Discerning God's will can be so hard, can't it?
In my atheist days I scoffed at those who thought they could figure out God's will for them. I considered "getting an answer to prayer" to be something akin to "I was beamed up to the mother ship for a quick medical exam before they returned me to the crop circle."
These days, I think of answers to prayer as, well, answers to prayer. Answers aren't always definitive and clear. They don't offer me a peek into a crystal ball, a guaranteed outcome or the thing I want, whatever that thing may be.
What they usually give me is a little nudge, a sense that I'm on the right track in a particular area, a little bit of peace where before there was confusion or anxiety. They offer me one well-lighted step forward on a path that is otherwise still inky dark up ahead.
I return often to some simple steps for discernment from a book by Fr. John Hardon, Retreat With the Lord: A Popular Guide to the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.
(I first mentioned it here, and have since returned it to its rightful owner.)
If you want to know more about St. Ignatius, read the Catholic Encyclopedia here or go to CCEL here for his spiritual exercises, (or just get the Hardon book for an excellent distillation of his exercises and how to put them to use.)
Simply, St. Ignatius offers a concise guide to discernment on relationships, activities and situations. He urges us to ask for God's guidance concerning where various people and things fall -- they will all fall into one of these four categories:
- Things/people God wants us to enjoy
- Things/people God wants us to endure (or suffer)
- Things/people God wants us to remove (because they lead us to sin)
- Things/people God wants us to sacrifice (willingly giving up an objective good, even though this thing's presence doesn't lead us to sin)
I find this immensely helpful, which doesn't mean that when I pray for discernment God beams me up to the mother ship and gives me an immediate, clear-cut answer. Nope.
But it does mean that after a fair amount of prayer, reflection and surrender, I can sometimes see into which category a situation falls. Not always. But sometimes.
And certainly more often than would be the case if I weren't asking these questions.