You know you’re really struggling when you turn to a search engine, hoping that it will absolve you from the responsibility of making a decision by giving you a Magic 8 Ball-style answer.
Growing up, I was usually pretty good at knowing what I wanted in any given situation, but I often struggled with understanding how God’s will plays into our plans and desires. What if I can’t figure out what He wants me to do, I would worry. What if I make the wrong decision and take the wrong path? Or, what if I know very well what He wants me to do, but I don’t want to do it? Would He call me to do something I really didn’t want to do?
Recently, though, when my husband was offered his dream job in a great community on the other side of the world, I suddenly found myself with a double whammy: not only was my own heart unclear on the decision, I also didn’t have a clue what God wanted.
On the one hand was financial security — a big deal for our growing family — along with a fulfilling career path for my husband and a place that I knew I loved. (I had visited Melbourne in 2008 during World Youth Day, and instantly felt at home there; I’d even said to myself that I’d love the chance to live there one day.)
And on the other hand, there was the heartbreak that leaving our family and friends would cause. Being a transatlantic couple, our family is already divided across two continents, and moving just about as far away from both sides as is humanly possible would put a considerable emotional and financial strain on our loved ones.
True, as a single 20-year-old I could see myself happily living in Australia, but moving there at 30, with children, was a different matter entirely — especially given how close I was to my family and how much I relied on them in this particularly difficult phase of life. And, if a loved one got sick or needed help, we would be 10,000 miles too far away. My husband and I were truly torn. How were we supposed to discern what God wanted us to do?
If I had been confronted with this decision just a few years ago, I think I would have been paralyzed by it.
For a while, the decisiveness of my youth gave way to a chronic indecisiveness. When my father was dying, praying felt like talking to a brick wall. And then there was the fact that my husband’s job hunt and our visa issues necessitated being open to moving anywhere at any time. Heightened experiences of mortality and uncertainty made me feel so out of control that I stopped feeling like I had much choice or agency in my life.
As a result, my discernment muscles started to atrophy, and I found myself taking an increasingly passive attitude toward life. I can’t control what happens, and God doesn’t seem to be around or involved anyway, so what’s the point? I thought.
Then, I recognized within myself a great hunger to spend quiet time with God, to keep receiving the sacraments, even when I had so many unresolved questions in my heart about where He had been during the hardest time of my life. I started to feel His presence again in prayer, to hear His “still small voice” when I quieted my soul and actively took time out to listen for it.
Slowly, my sense of agency returned, along with an awareness of God’s presence in my life. I started to thrive in unlikely circumstances, and I realized that I could build a career that I loved and that used all the gifts God gave me, even despite the odds.
So, even though I felt very conflicted about the Australia decision, ultimately I also felt a strange sense of calm about it. I knew that as long as we did our best to make a sensible and prayerful decision, we’d be alright. A friend recommended that I try using a simplified version of St Ignatius Loyola’sRules for Discernment. His method is designed to help you interpret your feelings in the context of your spiritual life, and we found it to be a helpful guide.
The idea is that you prayerfully try to figure out which way you’re leaning, and then try on one or other course of action for a while and just sit with that “decision” without acting on it. Then you need to ask yourself how you feel — peace or anxiety. God calls us to grow and do uncomfortable things sometimes, but when you’re prayerfully seeking answers and listening to your instincts and feelings, it becomes easier to discern whether a negative or positive emotion is coming from God or not.
During that period of discernment, I kept on hearing the message that we needed to trust God and to keep our eyes fixed on our priorities. I had a deep sense that we needed to make a decision from a place of joy and trust, not from a place of fear. For us, at that specific point in our lives, that meant trusting that there would be other great opportunities in our future. It also meant putting family and relationships first over money and financial concerns, trusting that these things wouldn’t always be in tension with each other.
After my husband rejected the job, I felt an unexpected sense of peace and joy that confirmed to me that we had made the right decision. I think on some level I had been expecting to feel a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be embarking on the great adventure that I had found so enchanting when I was younger, but no such feeling emerged with any force.
I won’t pretend to understand the process of discernment any more than I used to, but I have discovered an answer to one of the questions that used to bother me when I was younger: God wants us to be happy, and He created us with the unique desires and passions that make us who we are.
So, even though we will face plenty of challenges along whatever path we take, our desires shouldn’t have to be in conflict with God’s; He wants nothing but good for us. When we’re in tune with His will through prayer, it slowly gets easier to recognize those beautiful moments when our heart’s greatest longing is fulfilled in abundant (and often unexpected) ways as we participate in the unfolding of His plan in our lives.