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Deacon Kyle Eller: How do we discern God’s will in our lives?

I suspect some of the deepest, most important questions most Christians have are ones they are somewhat afraid to ask or perhaps never even think to ask: How do we discern God’s will in our lives? How do we know what God wants of us? Can we even know that?

These are really good questions.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

God is always calling us. Literally at every moment, with each tiny, seemingly insignificant event that takes place and each little choice we make, God, in his providence, invites us to follow the path of love and life. Our primary vocation, whether we are married or single, lay people, clergy, or religious, is holiness, and holiness depends so much on seeking God’s will for us and embracing it. My confirmation saint, St. Maximilian Kolbe, put it very simply: “Christian perfection consists in the union of our will with the will of God.”

To be sure, God’s will is mysterious and, in its fullness, far beyond our comprehension. But since God does not command the impossible, and he commands us to do his will, it follows that we can know it at least well enough to obey him. I love the image of Blessed John Henry Newman, in his hymn “Lead, Kindly Light,” that we may not see the “distant scene,” but the “one step” God lights for us is enough.

We know some things about God’s will for us with great certainty, and they are not trivial. We know God wants us to follow his commandments — to do good and avoid sin. We know he wants us to carry out the daily duties of our state in life as faithfully as we can. We know he wants us to forgive and to love our neighbor. We know he wants us to spend daily time with him in prayer.

This covers important territory, including many of those daily moments. It forms the necessary foundation for deeper discernment. Without them, how could we hope to hear God clearly in greater matters?

But what about those other questions, where we may find ourselves agonizing, longing to know God’s will and yet unsure of what it is? Often these are life’s biggest moments — major decisions, major crises.

I would classify myself as a beginner here, and many wiser and holier people than me have addressed this question, but for what it’s worth, here are some of the lessons that I have learned through the process of discerning a call to be a deacon.

One important lesson is one I already mentioned: Discernment usually doesn’t happen all in a moment. God often makes his will known to us over time, lighting the next step or two but not the whole journey. As we learn to be content with that, we grow in faith and hope. We learn to trust God and not just our own judgment. We begin to better distinguish our passing desires from his abiding call. There is a peace in this.

I thought about diaconal ministry for years before entering formation. Then I spent years discerning it in formation. Not until several months before ordination did I come to feel a certainty that it was God’s call. But at each step, I knew what I needed to know — I felt God wanted me to stay in formation that next month, that next year.

The second lesson is related to that first one: Discernment is not a static process, where we just sit still and wait. We discern in motion.

Sometimes people have the impression that discerning God’s will is just a matter of sitting in the quiet church praying and listening. Certainly it is absolutely essential to do that. But along with that, we take small steps in the direction we think God might be calling us and see where he is in it. That’s one of the ways he makes his will known.

In deacon formation, this is built in. Over the years, more things related to the ministry get added, like making pastoral visits to people, reading at Mass, serving at Mass, leading prayer, assisting with sacramental preparation, practicing the preparation and delivery of homilies.

I found that often the most fruitful of these things were the ones I found most uncomfortable — the ones most out of my experience and confidence. Amid the human nerves and self-doubt, I was delighted to find a spiritual consolation and joy, too. One of God’s beautiful surprises in the wake of ordination is how much joy I find in things I wasn’t even sure I would like.

We can practice this in the questions we’re discerning. Take a small step in the right direction. Then pray about it. Then, when the time is right, take the next step.

We also don’t discern alone. For deacon candidates, the church is also discerning — is this man called? I don’t think I will ever forget the moment at the ordination when the church, in the person of the bishop, said that my classmates and I had been chosen for this ministry. Who could ever feel truly worthy of that?

In other kinds of discernment, it may look different, but the principle applies. As we pray and take small steps as God lights them for us, we should seek counsel. Depending on the situation, it could be from trusted pastor, a spiritual director, or prayerful, holy friend.

I’m still a beginner at discernment, but I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned thus far, because as I have come to appreciate, discernment never ends. Ordination was a conclusion to one part of discernment but the beginning of an even greater one. How is God calling me to live out this ministry? I won’t know the full answer to that question until this life ends.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]