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“Ask a Priest: What If God’s Will Is Too Hard to Discern?”
Q: I’ve just come up against a huge hurdle in my spiritual life. I am thinking about doing the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius because I feel discernment is important. I thought I had discerned God’s will for me in a task which came my way at work one day. The task failed, in a sense. It was a pretty hopeless task from the outset, in that the likelihood of success was low. But I really felt I had discerned God’s will to do it. My reaction to its failure is this. If I failed to discern God’s will (I had been to confession the previous few weeks and was doing all I could to lead a good life), then God’s will is too hard for me to discern; it’s too subtle and there’s no point trying anymore. If it was God’s will, why did it fail? What’s the lesson for me here? At the time, and still now, I don’t feel I failed to discern God’s will. It just seems to be that God’s will was for me to fail. Or otherwise there is no God and trying to discern his will is superstitious nonsense? A friend at work once said praying to God for good outcomes is the most useless thing one can do. What do I do now? – A.H.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Without knowing what this task was, I could only caution that discernment involves something deeper than just “picking the right curtain,” as in a TV game show.
First, you might want to take that friend’s advice with a grain of salt. There is nothing wrong with praying to God for good outcomes. Petitioning the Almighty is a perennial form of prayer. The thing is, God doesn’t also answer as quickly as we would like, or in the way we expect. But if we pray, God has a way of giving us what we really need.
If you feel drawn to do the spiritual exercises (Find a silent retreat), then that might be what God had in mind. Perhaps you wouldn’t be considering doing them right now if it hadn’t been for that failure. This could be where God is trying to give you what you need, not necessarily what you thought you wanted.
It is not unusual for God to let us feel let down as regards something we ask for. If he gave us everything we wanted, we could easily think of him like a vending machine. Insert the prayers and the candy bar pops out. But God isn’t like that. He works at a much different level.
Perhaps this failed venture left you a little more humble. That’s good. For humility is the first step toward real holiness. When we realize that God has his own plans for us, we learn to slow down and take life more at his pace.
And in that sense, there was no “failure.” It might precisely be part of God’s plan for you.
Besides, if God’s will really weren’t discernible, if it remained unknown to us, then we wouldn’t have to worry about following it.
So think about doing those exercises. But go in with an open mind. God might have lots of surprises in store.
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