How to say Yes to God, No to others

A time ago, I was speaking to a young woman about her attempts to discern God’s will in her life. She gave me permission to share her story.

She came to me because she felt paralyzed by the instability in her life. The last eight years had been marked by erratic, disconnected, short-term commitments. I asked her to share with me how she goes about trying to discern God’s will. After a few minutes of listening, it was clear to me her approach was dominated by emotional reasoning, a fear of long-term commitments, and a claim to immediate and infallible access to God’s mind and will. I especially noted how many of her references to “God said to me” were the very things leading her in circles, convincing her God was as chaotic and indecisive as she was.

We met a few times, and I tried to help her gain some stability by thinking very practically through some of her basic life decisions, and tried to convince her that her over-reliance on the unfiltered claim to immediate mystical access to God’s voice was making her vulnerable to canonizing her whims and preferences. I also said, “Do you see that when you tell me, ‘God told me,’ or ‘the Lord put it on my heart to,’ it shuts me down. What could I possibly say in response to that? No, I’m sorry, God’s wrong?” We laughed.

We spent several meetings talking about discernment as integrating emotions with reason and good judgment informed by faith. We also talked about the longer term work of cultivating hard-nosed virtues that would help her sustain commitments for a longer time and face inevitable hardships courageously. This, I said, would help her avoid the trap she had fallen into of equating “this is hard” with “God is obviously leading me elsewhere.”

I also tried to convince her that her conception of God’s will was riddled with an erroneous view of predestination. She believed that God had picked out all the details of her life in advance, and so her terrifying job was to guess in each moment what those specific details were. She lived in a mortal fear of failure, which drove her deeper into the hyper-mystical path of seeking infallible access to God’s real-time “dictation” voice in every moment, i.e. “My daughter, do this; don’t do this.” I said,

Yes, sometimes God in extra-ordinary circumstances gives us mystical graces to communicate His will and bypasses the normal process of exercising common sense judgment. Those charismatic moments can be beautiful, though even they need to be tested. But ordinarily, God acts through careful thinking about how we can best love Him and our neighbor in the moment; through praying for divine light, striving for purity of heart, making the maximal use of our gifts to better church and world, relying on wise mentors for advice and correction, making our best judgments and then going forward with a will to persevere and carry the cross; all-the-while open to correction along the way.

I also tried to help her discover in God’s will a wonderful freedom and fun, arguing that God allows us a spacious space in which to exercise a real creativity which positively contributes novelty to His plan. I said, “God is a Father not a dictator, a lover not a puppet master. He doesn’t give us freedom only to render it irrelevant. Yes, He wants us to have the heart of the child, but also the mind of an adult [1 Cor. 13:11].” I shared with her a quote from Peter Kreeft that she found liberating,

Take a specific instance where different choices are both equally good. Take 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.

At our last meeting, I gave her a quote from St. Augustine that I wrote out in a note card and told her, “This is the core of what I’ve tried to share with you. If we get this, we’ve got it all and can’t go wrong.” May we all embrace and live this unto God’s revolution.

Once for all, then, a short precept is given unto you: Love God, and do what you will. Whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare. In all things, let the root of love be within, for of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

8 comments on “How to say Yes to God, No to others

  1. Love this. On one of your off weeks coming up where you don’t have time to post, you should re-post your 3 part demystifying discernment series. I’m sure the world (me) could use a more detailed refresher on this issue and that series was published a couple years ago now.

  2. tmm says:

    Thank you very much TJN,PhD. Your post today led to the daily “Text Mess” for the GIG:
    Dr. Tom J. Neal: “How 2say Yes 2 God, No 2 others. Yes, sometimes God in extra-ordinary circumstances gives us mystical graces 2 communicate His will & bypasses da normal process of exercising common sense judgment. Those charismatic moments can B beautiful, though even they need 2 B tested. But ordinarily, God acts thru careful thinking about how we can best luv Him & our neighbor in da moment; thru praying 4 Divine lite, striving 4 purity of heart, making da maximal use of our gifts 2 better church & world, relying on wise mentors 4 advice & correction, making our best judgments & then going 4ward with a will 2 persevere & carry da cross; all-the-while open 2 correction along da way.Discover in God’s will a wonderful freedom & fun.God allows us a spacious space in which 2 exercise a real creativity which positively contributes novelty 2 His plan. God is a Father not a dictator, a lover not a puppet master. He doesn’t give us freedom only 2 render it irrelevant. Yes, He wants us 2 have da heart of da child, but also da mind of an adult [1 Cor. 13:11].”
    (MC=my comments-It’s not God’s will dat every petal B stripped from us & dat we dance 2 da tune of every pied piper coming our way. Prudence is a virtue dat we all need. 2 kno when 2 hold-em & when 2fold-em, priceless!
    🎚Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery”

    🔦God’s grace isn’t da light @ da end of da tunnel, It’s da light dat guides us thru it
    🔦Like in all things, da Lord isn’t just B4 us, but He’s also behind, above, beneath, in & with
    🔦So united 2 Him we can’t loose as we go head on, it’s His power dat gets us thru, even if it’s a tight fit
    \ 😇/
    🔥
    / \ http://gigapostolate.weebly.com tmm/PTL

  3. girasol says:

    Sharing with a friend who is at a ‘crossroads’ today we talked about the idea that we – in particular as Christians – should embrace the Crosses, not flee from things that are painful or hard, that we find that intimacy with Jesus that is in the sorrows and difficulties, that in fact the hard parts are where the heart grows… but does that mean you have to seek out or stick out every thing that makes you miserable?? There’s a difference between hanging in there through the tough spots in a marriage versus sticking out a job you can’t stand (when you could do something else instead). That is, there’s a difference between accepting the unavoidable or necessary Crosses God offers and being a masochist – the latter can even be a sort of egotistical false heroism. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the matter via this post…I’ll send him the link.

    • Thanks for writing, as ever! Good questions. No, thoughtful and careful discernment is not a blind embrace of no matter what comes. Discernment is a careful and prayerful process of deciding what is the best path to take to carry out your vocational commitments, genuinely better others’ lives, seek growth in virtue, glorify God, etc. And knowing your limits as well as your strengths is much of the work of discernment. This young woman’s challenge was that her emotional dominated decision-making process would steer her to abandon commitments as soon as things got tough, making the assumption that “the going gets tough” means God says get going. Yes, facing unavoidable crosses is a universal call, and sometimes we can be called to face even avoidable crosses for a greater good. But again, all that is to be done intelligently, with wise counsel, prayer and good self-knowledge. And yes, sometimes people can use even crosses to feed their ego, get attention, etc. Which is why we have to always be striving to be converted, live in truth, live a life not about me, seek emotional and psychological health. Okay, that’s a start toward you fabulous question! We walk together, girasol! Yours, Tom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.