How Can I Discern God’s Will?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: Answering the universal call to holiness of all the faithful

Two Paths
Two Paths (photo: Pixabay/CC0 / Pixabay/CC0)

Q. How do I discern Jesus’ will for my life? I am 55 years old and rediscovered my faith after attending the World Youth Day in Poland in 2016. I want to understand my faith better. Thus, I’d like to study theology or philosophy. But I’m not sure if my desire is consistent with God’s will. My finances are uncertain and my mother is a widow and has frequent medical appointments that I need to take her to. How do I decide if theological studies are part of the Lord’s will for me? — Maria

A. Maria, your question bears upon what I consider the most important teaching of moral theology to come out of the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of personal vocation.

It is related to the better-known Council doctrine of the universal call to holiness of all the faithful. Vatican II teaches that holiness — Christian perfection — is meant for every member of the Church, not just for the clergy, religious or those who have extraordinary experiences of God. Each Christian is called to perfect holiness. 

When St. John Paul II reflected back on this teaching of the Council he insisted that this “call” of God was not something generic, like the proverbial call for faithful soldiers, but rather uniqueand unrepeatable, the particularized call of God to each baptized Christian to follow Jesus in a special way. 

“The ways of holiness,” he said, “are many, according to the vocation of each individual” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 31). So a cloistered nun, an airline pilot, a married waitress, my teenage daughter and I are all called by God to grow perfect in holiness. But each of our ways to holiness is unique, in fact, my way may share very little in common with the others. 

John Paul II refers to the particularized call of God to each person as “the gift of a personal vocation” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 39). Each gift represents one of the many “different ways of becoming imitators of Christ” (Dilecti Amici, 9).

Personal vocation is not an all-at-once sort of thing. It unfolds throughout our life. Some parts of it may entail very large commitments, such as marrying this person or professing vows in that religious order; other parts involve less consequential choices, such as beginning studies in theology. Yet each part plays a role in forming our lives into the harmonious wholes that God intends them to be.

Our personal vocation began the moment we came into existence. Thus, small children too have personal vocations. The duty of parents is to seek God on their behalf, helping them when their young fulfill God’s will for their lives. And as they grow older, parents should teach and model for their children how to responsibly discern and live their personal vocations for themselves.

You are probably saying about now: “Yes, yes, all this is very edifying. But you’ve missed the point entirely. I didn’t ask if God has a plan for my life, I asked how I can know what it is.

Well, before we can discern God’s plan for our life, we have to be convinced that he does in fact have a plan and that it corresponds to his will for our ultimate perfection and eternal happiness. St. Paul says that each of us has been created in Jesus Christ to live the life of good works that the Father prepared for us from the beginning (Ephesians 2:10). This life of good works prepared for us is our personal vocation. 

To discern its contents, we have to really want to know God’s will for our life. And we have to be detached enough from our own agendas to be able to hear what God wants, including if he wants something that may not correspond to our desires.

So let us restate your question: “Does God want me to begin theological studies at this time?” 

I say begin because that’s all you need to know right now. You may desire also to know whether you will complete the studies, and how you will ultimately use them; and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know these things. But God is very unlikely to let us know more than we need to know at present. So the question you bring to discernment is: Does God want me to begin studies now (Fall semester 2018)?

You raise the issues of finances and prior family commitments. If, after consideration and consultation, you conclude that your mother’s needs cannot be reasonably met if you begin studies, or that you cannot afford the tuition, then you have your answer: Studies are not part of God’s will for my life at this time. 

But you may conclude that your mother’s needs can otherwise be reasonably met, and that your finances are sufficient (you might not have enough to go to Notre Dame, South Bend, but you may have enough to register for online courses through the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology, also called Notre Dame); and if your family is supportive, and you’ve discussed the option with trusted advisers, and none of these raises any strong reasons against moving ahead, then the next thing to do is to apply to theology or philosophy programs. 

If no school accepts you, then again you have your answer, at least for the time being. And you should fight off the temptation to discouragement, making an effort to accept the eventuality with serenity knowing you did what you could to discover God’s will and this is what it appears to be.

If one or more accepts you, then you submit those options to Jesus, you pray, deliberate, consult about each; and then if more than one remains a living possibility, you adopt the alternative that seems to you most compatible with what you already know about Jesus’s will for your life (e.g., let’s say you are married with children; you already know he wants you to be a loving wife, a conscientious mother, a faithful daughter, etc.).

The challenge of the Christian life is to integrate into a harmonious whole the many dimensions of our lives: our desires, opportunities, and limitations; our strengths and weaknesses; our sufferings and disappointments; even our past sinfulness. We ask whether or not, or to what degree, thistrait or habit or hobby or relationship or pursuit or desire or goal or thought pattern or suffering makes sense in light of our Christian faith? What is its potential for communicating God’s truth and love? How can it be used to confront evil (in ourselves and in the world) and to advance God’s divine plan? Some things in our life may need to be reprioritized, other things to be set aside. 

The effort is worth it since it is directed to life’s greatest treasure — the will of the Father. The late, great moral theologian, Germain Grisez, who has done more than any other to clarify the concept of personal vocation, writes: “No one can live a life that is genuinely fulfilled — a holy life — without consistently striving to do God’s will in everything. Whether you think about it or not, striving to do God’s will involves trying to discern and accept one’s personal vocation and live it out” (Personal Vocation, 94).