Though I’ve been trained by the Jesuits in discernment and have made a few major decisions in my life so far, I still find decision-making very hard, primarily because there’s rarely full clarity. At a retreat I led for high school seniors, I gave a talk about my own discernment into and out of religious life and then into marriage. Afterwards, a student approached me and asked me how she’s supposed to approach the decision about which university to attend and what to study. I repeated some of what I had shared in my talk but then she lamented, “But how am I supposed to know God’s will?!”
In my new book, God Moments: Unexpected Encounters in the Ordinary, I spend a good amount of time on the spirit of my student’s question. We’re often waiting to “find out” God’s will for our lives and don’t quite know how to do it. So we sit and wait. That waiting turns into idleness and inaction. I always point to a better question: What are God’s desires for me? This question allows us to explore the deeper dimensions of vocation and purpose and call. It also helps us engage in our own desires and dreams, giving us a role in the discernment process. My student, like many, expects discernment to be a one-way street where God expresses a “will” and we do it. Full stop. Except true discernment in the Ignatian sense (which I am trained in) does not work that way.
If God always gave us an absolute clear path then discernment wouldn’t be so hard. The reality is, we’re often faced with several good choices. For me, religious life and marriage were both good choices. My discernment was choosing the alternative that was better for me and fully living my life. Choosing between universities or jobs is also a choice between goods. Philosopher Ruth Chang, in her TED talk, points out that easy choices present alternatives where one is clearly better than the other. Hard choices are when the alternatives are neither better than the other overall. Religious life might have certain “better” qualities for me than married life but married life has its own qualities that are “better” than religious life. But overall, each alternative is equally good. So we hem and haw and pine for an answer from God because we just can’t decide.
I suggest four elements in an approach to a difficult discernment:
A hallmark of Ignatian spirituality is being aware of God’s presence in all things and at all moments. If we pay attention to our heart or gut we can gain some insight into which choice before us is pulling at our heart. Ignatius tells us that emotions and feelings are important indicators for us. While our gut feelings about a certain choice before us may not give us sureness in our decision, they are important information to consider.
If prayer is our relationship with God then we can bring all our feelings and choices before God in prayer. In my book, I mention a few ways you can bring your discernment to prayer, including making a list of pros and cons and using your imagination.
I use the metaphor of a discernment “fitting room” where you can try on a choice to see how it feels or looks. Now if you’re choosing between career choices or doctoral programs you can’t actually test out a choice for a time, but you can convince yourself you’ve made a particular decision. You’d be surprised how much that psychological act alone can tell you about whether that might be a good choice for you. During Christmas break from my studies as a Jesuit, I spent a few days where I told myself that I had decided to leave religious life and then a few days where I convinced myself that I had decided to stay. The choice I had to make was clear after this experiment. Choosing to stay created a lot of disquiet in me, while choosing to leave and pursue marriage gave me much peace and joy.
Sometimes we don’t realize how much our choices affect those around us—our friends, our family, and the communities in which we find ourselves. While discerning to leave religious life and later while discerning to move across country with my wife there were many voices from family, co-workers, and friends telling us what we should do. While others can’t make your decision for you, these voices are an important consideration, especially from those who know you well. It can also be comforting knowing you’re not completely alone in the process. You might also consider how others will be affected by your decision, whether it be career change, marriage, studies, or moving to a completely new place.
With all the information we have, we then make the best decision we can, even without perfect clarity. It’s not easy, and some choices can later be modified if we discover the decision was not ideal. I see our choices—when made in genuine prayer and in partnership with God—as ways we make God incarnate in the world. We can find joy in that. My student’s paralysis before her decision did not give her joy. If instead she saw her discernment not as waiting for an absolute “answer” from God but as an invitation from God to examine the good choices before her and that she is empowered to make the decision, she might find that discernment and discovering her true self can be quite, quite joyful.
Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.