St. Francis de Sales has some strikingly simple advice: Be what we are ... and do the best we can to honor Him
In questioning “How specific is God’s will for our lives?” we can turn to one of the great saints and masters of spirituality in the Catholic tradition, St. Francis de Sales.
St. Francis addressed the question of the specificity of God’s will in his writings, and his words are both deeply spiritual and eminently practical. In one place, he warns that excessive worry about God’s will over small matters in our lives can actually be a source of temptation.
For the person who has an ardent desire to always do God’s will, he writes, that desire can be twisted by the devil, who will sow fear, doubt, and anxiety about “whether it is God’s will for them to do one thing rather than another.”
Thus, they become paralyzed by indecision, “and in this they lose much time, and while they occupy themselves and are anxious to discern what is better, they unprofitably lose the time for doing many good things, the doing of which would be far more to God’s glory, than this distinguishing between the good and the better, which has taken up their time.”
St. Francis advises to only commit to prayer and discernment those more momentous decisions that seriously affect the course of our lives:
The choice of one’s vocation, the planning of some matter of great consequence, of some work occupying much time, of some very great expense, the change of home, the choice of companions, and such things, we should seriously consider what is most according to the will of God. But in little daily matters, in which even a mistake is neither of much consequence nor irreparable, what need is there to make a business of them, to scrutinize them, or to importunately ask advice about them?
“If it’s hard, it must be God’s will …”
This brings us to another sort of struggle in discernment. When choosing between options, large or small, some of us tend to think that whatever is hardest must be what is God’s will for us. If this is difficult for me and I don’t want to do it, it must be something that will purify me, so I must pursue it vigorously. After all, I have to pick up my cross daily …
While we do have to be realistic that sacrifice is a part of life, and we should seek the spiritual benefit for self and others in “offering up” our difficulties, still, many saints caution against trying to unnecessarily search for struggle. Instead, we can recognize that God uses our desires themselves to manifest his will, such that what sounds most attractive to us is in fact what He desires for us.
St. Francis de Sales offers this wisdom: “Love nothing too passionately, I beseech you, not even virtue, which one overreaches sometimes by passing the limits of moderation. I do not know whether you understand me, but I think you do; I am speaking of your overeager desires and zeal.”
This might strike us as odd: how can I love virtue too much? But the answer lies within the question itself. Virtue is the mean between extremes—“too much” of anything is not virtuous by definition!
Here again, sometimes even our good desires can become tools of temptation for us. We may have a passion for virtue and holiness; we may burn to become a saint. But lurking in that passion can be a hidden pride, a desire not to do what God wills, but a desire that God will for us whatever it is that we think will make us impressive or conspicuous, so that we will be admired for the hard road we take.
In this mindset, we forget that all are called to holiness, and that saints can be made out of mothers and fathers just as well as priests and nuns.
As St. Francis writes, “It is not the especial property of roses to be white. Pink or red ones are sweeter and more beautiful; but it is the especial property of the lily. So, in like manner, let us be what we are, and let us, as we live, do the best we can to honor Him Whose workmanship we are.”
A modest proposal on modesty