The situations of life usually offer many possibilities for action. How do we decide among the many possibilities and know that we are doing "God's will?"
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Aug 27, 2008)
One of our regular readers, Bronwen, recently sent me the following question, which surely must have puzzled each one of us at one time or another:
How do we tell what God's will is in different circumstances when there are so many different possibilities? For example, if someone is ill enough to be hospitalized, is it logical to conclude that God's will is that the person die, and therefore we should pray for a peaceful death for that person and devote our time to visiting and comforting them? Or is it reasonable to conclude that God's will is for the person to live, and therefore we should pray for the person to regain health and devote our time and energy to nursing the invalid?
It seems to me that there are many different things that happen in life, from the trivial to the most important, where so many different courses of action or inaction are open and they all have their pros and cons. I know we can never truly know what's going on in God's mind, but must He not want us to have at least some idea of His will so we can follow it?
Thanks for that great question, Bronwen. It is very much on my mind at the moment, because we are facing a big decision right now in my own family about where to send my daughter to school in our area. It is one thing to make a huge, life decision about one's "vocation": for example, whether to be married or remain single, whether to live in the world, or to follow a call to the priesthood or the religious life. There are clear, traditional rules for how to make such discernment, and we might tackle those on another occasion.
But I think what Bronwen is asking relates more to the "medium sized" decisions, such as the example that she gives — not the relatively trivial ones (such as, should I choose the ice cream or the fruit for dessert today?), but the one's that affect our daily occupations more than our vocation. For example, should we pray for healing for a particular person or just help that sick person toward a comfortable and happy death? Should I put my child in this school or another school? Should I accept my company's offer to move to another city or stay where I am? Should I spend my time on this project or that project? Should I buy the SUV or the smaller car? Should I date this particular person or not? Should I invest my extra money in stocks or put it into safer term deposits in the bank? The examples we could think of are endless.
Most of these kinds of decisions involve the use of the virtue of "prudence." That is why the Church calls them "prudential judgments." The word "prudence" has connotations today of "caution" or "careful" behavior, and certainly, the prudent person is not rash or reckless. On the other hand, it is sometimes prudent to take heroic, bold, and decisive action.
"Prudence," according to the Catechism, "disposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it" (1835).
First, to choose the path that furthers our "true good," we have to know what our "true good" really is. The old Baltimore Catechism said it best when it taught us that our true end is to know, love, and serve God, and to enjoy Him forever. If we have this as our first priority, then everything else begins to fall into place. Our daily decisions become much easier, because, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can make those decisions in the light of a true set of priorities.
I am reminded of the life story of the 19th century poet Christina Rossetti, a devout Anglo-Catholic Christian. She was a beautiful young woman and a talented author, but she turned down several proposals of marriage on the grounds of religious incompatibility with her suitors. She ultimately remained single, devoted herself to works of charity, and wrote some of the most beautiful Christian poetry of all time. Christina had her priorities straight. She made decisions based on those priorities, and they led her in paths in which the Lord could use her for His glory in ways she might not originally have suspected.
That is why Jesus taught us to "seek first the kingdom," as the Catechism (305) tells us:
Jesus asks for childlike abandonment to the providence of our heavenly Father who takes care of his children's smallest needs: "Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?'.... Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Mt 6:31-33, cf. 10:29-31).
When we make reasonable decisions in the light of a true and Christian set of priorities, nine times out of ten we will find ourselves on the right path. That does not mean the path will be without difficulties or even heavy crosses and seeming catastrophes. After all, the Lord did not promise us an easy road, but a road that leads us to sanctification and everlasting life, if we follow Him trustfully.
This is where the virtue of "faith" comes in and why St. Paul assures us in Romans 5:20: "We know that in everything God works for good for those who love him." Sometimes we may make what we are sure was a prudent decision, only to find ourselves faced with trials and tribulations as a result. Remember that the Lord is an expert at "writing straight with crooked lines." We may not be able to see precisely how He is doing it, but we can trust that He is finding the best path for each and every soul to find Him, if they will surrender to His providence.
The first thing to do, therefore, is to make sure we have our priorities straight.
The second thing to do is to pray for guidance. Prayer clears the head and opens the heart. Jesus promised: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Lk 11: 13). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (e.g., Jn 16:13), and we need the help of the Spirit of Truth to guide us in making those choices that lead to our "true good."
Third, it can help to ask yourself: "What would Jesus or Mary do in my shoes, if faced with a decision such as the one I face?" These were the two souls most full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, and they are the Spirit's guidance made visible. St. Faustina found special help in the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary throughout her life:
O sweet Mother of God
I model my life on You;
You are for me the bright dawn;
In you I lose myself, enraptured.
O Mother, Immaculate Virgin,
In You the divine ray is reflected,
Midst storms, 'tis You who teach me to love the Lord,
O my shield and defense from the foe (Diary, 1232).
Finally, stir all these things around in the pot, and then add a big dose of "reason." Reason has a bad name in overly pious Catholic circles these days. We tend to think that if you are trying to be reasonable, then you are probably compromising your principles somehow and avoiding the call of heroic faith. But that is simply not true, if reason is being used as what St. Thomas Aquinas called the "handmaid" of faith.
If we are using reason alone to work out the best thing to do in the choices we face, then no doubt we will lead ourselves astray with subtle compromises of all kinds. But if we take our Christian priorities as "given" and "immoveable," and we pray and bear in mind the example of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints, then it is reason that uses these "givens" of faith. Reason works out, with the help of the Holy Spirit, how we can apply those prioritized principles, and the example of Christ and the saints, to our given circumstances. The virtue of prudence, remember, means knowing how to make reasonable choices in the light of our Christian principles and priorities.
In closing, then let's look briefly at some of the examples mentioned above of the kind of choices we often face, of moderate importance, every year of our life.
(1) Should we pray for healing for a hospitalized person or not? This is like the question of whether or not a gravely ill person should agree to another round of surgery or not. The Church teaches that there is such a thing as life's "natural end," and that further medical treatment legitimately can be refused if it would be exceptionally painful or expensive, with little chance of resulting in a significant degree of improvement in the patient's condition. To refuse further, extraordinary medical treatment in such circumstances is not suicide or euthanasia, the Church teaches, but the acceptance that the natural course of life ends in death. "Palliative care" then takes over.
Similarly, we should continue to pray and work for healing for a gravely ill person (always for a gravely ill young person) until it becomes clear that the person has reached the end of their natural life span, and that God is calling that person home. It's not always easy to discern when that time has come, but pray in such a way (as Jesus did in Gethsemane) that you leave that decision up to the Lord as well: "Heavenly Father, if it is Your will, bring healing and relief to our brother (sister) who is suffering, and restore him to wholeness and health, but if the time of his homecoming to You is drawing near, then comfort and relieve him of his suffering by bringing him at the last into Your heavenly Kingdom, where there is no sorrow or crying or tears, and all things are made new."
(2) Should I send my child to this school or that one? Well, what is most important in the education of our children? It is surely that the faith and values that our children are taught at home will be strengthened and nurtured at school as well and not undermined there. Here the matter of "priorities" should play a big part in this decision. It is worth making considerable sacrifices so that our children can have a good, faith-based education, lest we "cause one of these little ones to fall" (Mk 9:42).
(3) Should I buy the SUV or the smaller car? Well, how many people are in your family? Unless you have a large family, you probably would do better with a mid-size car, which gets better gas mileage (i.e., wastes less of your money on gasoline), while getting just as good safety ratings (the safety of your family is also a priority). It is absurd and wasteful to ride around in an SUV with only one or two people in it, most of the time. Jesus wants us to use our "talents" wisely (i.e., our money, see Mt 25: 14-30) and not waste them.
(4) Should I date this particular person or not? Well, what is your assessment of the person's character? Do not think that your love will be able to "change" a rogue into an angelic peronality (only Jesus Christ can do that; it's out of your hands). If the person does not have a solid character and a fairly solid faith, you will be building a relationship not upon a solid "rock" foundation but upon the "sand" instead (Mt 7: 24-27). Since love tends to be "blind" to the faults of the beloved, ask friends and family members who love you, and whom you most respect, what their impressions are of your potential boyfriend/girlfriend, and take their counsel seriously.
(5) Should I accept the company's offer to move to another city or stay where I am? First, do you have a spouse and a family? If you do, then your first responsibility is what would be best for them rather than what would be good for your own career advancement (unless, of course, you might lose your family-supporting job altogether if you did not accept the new job in the new city). Our spouses and children are not just "along for the ride" on our attempt to rise to the top of our career ladder, but their good is the first priority of any parent or spouse. The Lord does not care how much worldly "success" we have in our careers, but how successful we are in learning to love one another, and in returning His love for us, all in preparation for a life of eternal love in heaven.
The prudent person always bears this "true good" of our life on this earth in mind in any significant decision he or she may face.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at email@example.com.