Discerning God’s will

March 17, 2006 | 7 comments

[I am in a huge hurry as I write this but it’s such a pressing issue for me that I’d like to get it out there sometime this afternoon, so I apologize for any incoherency.]

I’ve been thinking about Jennifer’s recent post a lot today and yesterday, using her incredibly selfless take on the issue as an example for me, looking at how I deal with the problems I face in my own life and how I might turn them over to God like she does rather than my usual route of whining and feeling sorry for myself.

But I keep running up against a theological stumbling block that has been tripping me up constantly since I started this spiritual endeavor last year: how do you know what is God’s will and what is not? I tried looking it up in the Catechism and couldn’t find a clear answer (I probably just missed it), so I turn to you readers.

For example: let’s say something bad happens to me today. Let’s say my house burns down. When I turn to God with this problem, am I to assume that this was his will? Or is it possible that it was either a) the devil or b) just random. It seems that many Catholics assume that everything that happens in their lives is the will of God. But is there no room for the work of evil forces, or the plain old randomness that comes with free will? And if these two other forces can be causes, how do you know which one caused your particular problem?

Surprisingly, in all my reading I have no idea where the Church stands on this. I am totally confused about this issue.

I know this is a big subject so if this is a larger question than can be answered in the comments field I’m happy to be pointed to a good book on the subject.


  1. SteveG

    Wow! That is a biggie! I am (as usual) going to give some off the cuff thoughts on this, and how I understand it. Over the weekend, I am going to give it more thought and see if I can come up with some additional resources/perspectives.

    I think the fundamental question which needs to frame this is, ‘What is God’s ULTIMATE will for us?’ By that I mean, what is the end goal he is trying to lead us too. For my part, that is the WILL of His that I am hoping to be conformed to.

    I don’t think I am going too far out on a limb in saying that His will is that we are to partake in a transforming union with Him. Huh? What the does THAT mean?

    Well, primarily, it means that we are supposed to be in relationship with God in order to become more like him. More specifically, that our ultimate purpose is to learn to give love in an utterly selfless way (you’ve probably seen me say that a few times now), which is the essence of God-selfless, life giving love. And we need to be ‘transformed’ to that because by our fallen human nature, we tend towards selfishness (making gods of ourselves).

    I mean, when Christ said in the garden, ‘Your will be done, not mine’, what was the result of God’s ultimate message to man in that act? It was the utter giving of himself to the Father for us.

    If we keep in sight that ultimate destination His will intends for us, and see everything else in that light, the little details become only the means by which we get there.

    In that light, it seems to me that it becomes somewhat inconsequential what ‘caused’ the incident. In any particular case, I suppose all three of the options you suggest are possible (I wonder if pure ‘randomness’ is accurate though). But can we possibly know which is at work in a given instance? I doubt it.

    But, if we look at each instant and say ‘Now, how can I conform myself to his will for me to be more like him, (more loving, more generous, more, more merciful, more forgiving, etc., etc.) we can see how any event can conform to his will in that it helps us to our intended and ULTIMATE end.

    So in your example of the house burning down, regardless of the cause, what would our natural tendencies be as far as our reaction? Well, you named some of them. We want to whine and complain, feel sorry for ourselves and take a woe is me attitude, right?

    But what would God’s WILL (in the big picture) have us do? If we are trying to be selfless, we will begin the tough battle of trusting, of not wallowing, of forgiving, of looking at our spouse or our children and focusing on what THEY need instead of on ourselves.

    We will start looking hard for opportunities, even in the midst of that tragedy, to love, and to do it selflessly. And we’ll have days where we do a really shitty job of that, and days where we wallow. But if we want to do his will, we’ll keep fighting against that.

    Now, go back and read Jennifer’s post in this light. You see it? This is what she is doing. You can literally feel the sorrow coming of the screen. I think I can imagine the temptations to despair as well (I know I’d be tempted).

    But above it all, you see her taking a deep breath, lifting up her cross and moving forward in the work of conforming herself to God’s will for her that she become more selfless and more loving. That’s what makes you want to weep from sadness, but also in joy and hope.

    How easy it would be to give up and wallow. How hard it is not to. Her courage in the face of it makes you want cry with admiration. And in the midst of it, what’s her final thought? Are her thoughts only for herself? No, her thoughts are for her husband. Just stunning!

    Does it really matter at this point what the cause was? I’d say no. What matters is how she has responded. She’s responded by trying to do His will for her, his ultimate will that she become who she was meant to be. Someone made in His image, who can love, and love, and love despite the sacrifice asked of her.

    I tremble at the courage; I tremble at the heroic selflessness. I want to be more like her because she’s trying to be more like HIM.

    Now, I don’t know if that helps because it’s not all that practical, but I think it’s the deep answer to the question.

    For the day to day stuff, I think we simply strive to do the best we can. That means soliciting good advice when it can be found, using the ample smarts you’ve been given to discern a course, educating oneself on a particular topic to the best of our ability, and making the best decision we can; and then…praying that whatever the outcome, we can behave like Jennifer when it comes time.

    I looked in the online Catechism I use…


    ..to see what I could find. If you scroll to the bottom, there is a letter index. Click on the W, and then search for the word Will. Then you will see right under it ‘of God’, along with a few brief links to some short words on the topic.

    I found it interesting that in the sections that address this, twice, it says His will is…

    “to raise up men to share in his own divine life”

    And once it says…

    “that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

    …Which doesn’t seem to far off from what I described as partaking in a transforming union with Him to be more like him in his selfless love. They just say it a whole lot better. 🙂

  2. Ersza

    Hi, Jen. I’m new to your blog and enjoying it very much. I went through RCIA a couple of years ago myself, and I am so excited for you. Your question is very apt, and I’ve addressed it in my own blog at marefecunditatis.blogspot.com

  3. Hannah


    My understanding of it, I don’t remember where or what I read so I’ll paraphrase, is that if demons/demonic forces had their way they’d pound us like so much dead meat in seconds. In fact, the demons and evil people are extremely subjected to the will of God, so their active malignancy is severely checked at all times. So the bit of evil that trickles down to us are the trials that God allows us to undergo for our purification. I believe God distributes different trials to different people. As it is written, everything works to the good of those who love God. From our perspective we of course don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes, the near-misses. We also don’t see how God directs the evil He begrudgingly allows to befall us for His inscrutible purposes.

    Sorry if this is incoherent or worse, scandalous. I hope my meaning gets through here, many of the saints seem to see the world as filtered thru God, that everything that happens to them good bad or indifferent is the will of God.

  4. Jennifer

    Wow, Jen! This is a GREAT topic, and I have much to say (including a bashful thanks to steve for being so complimentary to me) but I think I will write a complete post tomorrow…but before bed you asked for a book.

    THE PROBLEM OF PAIN by C.S. Lewis.

    It’s a bit British and heady…but it is a brilliant rational thought experiment leading to the conclusion that our suffering is part of God’s multifaceted passionate love for us.

    It it is 100% logical.

  5. Anonymous

    I respect your decision to believe in childish fantasy, since it seems to stop you from beating up your neighbour’s children. Nonetheless, believing in fantasy doesn’t make you right or it right.


  6. cathy

    Hi Jennifer, I just discovered your blog while googling potential reads for Lent, and I ended up reading some of your thoughtful entries…and eventually got hooked on your faith adventures! I’ve now read every entry you’ve written (up to this point, anyway) since your first post on “The Reluctant Atheist”! Your writing is so real and relatable, and I’m sure they’ll become a resource for me, too, as I’ve been exploring similar issues about my faith in the past couple of years.

    I’m excited to see what you learned about discerning God’s will vs. not-God’s-will. I realize your post is quite old, but I just attended an Ignatian retreat last week that talked about St. I’s extensive work on discernment and the value of spiritual direction, and your blog might lead me towards the right path exploring that area… 🙂 So… I guess I just want to say thanks for sharing your story – it’s a great help for me, too!

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