Can We Discern the Will of God?
For many believers, of different theistic faith traditions, finding out God’s will and intention for them is an important search. Some traditions hold that God has particular purposes for individual human lives. If that is the case then it must be important to discover what these purposes are. If God has a plan in mind, then this plan is important to find out. In addition to this idea of there being some big plan, or big purpose in our lives, there are also many decisions that human beings face, and many religious traditions teach that there are choices that go towards God’s intended plan, and choices that turn away from that plan.
However, how can any of this be known? How can a believer be sure they are not simply masking their own preferences with the idea that they are God’s will? I may have my own entirely unholy reasons for choosing an action, or pursuing a course. My own self-interest may come to affect how I read sacred texts so I pick out the message I want to see? Or I may suffer from a psychological or mental illness that leads me to believe I hear the voice of God, when in fact it is my own illness that is speaking to me, not the voice of God.
Some traditions offer specific practices to try to avoid these pitfalls and one such process is found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. These are a combination of prayers, meditations and contemplative practices that he developed to help deepen a person’s relationship with God. Part of this involves practices that aim to set aside self-motivated wishes and desires and be receptive to the will of God. They include a process of discernment where different possible options may be explored. This seeks to help a person focus on the interior movements of our heart and perceive where they are leading.
Writing about this subject, a Jesuit called Joseph Tetlow suggests:
“Human beings are moved by a dense complex of motives, both in the things we do from day to day and in our big decisions. What drives a young woman to become a doctor or a young man to be an engineer? Many things contribute: success, altruism, interest. Or what drives a woman who has smoked for years to quit or an obese man to get thin? Again, many things contribute: fear of death, desire for health, concern of family. But they all interact in a kind of movement that eventually drives the person to act. Master Ignatius learned to think about those dense complexes of motives — images, ideas, attractions, revulsions — as ‘spirits’.
Master Ignatius noted that these dense complexes of motives and energies take on two configurations, which he identified with consolation and desolation. He discovered that both consolation and desolation can move you toward God or pull you away from God. Then he noted that sometimes consolation comes from a good spirit and sometimes from a bad spirit, and he noted the same thing about desolation.”
The spiritual exercises provide help in interpreting major decisions and daily experience. They act as a guide when considering the possible choices we may make and point to the truer way forward. However, the process is not easy. It requires inner quiet and an ability to reflect on one’s interior life. It takes practice and is some kind of art. It provides a framework, rather than a programme. One step in becoming more confident in this framework is by making prayerful reflection part of everyday life. One such reflection is known as the Examen and it involves 5 stages:
- Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.
For more go here: ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/
One thing this does mean is that the process of trying to find out how we should live, what we should do, is viewed by some Christians as a whole-life process of learning how to be, not simply something that can be easily dipped into and then discarded. This is a very challenging message in a world dominated by notions of ‘on-demand’ and ‘one-click’ solutions. Perhaps it also offers much greater depths in return.
For more about Ignatian spirituality visit: ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/.