By ANDY OTTO, Commentary | Published October 19, 2021
How do I hear the voice of God? What is God’s will for my life? These are perhaps the most common questions Christians wonder about. We have the idea that God has a kind of prescription for our life, like a blueprint with our name on it, that we must figure out, as if God is hiding this plan from our view. And so Christian discernment becomes about decoding God’s will. It is a frustrating endeavor for most because we seldom find the clarity we expect. We never seem to be able to decrypt fully the message of our purpose.
St. Ignatius of Loyola presents a different way to discern the voice of God. The word “discern” comes from the Latin word “discernere,” which means “to sift away.” Discernment is foremost about listening to the different spirits, as Ignatius called them: one that comes from God and one that does not. We “sift” through the movements within us and outside of ourselves, the emotions and feelings that arise spontaneously as bodily responses to thoughts, events, and desires. We must attend to both the exterior things that happen in our lives and the interior movements. Together, these provide data to be sifted through. Which things are coming from God and which are not? Which are leading me toward God and which are not? Which ones are leading me to life and love?
Much of the work of discerning is listening to the deep desires of our heart. These are the good and holy things that have their source in God. A helpful exercise is to ask ourselves, “Is there a more basic desire beneath this one?” Ignatius knew that if we dug into the deeper layers of our desires, we would find that the core underlying desire would ultimately be a desire for God’s love, or a desire to serve the ego. This can be tricky, because what on the surface might seem good—like entering seminary or religious life—could have an underlying motivation of escape or a desire for status.
Many of our desires are informed by our life circumstances, as well as by our talents, gifts, and abilities. “God’s will” works itself out through the weighing of these things and then choosing to respond in a particular way. Our purpose is to serve God’s great dream for the world, to help build God’s kingdom, and to share God’s love. How we do that will depend on our discernment.
Central to the Ignatian tradition is the concept of freedom. God has given human beings the gift of free will. If we have a coercive God who has a predestined prescription for our lives, then we don’t have a God who honors our freedom. Christian discernment is not a passive waiting for a “plan” to be unveiled, but the hard work of self-examination, listening, and sifting through the various aspects of who we are, what we’re good at, and what our deep desires are. We must listen to our own hopes, desires and dreams and consider how they might contribute to God’s own larger dream.
The Ignatian paradigm is this: God freely gives us gifts (possessions, abilities, relationships) out of love and invites us, in freedom, to respond to those gifts out of love. How precisely we respond is our choice. If we are living by the Spirit, then we are responding from a place of love, and God’s will takes place.
Starting Nov. 30, Ignatius House and St. Thomas More Church are offering a free three-week online class on Ignatian discernment and decision-making. Learn more at bit.ly/ignatiandiscernment. Otto is the pastoral associate for faith formation at St. Thomas More Church.