In mid-life a certain question begins to nag us a little more often than it might have before: Am I doing God’s will? Have I found my mission in life? Or more simply: Should I choose option A or option B? How do I know what God wants of me in this or that situation?
A woman came to me many years ago after I had given a talk, asking for help in making a decision for a career change. We only had an hour, but I agreed to sit down and speak with her. She had a grandson in the prison system, and during her frequent visits with him she had felt this desire to bring some beauty to his life and the life of the other prisoners. She had come up with an interesting idea, and to pursue it was considering taking an early retirement. She wanted to know if this was a good idea...if this plan of hers was something God wanted her to do. On the surface, the whole situation appeared to be a selfless act for the sake of those in the prison where her grandson was. We talked about her deeper desires and motivations, what gives her life and what deadens life, the consequences for her own future if she were to retire five years early, the potential good that could be done by her idea, the value of letting this idea marinate by taking small steps toward her goal while retaining her job for the moment. Many other contributing issues began to surface, issues which made us both sit back and question if her idea was generated more by a certain image she had of herself than by a call from God. I don't know what she finally decided, since I left the area that afternoon, but I am grateful that she had alot more to reflect on in making her decision.
Discernment is tricky. I remember in the mid-90s I was experiencing great difficulty in living out my own vocation. In fact, I faxed a letter to our Mother General, floating the idea that perhaps my distress was the result of my not actually having a vocation to this community. She begged me to wait and not make an immediate decision. So every night for a week I went to chapel and worked through the exercises in the back of a book on discerning God's will. Slowly I realized that my thoughts about the possibility that this wasn't my vocation presented themselves when I was experiencing emotional anguish, not when I was experiencing a greater sense of faith, trust, or God's love. When I pictured myself fulfilling so many aspects of our life and mission, I felt a great peace. When I thought about our Founder's ideals which had motivated my life since I had entered at fifteen years of age, I felt immense joy. I wrote my superior again after that week, saying that I believed I was where God wanted me to be, I just needed help navigating issues within myself that had been precipitated by an earlier stroke.
Vocational questions aren't only for the young. We often wonder or worry whether we have done the best thing for ourselves or for someone we love. We contemplate career changes that are rooted in a transformation of values that we wish to embrace. We wonder where the joy has gone in our life, and this nagging thought may become stronger and stronger that we need a change, or everyone else needs to change, or the situation needs to change.
Discovering God's will is something everyone thinks about at various stages of their life. It's an important question that deserves time, reflection, prayer, patience.
Discover six steps to knowing what God desires of you
God has a mission for each of us. His love for us is so great that it can encompass our mistakes, our detours, our misguided choices. Little by little we can become more sensitive to the dream God has for us and the deepest desires of our own heart. When we have learned to touch both of these realities, we can be more at peace that we can indeed discover a path in life that corresponds to God’s loving will for us. The picture associated with this article is of a sunflower. Sunflowers always face toward the sun. Discernment begins with our desire, like the sunflower, to follow the Heart of God, to give ourselves over to whatever he may desire of us.
The following is a six-step method for learning discernment loosely rooted in the spiritual teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola, yet simplified to offer people a concrete tool in understanding what's happening within them as they consider a decision they have made or need to make. You might find it helpful to use when you are either looking at decisions you need to make for the future or are reassessing decisions you have already made and which define your life at present.
Begin by centering yourself in silence, letting the “dust” settle. Ask Jesus to move your will to choose that which will give the most glory to God for the salvation of the world.
Clearly state the decision you need to make. Frame it in the following words: “Option A is…” and “Option B is not doing Option A.” (Don’t try to list another option—you can only discern one thing at a time, such as, I do this or I don’t do it.) Write down all the information you have at hand regarding the issue that requires your decision. If you discover you need more information, write down the information you need to get.
Write out your feelings surrounding the whole issue. (For example, I feel upset at having to make the decision so quickly. I am afraid of what my mother is going to say. I feel excited about Option A—like I have a possibility of beginning life over. I don’t feel any clarity about this issue at all and doubt I can make it on my own….)
Clarify the issues. Reflect on these four criteria as they pertain to your decision:
- Take yourself the way you are. Respect and accept the others and the situation as they currently are, not as you wish they would be.
- Balance thinking, feeling, and doing. Make sure all three are involved in the clarification of the issues.
- Keep looking at the entire context.
- Ask what unifies, builds up, gives hope, and reconciles.
After clarifying the issues, again write out your feelings. Notice if there have been any shifts. If so, what are they?
Picture yourself as if you had decided on Option A. Try it on for fit. Write down what are you feeling inside. Do the same with Option B.
Entrust yourself to the Word of God. Find a passage in the Bible that seems to speak to your situation and read it prayerfully. Ask God to shed light on everything surrounding the decision you need to make.
After praying with the Word of God, write down the pros and cons for Option A and the pros and cons for Option B. Which option seems to be more for the glory of God?
Return to the passage of Scripture and ask for light on your motivations, desires, needs, proposals, larger community context.
Write out the feelings that were stronger or more insistent.
Picture yourself again in Option A. Do you feel consolation: peace, joy, gentleness, serenity, courage, confidence, growth in faith and love of God, a sense of joy even if the option is painful? Or do you feel anxiety, fears, discouragement, unrest, doubts, darkness, irritation, confusion, a sense of being abandoned by God, alone, isolated? Do the same with Option B. Go back and forth for several days doing this; note your feelings, looking out for signs of blind spots.
Make your decision. God wants us to know his desires and plans for us. The process of discernment is based on the certainty that God will reveal his will to us if we ask.
Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP