” she says. And they’ve been peaceful about the decision ever since.
The ultimate guide is loving God and following these principles. And realizing that even then you can make a mistake.
As Father Morris observes: “If we’ve asked ourselves all these questions and then we make a mistake, so what? If God wanted us to be perfectly knowledgeable of his will for us, he would be communicating to us more directly.”
The aim is to keep seeking God’s will.
After all, St. Paul says that God works out all things for the good for those who love him (Romans 8:28).
And remember what Venerable Fulton Sheen said about prayer’s role: “It surrenders our own will to the impetus of the divine will.
“It silences the ego with its clamorous demands, in order that it may hear the wishes of the divine heart. It uses our faculties to stir up our will to conform more perfectly with his will. … It eliminates from our lives the things that would hinder union with God and strengthens our desire that all the good things we do shall be done for his honor and glory.”
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.