Keeping the big picture in mind

November 7, 2007 | 7 comments

I was looking through the stack of books on my desk for something to post about today, and I came across a passage in one of my favorite books that I thought was perfect in light of my last post (and others like it).

I recently read Finding God’s Will For You by St. Francis de Sales. The wisdom that St. Francis offers in this classic text is so straightforward and yet so profound, so simple yet so life-changing. His calm, reasonable tone is exactly what a scattered, overly analytical person like myself needs for spiritual growth.

When I picked up the book this afternoon I immediately came across a section I’d starred that was a great reminder that fixating on details and minor points can not only be unproductive, but can be a big hindrance to spiritual growth. St. Francis writes:

[There is] a troublesome temptation that sometimes come to souls who have a great desire to follow in all things what best accords with God’s will. On every occasion the enemy puts them in doubt as to whether it is God’s will for them to do one thing rather than another. For example, they ask whether it is God’s will for them to dine with a certain friend or not to dine with him; whether they should wear gray clothes or black; whether they should fast on Friday or Saturday…In this way they waste a great deal of time.

Does he know me?! Oh, wait, this was written like 400 years ago. It sure does sound familiar though! He goes on to say:

While busying and perplexing themselves to discover what is better, they needlessly lose opportunities to do many good deeds. The accomplishment of such deeds would be more to God’s glory than the distinction between the good and the better — with which they amuse themselves — could ever be. […]

[W]e do not have to weigh all kinds of little actions to learn if some have greater value than others. Frequently there is even a certain superstition in wanting to make such an examination. […]

It is not giving good service to a master to spend as much time thinking about what is to be done as in doing what is required. We should measure out our attention according to the importance of what we undertake. […]

Choice of vocation, plans for some affair of great importance, a work requiring a long time or some very great expenditure of money, change of residence, choice of associates, and such similar things require that we think seriously as to what best accords with God’s will. But in little daily actions, in which even a mistake is neither of consequence, nor beyond repair, what need is there for us to…give them much attention?

That second to last paragraph is sort of a summary of my life: spending as much time thinking about doing stuff as actually doing stuff. Wait…that’s not right. It’s more like a quarter of my time thinking about it, a quarter of my time talking about it, (maybe another quarter used to blog about it) then a quarter of my time actually doing it.

Anyway, St. Francis de Sales ends by reminding us that, not surprisingly, it’s ultimately about quietly, humbly, prayerfully going about our lives and keeping the big picture in mind:

Even in important matters, we must be very humble and not think of finding God’s will by force of scrutiny and subtle discussion. After we have implored the light of the Holy Spirit, applied our thought to search for His good pleasure, taken counsel with our [spiritual] director and perhaps with two or three other spiritual persons, we must come to a resolution and decision in the name of God. After that we must not call our choice in doubt, but devoutly, peacefully, and firmly keep and sustain it.

This is exactly the kind of advice people like me need to hear. I think that because of my tendency to be more of a numbers person, the kind of person who prefers an Excel spreadsheet to reality, the whole “seeking God’s will” thing is really nerve-racking. Where is my checklist? Where is the Gantt chart with my deadlines and task breakdowns? How am I supposed to know if I’m on target without some quantitative measure of my accomplishments towards the goal?

The answer is, of course, that it’s not for me to know. And why should I? There would be no point in God revealing his plan for my life since I wouldn’t even be able to begin to comprehend how it fits into his overall plan for creation. I think it comes down to the same thing I touched on in this post, that I know so well intellectually but have a hard time putting into practice: God’s will is this moment, right now. There’s not much of point in wasting energy over-analyzing whether you got here through good choices or bad choices or worrying about what God has in store for you for next week or next year. Just pray, seek humility, and stay close to God. If you do that, he’ll push you back on course if you get off track. He’ll lead you where he wants you to go.


  1. Abigail

    Wow! Very cool post. I love St. Francis de Sales, but haven’t read very much of what he’s written yet. Will check out this read soon.

  2. Melora

    That book looks really interesting — you are sending my Amazon list out of control!
    I have friends who are always confident that they know God’s will for them, but I have very little confidence in my ability to discern this.
    I also fall into the trap of spending too much time thinking and too little Doing. St. Francis has me exactly on that one. I hope that you will continue to spend time blogging, though! Your entries are very helpful and thought-provoking for me.

  3. Anna

    I think the devil can limit our effectiveness by directing us onto a path that is well-intentioned, but not what God wants for us. This might be called a lesser good; either way, we need to watch out for it.

    The devil can also limit our effectiveness by encouraging us to spend all our time worrying about whether something is a lesser good or not, which is what I think you’re addressing. This is also a trap that I’m likely to fall into myself.

    Not worrying is good; the best way that I know of to stop worrying is to relax and learn to hear God’s voice. It’s easier for me to remind myself that I don’t need to know what his will for my entire life is, and that I don’t need to know why he wants me to do what he wants me to do right now, if I’m confident that I do in fact know what he wants me to do right now.

    It takes practice and patience to learn to discern God’s voice from the others we hear. But he tells us it’s possible (John 10, especially verses 4, 14-16, and 27). Why do so many of us Christians not believe that this is meant to be a part of our daily lives? That when he tells us to follow him, he doesn’t just mean the teachings that he taught, but that we are to follow He himself?

  4. blog nerd

    Great book suggestion–is de Sales supposed to be the patron saint of bloggers?

  5. Sarahndipity

    Wow, that book sounds great. I’ll have to check it out. I’m pretty scattered and overly-analytical myself.

    Blog nerd, I know St. Frances de Sales is the patron of writers, so it’s entirely possible he could also be the patron of bloggers. 🙂

  6. Anna


    I think it’s great that you are trying to grow in the ability to discern his will. It helps when you really believe deep down that he’s talking to you, and that you are as capable of learning to hear him as you are capable of learning, say, to speak Spanish or to knit.

  7. Terri

    You read some great books. I’ll have to add this to my list. Sounds like just what I need.

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