Every day, we face numerous choices, many of eternal consequences. When our hearts and minds are ordered toward God, these choices are usually between two goods.
We could read to our children, or pray the rosary.
We could spend Saturday afternoon serving at the soup kitchen, or go to confession.
We could go on a pilgrimage, or give the money to the local pregnancy help center.
You get the idea.
How Do We Know Which Good Choice Is God’s Will?
But how do we know which good things are what we call “willed goods” and which are not? That is, when none of our options are objectively bad, how do we know which one we should choose because it is in alignment with God’s will?
We may wish the skies would part and a scroll would drop from the heavens to tell us what to do. And while it doesn’t work quite like that, still, there are some basic principles that can help us in the decision-making process.
This important question of discernment is addressed by St. Alphonsus de Ligouri in his classic, Uniformity With God’s Will. In my new book, Finding Peace in the Storm, I expand on his teachings and help modern-day readers understand and integrate his wisdom into their daily lives.
In this case, St. Alphonsus reminds us that the key to understanding the highest good in every situation—and hopefully, to choose it—is to understand our motive.
“What Ligiouri and Jesus reveal,” I explain in Finding Peace, “is that when we pursue ‘Godly’ or ‘religious’ things, which are truly and objectively good, but that are not motivated by love and an authentic desire to follow God and His will, then we are doing things from other unhealthy sources of motivation.”
Doing More Isn’t Always The Answer
I tell the story of a woman I call Martha who had confided to me that God had, in His mercy, revealed to her that her busyness in her parish stemmed from her own wounds and the pain that would surface when she was silent and still. But that, she realized after attending my retreat, was exactly where God desired to love her. She needed to release some of the religious activity and spend time with Him in deeper prayer. There, with Him, she would find the fulfillment that no amount of activity could offer.
Even the saints are not immune from the temptation to do more — but more isn’t always God’s will, even when it is more of a good thing. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the master of discernment, wrote that in the year or so following his conversion, as he was growing in the knowledge and love of God, he was often tempted to forgo needed sleep in order to continue praying and meditating on holy things, which brought him much enjoyment. Already having spent 7 hours during the day in prayer, however, he came to see that this was a temptation—the end of which would inevitably be the deterioration of his health. As a good Father, it was God’s will that he get adequate sleep so that he could fulfill his mission.
2 Steps To Discern God’s Will
How did St. Ignatius recognize that the ‘good’ of more prayer time was not God’s will for him? How can we, like he did, like Martha did in the story above, recognize God’s desire for us and apply to our decisions?
I propose two steps.
The first is to surrender, to cry out to God and beg for His help to become aware, and then to lay down our often tightly-held but disordered desires. We cannot save ourselves by any amount of activity, even prayer. Until He becomes our Savior and His Will is our own, we cannot truly know, love, and follow Him.
The second step is to undertake a more serious pursuit of the Lord Jesus through mental prayer. We cannot know someone we don’t spend time with. We cannot recognize the voice of the Shepherd if we do not frequently sit at His feet, learn His heart and mind, and remain close to Him.
When we set aside time for daily mental prayer, that is, to converse lovingly and openly with the Lord, we will come to know Him. Dedicating even ten minutes a day to spending time with God, reflecting on His words in Scripture, sharing our heart with Him, and being present to Him, even in silence, is more powerful than we can ever truly understand.
As He reveals Himself to us in these intimate moments, we will come more fully know and love Jesus, and thus be able to identify His Will for our lives. And we will want nothing less than to follow it with our whole hearts.
Even when that means to release our tightly-held ideas of what is ‘good.’