De-mystifying discernment, part II

If God has one right choice in everything you do, then you can’t draw any line. That means that God wants you to know which room to clean first, the kitchen or the bedroom, and which dish to pick up first, the plate or the saucer. You see, if you carry out this principle’s logical implications, it shows itself to be ridiculous, unlivable, and certainly not the kind of life God wants for us—the kind described in the Bible and the lives of the saints. But the authentic principle of discernment asserts that many diverse things are good; that good is plural. Even for the same person, there are often two or more choices that are both good. Good is kaleidoscopic. Many roads are right. The road to the beach is right and the road to the mountains is right, for God awaits us in both places. Goodness is multicolored. Only pure evil lacks color and variety. In hell there is no color, no individuality. Souls are melted down like lead, or chewed up together in Satan’s mouth. The two most uniform places on earth are prisons and armies, not the church. — Peter Kreeft

After the retreat, I wrote these thoughts that extended the priest’s insights. These very simple insights that I shared yesterday, and these below, have deeply shaped my approach to life with great effect. I hope they have given you some insight as well.

What Father said is precisely I try to avoid using the phrases “God asked me, God told me, God put it on my heart, God led me,” etc., to describe my decisions. Why? Because it’s presumptuous. It takes away from me responsibility for what was decided and places it all on God. What I decide=God’s will. As we are not predestination-ists, I don’t believe that my every choice is selecting a divinely pre-picked option. That would be exhausting and terrifying to live by. Yes, God has a “general will” for us which is absolutely clear and is absolutely binding on all of us always. That would include for example the moral teaching of the Church. Don’t cheat on your wife, give to the poor, forgive those who sin against you, use your gifts in service to others, etc. But within the parameters of God’s general will, in what St. Bernard called His “will of good pleasure,” there’s lots of room for play. And for active and creative cooperation with Him that contributes to, and doesn’t just execute the unfolding of His will. And we can be confident we are doing His will precisely because our will is already seeking after God’s “general will.” This is what St. Augustine means when he says: “Love and do what you will.”

I met a Sudanese priest several years ago, and spoke to him at length about his own path to priesthood. In the midst of that conversation, he said something like this: “You Americans, I’ve noticed, tend to begin the discernment of God’s will by thinking of personal fulfillment. ‘What will make me happy? Bring me a sense of fulfillment? Prosper me?’ It’s difficult to think of God’s will from that starting point. God is handcuffed. But in my village, my family, we start with: What do my people need? Or what does the church need? What do I have to offer? And if I see these match, and it’s a way for me to love best with the abilities God has given, deciding is easy. Loving God, which is doing God’s will (which is what you are trying to discern), is found when you start with your neighbor’s needs. This is how I chose to be a priest. It was a simple decision, but not an easy one. Do you know why [the French existentialist] Jean Paul Sartre said ‘hell is other people’? Because he started and ended with himself. If you do that you will always be miserable. If you start with love, you can clean garbage cans all your life and you will be content.”

Peter Kreeft put this spin on the freedom we have in choosing how we are best to love God with our life: “God, in giving us all free will, said to us: ‘Your will be done.’ Some of us turn back to him and say: ‘My will is that your will be done.’ That is obedience to the first and greatest commandment. Then, when we do that, he turns to us and says: ‘And now, your will be done.’ And then he writes the story of our lives with the pen strokes of our own free choices.” My spiritual director of blessed memory, Fr. Anthony Manochio, quoted Mother Teresa to me at a crucial juncture in my own discernment: “Tom, it’s in your hands now to choose your future and make something beautiful for God. Something only you could make. Choose well.”

Our retreat Master gave a great cluster of reflection points. He said, “Do these and then you can choose and be at peace”: Seek after purity of heart, myopic in God’s will, seeking to love God and neighbor. Being faithful in the present moment to the details of your daily duties anchors all faithfulness in future decisions, while being sloppy in the present sets you adrift. Remain obedient to the teachings of the Church. Repent when you fail. Use good judgment and seek counsel from wise people who will kick and not kiss your hiney. Beg for the grace to be docile to the movements of the Holy Spirit so you can act in harmony. Discerning should not feel burdensome, mechanical or anxiety-ridden, but bring us joy and peace …

Peter Kreeft says: “In education, I know there are always two extremes. You can be too modern, too experimental, too Deweyan, too structureless. But you can also be too classical, too rigid. Students need initiative and creativity and originality too. God’s law is short. He gave us ten commandments, not ten thousand. Why? Why not a more complete list of specifics? Because he wanted freedom and variety. Why do you think he created so many persons? Why not just one? Because he loves different personalities. He wants his chorus to sing in harmony, but not in unison.”

Peter Kreeft also says discerning and doing God’s will should be like married sex. “As long as you stay within God’s law—no adultery, no cruelty, no egotism, no unnatural acts, as, for example, contraception—anything goes. Use your imagination. Is there one and only one way God wants you to make love to your spouse? What a silly question! Yet making love to your spouse is a great good, and God’s will. He wants you to decide to be tender or wild, moving or still, loud or quiet, so that your spouse knows it’s you, not anyone else, not some book who’s deciding.”

… As Father said, it’s true that once in a while God does give extra-ordinary clarity with pinpoint specificity as to what He wills us to do. But it is not His ordinary manner, and we should not operate on that level every day. When you start with, “God told me to…, asked me to…, put it on my heart to…”, all discussion is ended. Who could possibly examine or contradict that? No critique is possible. All challenges are off limits. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. It leaves no room for your critical judgment to work or for others to examine your judgment or decision and offer important feedback. It’s a conversation stopper. It’s safe, and it keeps me buffered from any criticism. If later it seems I made a bad decision, well, “You can blame God! He asked me to…” Really? Are you sure? … Asserting in your own voice the unmediated vox Dei [voice of God] is risky business … Whenever someone tells me God told them to tell me this or that, I say: “Thanks for the input. I’ll think on that.” …


4 comments on “De-mystifying discernment, part II

  1. Jennifer says:

    This is so useful and clear. Thank you! Here’s the thing: sometimes “I feel like God is calling me to this…” is the only language I can think of. Sometimes in the midst of my self-centeredness and navel-gazing a beautiful, unselfish, loving possibility will make itself evident, will call me out of myself to consider it and it’s just so beautiful and unselfish, and loving to have ever originated from anything other than His gentle Spirit. Saying that I thought of it myself feels like plagiarism. What language would you use instead?

    • “Feeling God is calling you to…” is beautiful and should be part of the discerning language of our unique and contributive cooperation with God’s grace. My critique was specifically of the language of apodictic certitude, the absolute and presumptive language of “God told me,” “asked me,” etc. While there are rare instances where God commands with precision clarity — though even those must be passed through discerning fires — our ordinary manner of discernment is in making good judgments to carry out what accords with God’s general will and seems the best way to love Him and our neighbor best. Any time I act with love in accord with the general will of God, and in harmony with my present commitments, I can say confidently “I feel-believe-think I am following God’s will.” The other point here is, as Kreeft says so eloquently, God’s will is that I make something uniquely beautiful and creatively my own for Him — the dignity of being made in His image is that He wants us to be not slaves but friends and brides; to be co-creators, co-redeemers, co-workers with Him…not just slaves who execute mindlessly His every demand. Something like that. A GREAT book on this is Germain Grisez’s Personal Vocation.
      I hope that helps, Jennifer!
      Peace and joy,

  2. John Koehler says:

    I love the conversation with the Sudanese priest. Such a simplified method for discernment. I have been looking for discernment in what I want to do with my extra time and now realize I have been approaching it from the Jean Paul Sartre method. The Sudanese priest has helped me in a way that is hard to put into words other than I have decided where to put my time. I have been waiting for God to guide me, and it just happened.

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