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Deciding with the Spirit

God’s Spirit journeys with us through our lived experiences, calling us into the process of growth. However, much of our lived experiences involve making decisions to get us through difficulties and to make the most of opportunities. In fact, even our smallest decisions sometimes determine the course of our lives. In his book “Weeds Among the Wheat”, Father Thomas H. Green, SJ points out certain qualities we need to possess at times of decisions:

  1. A desire to do God’s will. For someone committed to a life with the Spirit, decision time is Spirit time. If we firmly believe that the Spirit is deeply involved in our life, it is only natural that we seek God’s will in all our decisions.
  2. Openness to God. Ironically enough, God may play a significant role in our life, and yet we may not give His Spirit a role in our decision-making. We may be merely wedded to our own idea of God or God’s will. Or we may not have a genuine desire to seek out his will, given that God is always mysterious, and often surprising and disturbing. However, to do God’s will, we must be open to God.
  3. A knowledge of God. We might desire to do God’s will, but we may have no idea how to discover it. Good desire is no substitute for knowledge of God and his ways. We may have to depend on someone else who has an experiential knowledge of God. That is where a spiritual director comes in. The goal of spiritual direction is to bring us to a maturity where we can make our own personal judgments about God’s will.

St. Ignatius, the creator of the Examen, also developed guidelines for the decision-making and discernment process which should help us integrate God’s Spirit into our decisions. He determined three ways for making a decision.

One, let God decide for us. Here the Spirit attracts our will so strongly to a course of action that leaves no doubt what God wants of us. Perhaps a conversion experience or a moment of enlightenment. However, this is not the usual way we discover God’s will.

Two, let us decide for ourselves. When there is great uncertainty concerning God’s will, St. Ignatius suggested two methods. First method, after prayer for light and courage, we use our understanding to weigh the matter with care, enumerating the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative, basing our decision on what is most pleasing to God.

Second method is to use our imagination: one, consider what you would suggest to another person facing the same decision which you now face; two, imagine yourself on your deathbed or at your final judgement and ask yourself what you would have then decided. In each case, we are trying to shed some light on our confused situation by imaginatively distancing ourselves from it.

Three, let God confirm our decisions. To use our natural powers to make our decisions for ourselves when there is great uncertainty concerning God’s will is not wrong, but it is incomplete, according St. Ignatius. He synthesized the way of God deciding for us and the way of our deciding for ourselves, and created the third way of making a decision. It is the way of discernment—when we seek the Spirit’s confirmation of decisions which we have made based on reason alone.

Here is what we do. We treat as tentative our decision made by means of the rational or imaginative methods. Next, we present the decision to God for his confirmation and patiently wait. And how will God confirm it? St. Ignatius describes it this way: “…much light and understanding are derived through the experience of desolation and consolation and the discernment of diverse spirits,” discussed in article, Handling Desolation.