Myth #4: If I just pray hard enough, God will tell me what to do.
When we are faced with decisions, especially big ones, it is good for us to consider what God may be asking of us, and the best advice I ever get when faced with tough choices is the reminder to “take it to prayer”. But sometimes we get a little confused about what to expect from such prayer.
There are certainly times when I feel frustrated with God. There are times when I wish God would speak more clearly. I mean, it was easy enough for Mary to know what God was asking of her because an angel came and told her! It would probably be a little scary, if the Bible’s anything to go by, but then I would know for sure, right? Why doesn’t God just tell me?
In those moments, usually one of two things is happening: either I know what to do but am trying to avoid acting on it or God is treating me like an adult and trusting me to make the right decision. Actually, there’s a third possibility: Sometimes I’m stuck between two options and want God to make up my mind, but in the end, whichever I choose, it really doesn’t matter.
Acing the test
The desire to be infallible is very human, but the fact is that no one actually is. (Even the pope is only infallible in certain capacities.) It is perfectly natural to want to know that we are making the “right” choice, to want to know the far-reaching consequences of our decisions. It is also natural to feel that if we always do God’s will, we will be making the right choice, and to feel that we can avoid making mistakes, if we just ask Him what we should do.
But this is not reality. Rather it is a conception, an expectation, we impose on God. We are the children who want to know in advance what questions will be on the test and what answers are expected of us, while God is the Good Teacher par excellence who knows that for our own good and for our growth into the mature beings He has created us to be, we need opportunities to figure things out for ourselves and to make mistakes, both because we learn from them and because they increase our humility and remind us how much we depend on God’s goodness.
But like a good teacher, God already gives us everything we need to make a decision, even if He isn’t looking over our shoulder and prompting our every move with obvious “signs” or overwhelming impulses. We have, after all, the entire teaching of Scripture and Tradition, which we should already be studying if we are really interested in doing God’s will. And each of us has been given a conscience. Blessed John Henry Newman calls it the “aboriginal vicar of Christ,” that voice of God within each one of us, a fundamental part of our being that drives us toward goodness, truth, and justice.
What does God really want?
There are many reasons why God might not give us the kind of clarity we seek or answer us exactly in the ways we might expect. One of my favourite spiritual authors is Fr. Jacques Philippe
, who I believe is one of the great spiritual masters of this age. One of his books, Searching for and Maintaining Peace
, contains within it a long list of things that cause us to lose peace and how to approach them. The last one, number 16, is “Unrest When We Have Decisions to Make”. It is beautiful and profoundly insightful. I wish I could copy it all out onto this blog, but it is a little long for that. I would urge you very strongly, though, to find a copy of this wonderful little book and read what he has to say.
Fr. Jacques writes:
“Often we torment ourselves excessively regarding our decisions. As there is a false humility, a false compassion, we can also say that, concerning our decisions, there is sometimes that which one could call a ‘false obedience’ to God. We would like always to be absolutely certain of doing God’s will in all of our choices and never to be mistaken. But, there is, in this attitude, something that is not exactly right for a variety of reasons.”
Further on he concludes:
“The Lord loves him more who knows how to decide for himself without equivocating, even when he is uncertain, and who abandons himself with confidence to God as to the consequences, rather than the one who torments his spirit unceasingly in an effort to know what God expects of him and who never decides. Because, there is, in the first attitude, more abandonment, confidence and therefore love, than in the second. God loves those who make their way with freedom of spirit and who don’t ‘split hairs’ too much over the details. Perfectionism doesn’t have much to do with sanctity.”
Being open to what is in front of us
It is important, too, to be open to being surprised by the Lord. Sometimes He speaks to us in ways we are not expecting – often in ways that are much less dramatic than we were anticipating. How often we get stuck in our routines and in our worldly understanding of what God wants for us – which is really what we want for ourselves and which might not be what is best for us from an eternal perspective.
How often we seek God’s will only to discover that He has been showing it to us all along through our circumstances and events in our life over which we have little control. We struggle to make changes in our life and beg God for help – why doesn’t He answer?? – only to discover that we are exactly where God wants us. And in that realization we find our liberation – from anxiety, from fear, from the need to be in control.
A lesson from the gulag
There is a supremely beautiful witness to this understanding of vocation and God’s will in He Leadeth Me
, an autobiographical account by Walter Ciszek, SJ
, of his spiritual journey during his time in Soviet captivity. Accused of being a Vatican spy, he spent five years in the infamous Lubianka prison before being sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour in the gulags of Siberia. Struggling against the temptation to despair and coming to terms with the reality of his weakness in the face of inhuman treatment, Ciszek came to the realization that in every circumstance God was leading him and placing him exactly where he needed to be. He writes:
“There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God's will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see His will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from Him, because He was in all things. No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of Him. The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in His will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring.”
May we all be given the grace to hear God’s voice in our lives in whatever way He
chooses to speak to us and the courage to make bold decisions, abandoning ourselves and our future with childlike trust to Divine Providence.