Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How Can I Know The Will Of God In My Life ?

Q: How can I know what the will of God is in my life? I have been suffering physically for almost a year. I have been praying for healing and others have been praying for me. How do I know if it is God’s will that I continue suffering? I don’t know whether to keep on praying for healing or to just accept this suffering as God’s will. I pray that I may know His will but so far can’t figure out what it is.

A: Clearly, you have a passionate desire to know and embrace God’s will in your life. You should be so grateful for this desire! You are “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), and so, you are blessed!

The spiritual life is, in its most basic elements, nothing less than a following of Christ, an imitation of him. And his very food – the thing that he hungered for and the thing that nourished and strengthened him – was “to do the will of the one who sent me” (John 4:34). The mere fact that you submitted this question is sure proof that the Holy Spirit is hard at work in your heart, and that you are making an effort to collaborate with him. On the other hand, the interior turbulence that the situation is causing you is most likely not from the Holy Spirit. I hope the following thoughts can help put you more at ease.

Before trying to answer the specific question about your physical suffering, we have to make a theological distinction. The phrase “God’s will” can cause confusion if we don’t identify two broad sub-categories, so to speak: From our perspective, God’s will can be either indicative or permissive.

God’s Indicative Will

God can indicate that he wants us to do certain things – this is his indicative will. In this category we find the Ten Commandments, the commandments of the New Testament (e.g., “love one another as I have loved you” [John 15:12], “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” [Matthew 28:19]), the commandments and teachings of the Church (e.g. fasting on Good Friday), the responsibilities of our state in life, and specific inspirations of the Holy Spirit (e.g. when Blessed Mother of Teresa was inspired to start a new religious order to serve the poorest of the poor).

The field of God’s indicative will is humongous. In touches all the normal activities and relationships of every day, which are woven into the tapestry of moral integrity and faithfulness to our life’s calling, plus the endless possibilities of the works of mercy (thus obeying the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” [Mark 12:31]).

Yet it not only consists in what we do, but also in how we do it, which opens up the whole arena of growth in Christian virtue. We can wash the dishes (responsibilities of our state in life) with resentment and self-pity, or with love, care, and supernatural joy. We can attend Sunday Mass (Third Commandment and commandment of the Church) apathetically and reluctantly, or with conviction, faith, and attention. We can drive to work (responsibilities of our state in life) seething at the traffic jams, or exercising patience. When we ask ourselves, “What is God’s will for me?”, 88% of the time (more or less) God’s indicative will is crystal clear.

God’s Permissive Will

But the phrase “God’s will” also touches another category of life-experience: suffering. Suffering, of one type or another, is our constant companion as we journey through this fallen world. God has revealed that suffering was not part of his original plan, but rather was the offspring of original sin, which ripped apart the harmony of God’s creation. His indicative will to our first parents in the Garden of Eden was “do not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). They disobeyed. Human nature fell; creation fell; evil attained a certain predominance in the human condition, giving rise to “the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death” (Catechism, 403).

Here is where the distinction between God’s indicative and permissive will comes in. God did not desire or command Adam and Eve to rebel against his plan, but he did permit them to do so. Likewise, throughout human history, God does not will evil to happen (and its consequence of suffering), but he does permit it. He certainly didn’t explicitly will the Holocaust, for example, but, on the other hand, he did permit it.

The question of why God permits some evil and the suffering that comes from it, even the suffering of innocents, is an extremely hard question to answer. Only the Christian faith as a whole gives a satisfactory response to it, a response that can only penetrate our hearts and minds through prayer, study, and the help of God’s grace (See Catechism #309). St Augustine’s short answer is worth mentioning, however. He wrote that if God permits evil to affect us, it is only because he knows that he can use it to bring about a greater good. We may not see that good right away; we may not see it at all during our earthly journey, in fact, but Christ’s Resurrection (Easter Sunday) is the promise that God’s omnipotence and wisdom are never trumped by the apparent triumphs of evil and suffering (Good Friday).

How Long Is Too Long?

Your first question, then, can be answered like this: You can know the will of God in your life through the commandments and the responsibilities of your calling (God’s indicative will), and through the circumstances outside of your control that God permits (God’s permissive will). The physical suffering you are facing is clearly a circumstance that seems out of your control; it would most likely fit into the category of God’s permissive will.

Your second question, though, is harder to answer. How long should you pray to be delivered from this suffering? A few reflections may help you have greater peace in this difficult dilemma.

Pray Freely

First, praying to be delivered from suffering is fine. It is one of the fruitful responses to suffering, because through that prayer we exercise our faith, hope, and love for God, along with the precious virtues of humility and perseverance. Jesus prayed for deliverance in Gethsemane. St Paul prayed to be delivered from the “thorn in his flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). But, this prayer of petition should always be offered with a condition: “Lord, let me be healed of this affliction, if it be your will.” We have to trust that if his answer to our prayer is “no” or “not yet,” that answer flows from his infinite love and wisdom, even if we don’t particularly like it.

Accepting God’s Current Answer

Second, as long as God has not healed you, either through a miracle or through the natural, prudent steps that you have taken (medical attention, for example), we know that he is still permitting your suffering. In that sense, it is his permissive will for you to continue bearing this cross. So, for now, this is part of God’s will for you.

I say “part” because God’s indicative will still applies. Even in the midst of our sufferings, we must strive to remember that by following the commandments and fulfilling the responsibilities of our state in life, we are glorifying God, building his Kingdom, and following Christ. We should try to avoid letting our crosses blind us to the integral picture of our Christian discipleship (which includes continued participation in the Sacraments, prayer, and loving others as God has loved us).

Learning to Live with Mystery

Third, on a very practical note, it is not always easy to know when to stop praying for a particular petition. In the Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to “pray continually and never lose heart” (Luke 18:1), and even tells us a couple of parables to illustrate the point (see Luke 18 and Luke 11). He also promises: “Ask and you shall receive” (Matthew 7:7). And yet, St Paul had the experience of asking for the thorn in his flesh to be removed – repeatedly – and God did not give him what he asked for.

There is a mystery here. St Augustine explains that God sometimes refrains from giving us the specific thing we ask for, because he wants to give us something better; he wants to respond to a deeper desire from which the specific petition flows.

Learning From St Paul and A Practical Tip

Perhaps in your case St Paul’s example can be helpful. He kept asking for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, until he received this answer from God: “My grace is enough for you; my power is at its best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). With that answer, he no longer felt a need to ask for healing.

As long as you feel in your heart the desire to be healed of your affliction, continue to bring your petition to the Lord. But in order to avoid becoming obsessed with or confused by the painful situation and God’s mysterious response, perhaps it would be helpful to make your petition in the form of an established devotion. For example, you can make the Nine First Fridays devotion for this intention. Or you could do a novena to St Pio Pietralcina or to Our Lady of Good Remedy during the first nine days of every month. By circumscribing your petition for healing within an established devotion of some kind, you can be at peace that you are doing your part (persevering and not losing heart), while not letting your struggle disturb or dominate all the other aspects of your Christian discipleship.

You can be assured that I will join my prayers to yours, that God’s will be done, and that you find the peace that comes from God’s embrace even as you share in the pain of his Cross.

Source: Catholic Spiritual Direction

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