You might know someone who lives in a state of constant discernment. He or she might be mulling over marriage, or ruminating on religious life. They might be contemplating a university major or career or deciding what to do this weekend. But in all cases you’ll hear them say: “I just don’t know what God’s will is for me.”
Why all the worry?
For some, it’s difficult to know how certain facets of the Christian life come together. We know that, as the common phrase goes, “God has a plan.” Or, in a slightly more technical expression, God’s Providence governs all of creation. God’s will is always done, because He is God, and His designs cannot be thwarted.
But we also know that God has made us as creatures with free will, the ability to choose between various options. We truly decide for ourselves whether to turn right or left, to eat cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, or to marry Sean or Sam. (And Sean and Sam have some say in the matter as well!)
The relationship between these two facts raises a host of questions for us: Just how detailed does God’s Providence get? Does God’s plan include what I eat for breakfast, who I marry, or which way I turn to get home? Is it possible for me to deviate from God’s plan, to throw a metaphysical monkey wrench into the works—perhaps even lose my salvation because I didn’t discern God’s will for me and chose something else instead?
The Catechism tells us that “God guides his creation toward [its] perfection” (CCC 302), and that “the sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events” (CCC 303). There is nothing that escapes God’s notice or attention. Indeed, “God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history.” (CCC 303)
Does this mean that God is a cosmic micro-manager, controlling every detail of our lives?
Actually, no. For “God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of co-operating in the accomplishment of his plan” (CCC 306). And since human beings have been granted the powers of both reason and will, “God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors.” (CCC 307)
So, God makes us “co-operators” in bringing about His Providential Plan. But God does this by making us true, free causes of events. That is, God does not have a plan that he then somehow moves us to carry out, like a cosmic puppeteer. But God, living in an “eternal now,” takes our free choices into account in the eternal formation of His eternal plan.
The nature of God’s plan is key to answering this question for ourselves, too. What is the will of God? Scripture tells us: “God wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). When we read the Catechism speak of God’s providence as guiding the perfection of creation, we must understand that perfection means “fulfilling one’s nature or purpose.” Our purpose as human beings is to live in loving communion with God. But how do we do that?
In lots of ways! And that’s the point. God’s providence guides us toward our perfection, but there are many different paths we can take in loving God whole-heartedly and loving our neighbor as ourselves. One can love God and neighbor while eating oatmeal or cereal, while marrying Sally or Susie, while becoming a doctor or a doorman.
God’s grace prompts, supports, and sanctifies us, even as we make our own choices.
In fact, insofar as our inclinations are following God’s law (nothing unnatural or sinful), we should trust our attractions as a genuine way that God leads us. A woman who loves Jesus and enjoys working with the elderly, for example, should seriously investigate joining a religious congregation with that mission.
The question we should ask ourselves is not, “Does God will this or that for me?” as though God were playing an eternal game of “Guess what I’m thinking.”
The question is, “Will this or that better enable me to love God and neighbor? Will this or that help me to be Christ to others?” Sometimes one thing will indeed be more favorable than the other. Sometimes either one will be acceptable.
But when trying to discern what God wants in our lives, it’s important we first get the question right.
If you’re discerning, you have to read this. It will change what you think you know