Claire Dwyer details a five-step process of discerning God's will.
Asked for advice.
My anxieties and misgivings (you can’t do this; you’ll fail and everyone will see you fail; this will take too much time away from your family) pushed against the growing sense that this was still something I had to do.
I was filled with anticipation, sometimes joyful excitement, always fear.
Launching a course and starting a membership for Catholic writers wasn’t something a year before—really, even six months before—I could have seen myself doing. The idea had come gently but sort of out of the blue, and expanded to fill a big enough part of my heart that it simply couldn’t be ignored.
But I knew that this was not a small decision. It would involve time, money, and a huge investment of emotional energy (of which I didn’t have an abundance of to begin with). I wanted to follow God’s will. I wanted His plan to unfold in my life with my full surrender and active obedience. But I was aware that I could be deceived into something that looked good, was good, but wasn’t the good God wanted for me. I knew that I could be too tangled up in my own will to see clearly. And one of the most prized values in my life is clarity.
So the process of discernment began.
I have long loved Fr. Michael Scanlan’s book, What Does God Want? A Practical Guide to Making Decisions. This classic has been on my bookshelf for almost the entirety of my adult life, and long before I knew anything about St. Ignatius’ rules for discernment, its wisdom had guided me.
Within its pages, Fr. Scanlan offers five “tests” for discerning the Will of God.
First, The Conformity Test. That is, does it conform to God’s Will? Is the decision I am considering in line with Church teaching and the spirit of Church teaching? Does it violate any obligations to my state of life or any vows of obedience I have made?
This opportunity was certainly firmly within acceptable parameters from a faith standpoint, and I believed I could undertake these initiatives not without sacrifice but probably without significantly impacting our family life. Check.
Second, The Conversion Test. Will this proposal lead me closer to my ultimate goal—union with God? Will the fruits be greater faith, hope, and love?
I hoped so. I certainly saw that I was growing a great deal in faith and hope as I embarked into unknown territory, so to speak. I was leaning on the Lord and growing in awareness of my own need of him. Check.
Third, The Consistency Test. Is this how God has communicated and called me in the past and how He has revealed Himself and His Will? Is my reaction to this invitation or idea consistent with my God-given temperament?
While a writing course and membership felt big and scary, I’d done hard things before, always following an initial interior prompting. I had started a blog. I had signed a book contract. I had accepted speaking invitations across the country and in one instance, for six talks in one weekend. Each time there was a deep, quiet sense that I should say yes. Each time I knew it would require much of me, and I did have some fear but an even deeper sense of calm. This felt very, very similar. Check.
Fourth, The Confirmation Test. What do the people most impacted by or involved with this decision think about it?What about my most trusted, holy advisors? Do the circumstances line up as they need to in order to make this possible? Are there any other confirming signs?
My husband was consulted first, and he was supportive and encouraging. A Catholic business coach affirmed that my plans were solid and attainable—at times, she seemed more excited than I was! And my spiritual director encouraged me to keep praying and discerning but clearly recognized my conviction as a good sign (see next test!). When I announced the launch of the writing course, I had more people sign up than I anticipated, and their enthusiasm was evident. Check.
Finally, The Conviction Test. Do I believe deep down that this is right? Do I have a moral certainty about it? We can’t always rely on our feelings, but we shouldn’t have a deep uneasiness about a big decision, either.
I couldn’t deny this one. I had the distinct sense that if I didn’t do this, I’d be disobedient. The Lord wanted this, and He wanted me to do it. Check.
Now, not every decision we make is so clear. And sometimes, we have two or more real alternatives and we just have to choose what seems best. We can’t deliberate forever.
God, who has made us in His image, has given us the “dignity of causality” in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas. Meaning that we have the dignity of being a cause, not a puppet. With freedom. God wants us to exercise that freedom in maturity and confidence. In other words, He wants us to decide. (And to know that even when we make a wrong decision, He can and will work all things for good.)
In this case, my discernment had led me to a decision.
That just left the doing.
And that’s the hardest part, sometimes.
Doing is jumping off the ledge of deciding—which is still a relatively safe, in our heads and in our conversations kind of place to be—and into the depths of hard work and real risk and sometimes suffocating fear.
It is taking action when our fallen nature cries out for what is familiar and comfortable. And even if all the signs point in the direction that yes, this is God’s will, we are never promised total certainty.
Fr. Scanlan admits, “The Lord does not give us grace for our lives before we live them. He promises sufficient grace, not perpetual assurance.”
This, I suppose is what we mean by daily bread. Enough strength to take the next (discerned) right step. As St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross prayed,
O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve You. Enkindle Your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me and I shall meet with peace.
Yes, Lord. Fill us with joy, courage, and strength. And walk with us.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the character Lucy is filled with fear as the ship threatens to be trapped in a paralyzing darkness. She whispers, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you have loved us at all, send us help now.”
Out of the black, consuming shadow comes a shaft of shimmering light, and as it encircles the ship, Lucy hears Aslan’s spirit speak to her: “Courage, Dear Heart.”
Navigating life in a fallen world can feel like floating in darkness, and there are risks and real dangers. We want to make the best decisions possible, decisions for good—for the best—outcomes. The glory and terrifying responsibility of being made in God’s image and likeness is that we have the freedom to choose.
But we’re never alone.
And with His hand extended over the waters, God invites us to step out, keep our eyes on Him, discern the best we can, and with a healthy dose of both humility and magnanimity, do what we pray will be for our sanctification and His glory.
Courage, Dear Heart.
Copyright 2023 Claire Dwyer
About the Author
Claire Dwyer is a wife and mom of six. Her book, This Present Paradise, a spiritual journey with St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, is available from Sophia Institute Press. Claire currently works full time as Marketing Manager of the Avila Foundation and shares timeless wisdom for modern Catholic women at EvenTheSparrow.com. Connect with her there!