When to Discern God’s Will

September 21, 2016

Confusion. Doubt. Fear.

These are, unfortunately, words that I have heard from devout, practicing Catholics this summer in regard to their faith. They are sensations with which I myself have deeply struggled. These are not what God wants us to associate with our faith, though he will allow us to be plunged into doubt and despair as a path to eventually bring us closer to him. During the experience, however, we can have great difficulty discerning God's will in our lives.

Questions about what God wants from us, to whom he wants us to listen, and how we are supposed to follow him are all natural and good. However, when these questions turn so much to fear and doubt that our hearts are stirred into a frenzy of unknowing, then we are no longer simply asking questions of our God—we are falling prey to the Tempter.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, five hundred years ago, addressed this very problem, and his insights into the issue are all too-little known in our day and age. Ignatius calls it the Discernment of Good and Evil Spirits.

Basically, Ignatius discerns between Consolation and Desolation, and how when we are in Consolation we often make resolutions that are good but are not necessarily what God wants from us. We get caught up in the moment, filled with a fervor of love for our great Lord and Creator, and we vow to do great things to transform ourselves and the world. We forget in this moment of fervor about St. Therese's Little Way, or Mary's hidden life in Nazareth; we want to become a Joan of Arc overthrowing evil, a Sebastian peppered with arrows for God, a Paul spreading the Word across the nations. We must acknowledge however, that we are simple, fallen human beings, and God asks only that we obey him at every moment of every day. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Mt 6:34). We stack up many expectations for ourselves, and so forget to rely on God's calm guidance in our lives.

Sometimes, after we have resolved on these great plans, fear suddenly sweeps over us. Fear of what we think God is asking of us, and fear of our lack of desire to obey him. We start thinking that we are terrible people, that we are sinful wretches incapable of loving God. This is not the turmoil that stems from an empty life or the committing of a grave sin. This is fear about everything: fear about God's very ability to love us because of our fallen nature. These thoughts discount God’s mercy and are never from him. This is an experience of Desolation, and arises from thoughts instilled in us by Satan.

Ignatius discusses Desolation and how, when we are in this state, we are filled with fear of our intentions, our actions, our future. Sometimes, we mistakenly believe that God is speaking to us through this feeling of confusion and turmoil, that he is allowing us to feel wretched as a way to disengage us from our current path.

Most often, however, this is simply not the case. God's nudges and guidance come from a place of peace in our hearts. They come from a deep well of trust in his counsels and mercy. If we can not feel that trust, if we can not feel the love of God in a decision over which we are agonizing, then we are not in a position to make any decision.

Two years ago, I experienced a deep desolation, and within the confusion of the experience, nearly turned away from God. I suffer from Chronic Fatigue, which is a generally unknown and misunderstood illness. It is debilitating and can become so to varying degrees. I was confined to my room, divorced even from the company of my family. I was plunged into a state of brain fog and depression, which made thinking practically impossible. For a person whose whole life centers around philosophy, this affliction began to undermine the very way that I viewed reality. I could not believe that God would allow such constant pain, such entire solitude, such total misery. I could no longer recollect with any intelligence Christ's experience of agony, or any of Aquinas' proofs for God's existence; I was bereft of any comfort, and even Sunday Communion was an unknown privilege. I doubted the existence of God, and I remember the moment one day, sitting upon the side of my bathtub, with my head in my hands, when I decided that God must not exist. But cradle Catholicism has its perks, and habit was too strong for me. I cried out in desperation to the ceiling, telling God that I could no longer believe in him, and I had to give up trying because it made me too tired.

What followed was a literal cartoon moment—a flash of a light bulb above my head—without any thinking, without any reasoning, but with a simple, solid knowing. The knowledge came with an almost audible voice: “You are not expected to prove my existence.”

With that all the doubt, confusion, turmoil, and pain of mind washed away like a stream in a desert. I was not being asked to make a decision, to prove anything, or to understand anything. Only to have faith. I knew then that one day, I would be well enough to think again about why I believed in God. But until that day came, I had only to believe.

With simple surrender, I prayed a simple prayer for belief.

Faith is underrated, and in this world of scientific proofs, individualism, and logical reasoning, our world expects us to understand and prove everything that we believe. God, however, is not so hard on our simple, limited minds. He knows and loves our limitations, and mercifully gives us the grace in every moment to simply accept him. He will not always give the knowledge for which we pray, but he will always give us peace.

The best advice with which I would like to leave you is this: Do not make a decision regarding your faith when you are in a state of desolation, and be careful of the decisions that stem from Consolation. Do not expect that any decision you make will bring you peace. Pray first for acceptance and peace, and only when Christ has restored you to that tranquility, will you be in a state of mind to know and do his will. Confusion and doubt are from the Devil, but peace is from God.

For further reading on Ignatius’s teachings, check out these sites:

Ignatius’s 8 Rules for the Discernment of Spirits

Article about Ignatius’s Teachings

Elizabeth Russell

Elizabeth’s passion for writing began at age 9. When she started a school magazine in college, she realized how much she enjoyed helping others perfect their work and make it ready for publication. She has channeled this love of guidin more...