A couple weeks ago I went to LA to meet my favorite author Morgan Matson at a book signing event (you can read more about that trip here). I had a great time, eating good food, hiking to the Hollywood sign…
When the plane touched down, the excitement of adventure filled my heart, I knew I had made the right decision. I love travelling, I had the money for the trip, why wouldn’t I have embarked on the trip?
But what seemed an obvious choice upon arrival had been an arduous decision. I flip-flopped back and forth between going or not for weeks. It reached the point that I bought the flights and made plans with a friend who lived in LA only to cancel the whole trip a couple days later.
Two days before the flights I had cancelled, I was regretting my decision. I wanted to go, why had I decided against it? Restless, I took it to prayer, but I wasn’t receiving anything close to a clear answer. So, I put up a poll on Instagram. Do I go to LA for the signing or save money? Morgan Matson herself voted that I should come. After that, the decision was pretty easy.
I Struggle with Discernment
But why did I struggle to make this decision in the first place? Where can I put up a poll that God himself will vote yes or no? How do I discern with less turmoil?
My struggle with discernment extends beyond choosing whether or not to go on vacation. Last month, I received an amazing job offer. My attempts at discernment failed. I didn’t know what God wanted me to do, what I should do. I ended up accepting the job only to turn it down two weeks later.
Clearly, my decision-making strategy, my ability to discern, was not strong. It had led to me backing out of a professional commitment. And even though I kept asking God what he wanted me to do, he didn’t seem to be answering.
After much prayer and reflection, I’ve realized my problem with discernment: I’m missing a key piece of the equation. In discernment, your desires matter.
Whether you’re discerning your Vocation or smaller day to day choices, God has given us the freedom to make decisions. Just as a child is slowly allowed by the parents to make more and more of their own choices, the more we advance in spiritual maturity, the more God allows us to choose our path.
This might seem a little confusing, at least it was for me. Aren’t we supposed to always be doing God’s Will? What does my will have to do with anything?
Let’s break this down…
What is Discernment?
First of all, what is discernment? We often hear the term associated with our big Vocation—whether we’re called to married or religious life (look out for my upcoming post on the vocation to single life). But discernment is also essential to smaller day-to-day choices.
What should I major in? Should I rent or buy a home? Do I accept this job offer? Should I pursue a romantic relationship with this person?
Discernment is the process by which we make these decisions in light of God’s Will for our lives. Through prayer, meditation on scripture, and prudence, we are called to discern God’s path for our lives.
[Man] must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law. To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts. (CCC 1787-1788)
Why is Discernment so Hard?
The term discernment can sometimes be used in the sense of discerning good from evil. For example, discerning whether eating that third ice cream scoop would be gluttony or not. But oftentimes, discernment is difficult because we are choosing between two goods.
Do I take this job offer or that job offer? Do I go this university or that university? Do I join a soccer league or devote more time to reading?
Choosing between good and evil requires no discernment. God never wills evil, therefore you should choose good. Do I cheat on this test or not? No. It’s simple. Though refusing evil and temptation can sometimes be hard, the act of discernment is easy in this case.
But when two choices are equally good, what can you do?
What You Want Matters
In his Youtube videos Four Helpful Rules for Discernment, Fr. Mike invites us to ask the following questions about a decision we are considering:
- Is this a good door?
- Is this a wise door?
- Is this an open door?
In the case of my Hawaii job offer, the answer was yes to all three questions. Yes, it was good. I would be contributing to the protection and conservation of God’s Creation. Yes, it was wise. I had the ability to do the job, no one was depending on me at home. Yes, it was open. I had received the job offer.
But I had a second door: not taking the job. That door was also good. My friends and family were at home. Yes, it was wise. I had a job I enjoyed, I had stability. Yes, it was open. There was no reason for me to leave.
No matter how I compared the two choices, they both seemed equally good, wise, and open. What then?
Fr. Mike introduces a fourth question:
4. Is this a door I want?
Desires are Promises from God
I once heard a priest say desires are promises from God. Maybe they won’t be fulfilled in the way we want or expect, but they will be fulfilled. How often do nuns reveal that they desired desperately to be mothers and were sorrowful, thinking the vow of chastity would keep them from this desire, only to find that they are spiritual mothers to countless souls? (check out Sr. Bethany Madonna’s Vocation story to see how Christ fulfills our desires in unexpected ways).
Let me tell you a little more about my job offer. It was a six-month position in Hawaii…Working with birds…Living on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for free…With four-day weekends. Can a job get any more perfect? No.
Still, I didn’t want it.
After a lifetime of moving from city to city as my dad pursued job opportunities, I didn’t want to leave. My heart rebelled against yet another set of goodbyes, against yet more instability and change. But how could I turn down such an amazing offer? Surely God had presented this opportunity because he wanted me to take it, right?
Exercising Your Free Will
Sometimes God leaves decision-making to us. As the only creature made in the image and likeness of God, free will distinguishes us from animals. Within the blueprint of God’s Will, we are free to make our own decisions.
By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an “outstanding manifestation of the divine image” CCC 1705.
As I agonized over my decision, I desperately asked God, what should I do? What do you want me to do? And his answer was,
I trust you to make your own decisions.
The answer took me aback. That was allowed? What I wanted mattered?
At the end of the day, I turned down the job offer for no other reason than I didn’t desire it. In exercising my free will, I reached a deeper level of spiritual maturity. It might not have been graceful (remember I mentioned I accepted the job and then turned it down?), but I’m grateful for the experience. Come back next week for my reflection on why God allowed me to stumble around in the dark.