Thursday, February 17, 2011


The following reading is adapted from an article on discernment by Peter Kreeft.

Does God have one right choice for me in each decision I make? When we pray for wisdom to discern God's will when it comes to choosing a mate, a career, a job change, a move, a home, a school, a friend, a vacation, how to spend money, or any other choice, big or little, whenever there are two or more different paths opening up before us and we have to choose, does God always will one of those paths for us? If so, how do we discern it?

Many Christians who struggle with this question today are unaware that Christians of the past can help them from their own experience. Christian wisdom embodied in the lives and teachings of the saints tells us two things that are relevant to this question.

First, they tell us that God not only knows and loves us in general but that he cares about every detail of our lives, and we are to seek to walk in his will in all things, big and little. Second, they tell us that he has given us free will and reason because he wants us to use it to make decisions. This tradition is exemplified in Saint Augustine's famous motto "Love God and [then] do what you will." In other words, if you truly love God and his will, then doing what you will, will, in fact, be doing what God wills.

Do these two pieces of advice pull us in opposite directions, or do they only seem to? Since there is obviously a great truth embodied in both of them, which do we emphasize the most to resolve our question of whether God has one right way for us?

I think the first and most obvious answer to this question is that it depends on which people are asking it. We have a tendency to emphasize one half of the truth at the expense of the other half, and we can do that in either of the two ways. Every heresy in the history of theology fits this pattern: for instance, emphasizing Christ's divinity at the expense of his humanity or his humanity at the expense of his divinity; or emphasizing divine sovereignty at the expense of free will or free will at the expense of divine sovereignty.

Five general principles of discernment of God's will that apply to all questions about it, and therefore to our question too, are the following:

A. Always begin with data, with what we know for sure. Judge the unknown by the known, the uncertain by the certain. Adam and Eve neglected that principle in Eden and ignored God's clear command and warning for the devil's promised pig in a poke.

B. Let your heart educate your mind. Let your love of God educate your reason in discerning his will. Jesus teaches this principle in John 7:17 to the Pharisees. (Would that certain Scripture scholars today would heed it!) They were asking how they could interpret his words, and he gave them the first principle of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation): "If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would understand my teaching." The saints understand the Bible better than the theologians, because they understand its primary author, God, by loving him with their whole heart and their whole mind.

C. Have a soft heart but a hard head. We should be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves," sharp as a fox in thought but loyal as a dog in will and deed. Soft-heartedness does not excuse soft-headedness, and hard-headedness does not excuse hard-heartedness. In our hearts we should be "bleeding-heart liberals" and in our heads "stuck-in-the-mud conservatives."

D. All God's signs should line up. There are at least seven such signs: (1) Scripture, (2) church teaching, (3) human reason (which God created), (4) the appropriate situation, or circumstances (which he controls by his providence), (5) conscience, our innate sense of right and wrong, (6) our individual personal bent or desire or instincts, and (7) prayer. Test your choice by holding it up before God's face. If one of these seven voices says no, don't do it. If none say no, do it.

E. Look for the fruits of the spirit, especially the first three: love, joy, and peace. If we are angry and anxious and worried, loveless and joyless and peaceless, we have no right to say we are sure of being securely in God's will. Discernment itself should not be a stiff, brittle, anxious thing, but — since it too is part of God's will for our lives — loving and joyful and peace-filled, more like a game than a war, more like writing love letters than taking final exams.

Now to our question. Does God have just one right choice for me to make each time? If so, I must find it. If not, I should relax more and be a little looser. Here are some clues to the answer. (The remainder of the article is abridged by the instructor.)

1. We must not get bent out of shape trying to find God’s perfect will for us. Doing so will only make us anxious, fearful, humorless, and stuffy. We should instead stop and enjoy the simple pleasures in life – the little silly things that add a whimsical nature to life.

2. We must realize that most Christians, even many of the saints, did not have the clear discernment from God that we might want. They did not know what God willed in every little choice. We should not expect that we would have such particular knowledge.

3.Look at Scripture as a model for how God reveals His will to His people. Realize that many of these instances are miraculous revelations, but even then, the individuals are fraught with uncertainty, feelings of unworthiness, or even fear.

4. God did give us free will. Why did God bestow upon us this faculty which is both a blessing and a burden? Well, it adds an infinite value to our love and affection because it is not forced or instinctive, but rather the result of our choice. Secondly, it enables us to participate in the joy of discovery and discernment. Occasionally a teacher will pause after asking a question – not to relish in withholding the answer, but to give students an opportunity to arrive at the answer on their own. In formulating the answer they learn to exercise their reason and judgment.

Reason and free will are a team. They always go together because reason without will is captivity, and will without reason is reckless. God provides supernatural revelation to guide both aspects: Doctrine & Dogma guide our reason while commandments and moral law guide our will. These abilities, together with God’s guidance give us the equipment we need to discern God’s will and apply it to our own decisions and actions. We must take these gifts and invest them rather than bury them in the ground where they remain unused.

Furthermore, God’s guidance is not too structured. One can always seek and find more specific and detailed knowledge, but the basics of the faith are very brief and straightforward. This is because God respects the diversity of our personalities. He wants our lives to be his song of praise, and the chorus of humanity should sing in harmony, but not in unison.

There are a number of popular ways out there that promise insight into ourselves, and many people commit themselves to this kind of introspection. The key to real discernment seems it would be to figure out God’s will and your neighbor’s needs. Focus more on those and less on one’s self. Use God’s gift of freedom to “play around” a bit. G.K. Chesterton said that God’s commandments are indeed like a fence that surrounds a playground. The fence is not there to confine those on the playground, but to liberate them to play safely without fear of danger.

To some extent following our hearts means following our instincts and desires. Each of us has a different set of instincts and desires. Sin infects them, of course. But sin infects our reason and our bodies too; yet we are supposed to follow our bodily instincts (for example, hunger and self-preservation) and our mind's instincts (for example, curiosity and logic). Ultimately I think God wants us to follow our hearts.

I am not suggesting, of course, that our hearts are infallible, or that following them justifies sinful behavior. Nor am I suggesting that the heart is the only thing to follow.. But surely it is God who designed our hearts — the spiritual heart with desire and will as much as the physical heart with aorta and valves. Our parents are sinful and fallible guides too, but God gave them to us to follow. So our hearts can be worth following too even though they are sinful and fallible. If your heart loves God, it is worth following. If it doesn't, then you're not interested in the problem of discernment of his will anyway.

5. We should follow St. Augustine's advice to "love God and then do what you will.” When we do, we usually experience great relief and peace. That is because true peace is a mark of the Holy Spirit.

An important part of discernment is trusting God to guide us along the right path. In some instances it is enough to place one’s self in God’s hands, commit to working to build up of His kingdom, and then trusting Him to guide you as you follow your own interests and instincts. Like a true Father, God won’t do the work for you, but will offer guidance and encouragement, correction, and affirmation.

6. Know that there are multiple good choices out there. This is what makes discernment difficult because we are not choosing between a good choice and a bad one – that is usually obvious. Instead we have to choose between two or more good things. We should take comfort in the idea that there are many good paths, and if we stay in God’s will we are bound to find ourselves upon one of them.

God’s will and our freedom do not conflict or compete. Rather, God takes the risk of giving us free will and saying to us, "Your will be done." The challenge of a Christian Vocation is to turn back to him and say: "My will is that your will be done." That is obedience to the first and greatest commandment. Then, when we do that, he turns to us and says: "And now, your will be done." And then he writes the story of our lives with the pen strokes of our own free choices.

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