How can you know God’s will? What is your vocation? What does God want you to do with your life? St. Ignatius of Loyola gave the Church timeless guidelines on how to discern God’s will in your life. Fr. Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V., a nationally recognized expert on those teachings of St. Ignatius, distills these insights in his book Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making offering practical steps for anyone navigating how to conform their will to God’s in life’s many decisions.
To choose between something obviously good and something patently evil seems like a no-brainer decision. But much of discernment isn’t a choice between two moral opposites. The type of discernment we are talking about here is choosing between options that are morally good, or at least neutral, and options that you are free and able to choose. First, we need to start with the foundation that God loves us. We are called to encounter God and grow in our relationship with him. When we are aware of God’s infinite love for us itroots us in our purpose, and guides us to freely respond to him.
This foundation leads us to a disposition of openness and freedom to say yes to God’s will. The more we personally and intimately know Jesus and his love for us, the more we can come to love him and the more we desire to follow him more closely with that same freedom and openness. Everything in our discernment depends on having this disposition of heart: a disposition of openness to do God’s will and being free from attachments that are holding us back from this willingness. We want to be able to say with freedom and trust, “I want to do whatever you want for me, Lord.” How do we develop this disposition to prepare our hearts to discern God’s will?
To prepare for discernment St. Ignatius advises several practices. We can spend time with Christ in the Eucharist in adoration and receive him at Mass. We can also contemplate Jesus and his life by reading the Gospels each day. We can spend time in silent prayer each day to allow ourselves to hear the voice of God speaking to our hearts. It’s ideal to be accompanied in our discernment by a competent spiritual director such as a trusted priest or other spiritual leader. And we should be in the habit of regularly reviewing our prayer experience each day to see where God is working. Even praying a daily examen for just 15 minutes a day can help with this process.
Now that we have the foundation, disposition and preparation, St. Ignatius teaches three ways that we can practically discern God’s will.
Clarity Beyond Doubting
Sometimes God will break through with clarity that gives such a deep certainty that we cannot doubt that it is of God. Our will is “drawn and attracted” to what God is revealing. If we receive clarity like this, we should act on it. However, if God is not giving this extraordinary clarity, St. Ignatius says we move on to the second way of discerning.
“Attraction of the Heart”
In the second way of discernment we review our prayer over time, ideally with the help of a spiritual director. This discernment is based on “ongoing prayer centered on the Gospels.” As we pray with the Gospels, we should try to pay attention to our experiences of consolation and desolation in prayer. When we experience spiritual consolation in prayer, we should ask ourselves which decision we are drawn to, and is that experience recurring, forming a consistent pattern?
This discernment is done over time. It requires wisdom, patience and an understanding of consolations and desolations to discern carefully, so the help of a spiritual director is very important. Father Gallagher’s book offers more detailed guidance on this kind of discernment through prayer. If there is not “sufficient clarity” from this second way of discerning, St. Ignatius offers a third way.
Preponderance of Reasons
When discerning God’s will, we can look at the reasons for choosing one option or the other by weighing the advantages and disadvantages each has in serving God. This can only be done when we are spiritually calm and feel free from attachments that might confuse our decision-making. There are several ways to carry out this method, , but one that Father Gallagher suggests is to process the question and the options in prayer with an openness and a willingness to do whatever God wills considering the reasons for each option and making the choice where the weight of reasons is showing us to go. We can then offer our choice to God for him to confirm it.
For anyone seriously discerning big decisions on vocations and what God wants you to do with your life, check out Father Gallagher’s book, gather information about your options through reading, speaking to people who are living out those vocations, making visits to seminaries or religious houses and going on retreats. Seek out wisdom from a trusted spiritual leader, and follow the guidance offered by St. Ignatius on having the proper foundation, disposition, and preparation to discern God’s will.
God might not tell you today where he wants you to be five years from now. He will tell you today where he wants you today, and if you are attentive to him each day in prayer and a change or decision is needed–he will show you. Ultimately, be at peace and trust God that if you are asking him and trying to follow him, he will lead you where he wants you to be, and that his plan for you will be the best possible plan that, despite any sufferings and sacrifices, will bring you true joy and peace.