Discerning the Will of God
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
Friday Book Pick: Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making
By Timothy M. Gallagher. OMV
“Should I quit this job which is not fulfilling me and not utilizing my gifts?”
“Should move back home and care for my elderly parents?”
“Should I consider entering into this long-distance relationship?”
“What does God want me to do with my life?”
For you and for me, making the right decision means making the decision that God wants us to make. It means discovering God’s will for us in any particular situation. In order to go about a good discernment process we must first be convinced of two things: first, that God cares about the question we’re asking—that He has a will, a desire, a plan for us, and secondly, that God is good, always good, only good and that His plans for us are good.
If those two truths are firmly rooted in you, then you could be ready to discern. Next you want to hone down your question into a succinct summary of what it is that you are trying to figure out. Rather than asking, “Should I pursue this relationship with Joe and maybe marry him; or, should I become a religious sister; or, should I return to Ethiopia as a full-time missionary and maybe become a consecrated virgin”; rather than confusing yourself and prolonging the discernment process, ask one question at a time: “God, is it Your will for me to marry Joseph?” I don’t advise simplicity because God cannot handle our complexity, but rather it is we who cannot handle our complexity! Discerning three (or even two) things at once never works because remember, you’re entering into the discernment with all your thoughts, emotions, desires, hopes, dreams, desires…talk about a recipe for needless drama! If you ask God a question, wait for the answer and many other answers will necessarily flow from it.
Once you are clear about the question you’re asking, give yourself time to discern: perhaps nine days if it is a decision about taking a job or ending a relationship or moving to a new city; perhaps six months or a year if it is a bigger question such as getting married, entering a convent, or moving to mission territory permanently.
With the ground work done (you are clear and convicted that your good and loving
Father in heaven is deeply interested in your decisions, that He has a beautiful dream for your life, and He is not trying to obscure His plan, in fact He is eager for you to discover it, and furthermore, you are clear about the specific question you are putting before Him and are willing to wait for the answer). Now you are ready to enter into a discernment process.
The very fact that there is a process for making a good discernment is worth noting. So often discerning something translates into living with a bothersome open question that is kind of like an interior paper cut and hoping that it will heal itself. Rather than that, be prepared to make a plan for your discernment process starting with deciding how much time you are going to allot to this discernment and then commit to asking the question you are discerning every day in prayer. “Heavenly Father, should I marry Joseph? Is this your desire for us?” Asking the question consistently and repeatedly prepares you to perceive and receive the answer.
That brings us to the art of listening. God speaks to us all the time; He is the Eternal Word after all. But we need to grow in our ability to listen, to identify His voice, and to understand the language He speaks. By now perhaps you have had experiences of God speaking to you through the Scriptures, through the Mass, through a priest in Confession, through a trusted friend or through a passage in a spiritual book. God could use the morning sunrise or a child’s embrace—everything is at His disposal to reveal to us Himself and His will.
The word discernment comes from an ancient word for "sift" or "separate." The discernment process is learning to sift through spiritual experiences in order to distinguish what is from God and what is not. In Discerning the Will of God, Fr. Timothy Gallagher clearly explains, and illustrates with examples, the three ways or “modes” that God’s will is
usually ascertained by a person. The three modes of discernment are derived from the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) who was a genius at observing and understanding the ways God typically works within a human soul, starting with his own.
The first mode of discernment is clarity beyond doubting. This is what happened to
†Fr. Benedict Groeschel when he was seven years old. After a tremendous fright, he ran to his church (Our Lady of Victory) and knelt down to pray in front of the statue of Our Lady. Fr. Benedict clearly perceived the words within him, “Be a priest.” He knew he was called. He received a clarity beyond doubting, and he never turned back.
In the second mode of discernment God’s will is revealed by sifting your interior spiritual experiences over time. This discernment comes through learning to pay attention to the desires, inclinations, and attractions of your heart when you are in times of spiritual consolation. In order to make good use of the second mode of discernment you need to have a good handle on what constitutes spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. For a deeper understanding of these terms, I would recommend Fr. Gallagher's best-selling book entitled The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. (Or, the comic book version, Discernment of Spirits Comic, available from Vianney Vocations.)
The third mode of discernment is useful when you can’t seem to get clarity through sifting through your interior experiences as described in the second mode, because you are not going through big highs and lows spiritually, rather you are pretty steady interiorly in what St. Ignatius calls a time of tranquility. Essentially, the third mode employs the good ‘ol pros and cons list (in other words your God-given reason), to help make your way through a discernment process. Here is an outline of the steps of discernment according to the third mode:
1. The Question: What are you presenting to God for an answer?
2. The Disposition: Are you in a state of tranquility? equilibrium and peace?
3. The Petition: Ask God for a mind that will see clearly and a will that will choose faithfully that which is for the greater glory of God
4. The Reasons: Pros and Cons
5. The Choice: Choose!
6. The Confirmation: Offer the choice to God and ask Him to confirm it.
All of this is fleshed out and made abundantly clear in Fr. Gallagher’s book Discerning the Will of God.
Even though the word “discernment” so often calls to mind the big questions of a religious or priestly vocation, the real goal for us is to be living a discerning life. That means moving through life seeking and doing the will of the Father. It means living out the Our Father—"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—every single day.
-Mother Clare, CFR