In one of the scriptural passages most often quoted by Blessed Pope John Paul II during the course of his historic pontificate, a “rich young man” asks the Lord what I consider to be the only question really worth asking once one reaches the age of reason and understands the reality of death: “What must I do to gain eternal life?” As we know, the Lord gives two related answers. One is “to keep the commandments.” After the youth asserts that he has done so since he was a child, the Lord challenges him with a more demanding answer: “Sell what you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me.”
These answers were, without question, the will of God for that young man. After all, God himself was speaking to him. As we remember, he “went away sad for he had great possessions.” We will never know, short of heaven, what great plans the Lord might have had for him if he had said yes. Maybe he would have replaced St. Peter as the Prince of the Apostles. After all, he seemed to have a lot more going for him than the often-simple fisherman, so full of obvious defects alongside his virtues. But the rich young man did not say yes. He was free but clearly attached to the things of this world, and he lacked the generosity needed to follow the Lamb wherever He goes.
A simpler answer to the rich young man’s question would be: “Do the will of God, whatever it is, no matter the cost.” I have written this article to help you discover the will of God for you and then follow it with God’s grace. Ultimately, nothing else—nothing less—will make you relatively happy in this life and eternally and ecstatically joyful in the next.
I should point out at the beginning that there are some general ways for learning the will of God for us that apply to everybody. On the other hand, God also has a specific plan for each one of us, and that may require a little bit or a lot more time to discern.
Let’s start off with a fact without which life is simply a farce: Human beings have free will as a gift from God. We can choose good or evil. We can do right or wrong. We can receive reward or punishment in the afterlife. Yes, there are mitigating circumstances for our actions. All of us are conditioned in hundreds of different ways. We are limited by being created. We are hampered by the effects of original sin. However, none of that negates our ability to accept or reject God’s will for us. He created us free, made in his image and likeness. We are not puppets on a string; rather, we are called to embrace the will of God for us as a liberation that leads to the joy of heaven. And on this journey God promises to give us all the help we need to achieve our final destination.
The Catechism tells us, “By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God, the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, ‘the obedience of faith.’”
Given that the virtue of faith is necessary for salvation, what is most important for us as Christians is to imitate Jesus Christ. He is the exemplar of how to follow the will of God the Father perfectly, even under the most extreme pressure known to man, the Passion and Crucifixion. Again, the Catechism tells us that the Son of God, who came down “from heaven, not to do [His] own will, but the will of him who sent [Him],” said, “Lo, I have come to do your will, O God.” From the first moment of His Incarnation, the Son embraces the Father’s plan of divine salvation in His redemptive mission: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work.”
So we have a free will and the virtue of faith, and we want to imitate Jesus Christ. Where do we go from here in order to know God’s will? Well, the most obvious answer is to do what the Lord told the rich young man: “Keep the commandments.” They are our road map to heaven. The Catechism tells us that “the Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law. It is made known to us by divine revelation and human reason.” Simply put, through both reason and faithful acceptance of divine revelation, every human person can know the basic principles of behavior as they relate to God and neighbor. We also know that God gives us the grace to live the commandments, which are the truth that makes us free, enabling us to grow in our love of God and neighbor. This is the essence of the two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So we have the basics down. But we need more, and God has provided it through the Catholic Church He founded to sustain us until He comes again. The most important helps of the Church are clearly the sacraments. Each one gives us God’s grace (His help and friendship) as needed in the journey through life with its ups and downs, its tragedies and triumphs.
However, we want to know the will of God for us. The sacraments strengthen us to follow that will, but the roadmap for living the virtuous life during our journey to the Father is Jesus Christ. We learn about His life in Sacred Scripture, most particularly in the New Testament, which is the authorized biography of the Lord written by the Holy Spirit. Because the will of God for each one of us is the imitation of Christ, we will want to read and meditate on the New Testament daily and examine our conscience according to the standard of Christ’s life. I also recommend guided regular spiritual reading. Use a trusty notebook, journal, or PDA to take notes that you can bring to your prayer time or discuss with your confessor or spiritual advisor when you meet.
Catholics also have the examples of the men and women who have best imitated Christ through the centuries—the saints that are our role models and intercessors. And among the saints almost certainly there are some that “speak” to us in a special way. (Disclosure: After the Blessed Virgin Mary, my Mother, my “favorite” intercessors are Blessed John Henry Newman, Blessed John Paul the Great, St. John Mary Vianney of Ars, and St. Josemaria.)
Another indispensable means for knowing the will of God is quite simply to talk with Him about it. This we call prayer, without which we cannot be saved. The problem with many of us is that we are great talkers and poor listeners. Jesus Himself in His human nature communicated frequently with His heavenly Father, as we witness in the Gospels. He prepared for His public ministry with a long retreat of prayer and fasting, and during His public life He repeatedly took time, whether alone or with His apostles, for prayer and recollection. All of us can imitate Him in this respect by finding time to speak with the Lord at least 15 minutes daily, ideally before the Blessed Sacrament. There we can open our heart and soul to discern His will for us both in long- and short-term matters. In addition, monthly mini-retreats and yearly silent retreats of several days should be standard. And why not bring several friends along, so you can help them grow in friendship with the Friend who has made all the difference for you in living a joyful life while preparing for the next? Surely that is part of God’s will for you on earth.
One more crucial aid for finding God’s will is a spiritual director who can serve as your spiritual life coach. I have written at length on this topic elsewhere, so I will not belabor it here. Suffice it to say that we all need expert and loving advice from a devout and experienced man or woman, lay, priest, or religious, who can serve as a guide to God’s will for us in the big decisions we need to make at critical junctures and also in less important matters. Few canonized saints lacked a regular director and/or confessor.
Rarely, God speaks to people directly in clear, supernatural ways, including locutions, inspirations, apparitions, etc. However, normally we need a human “interpreter” to translate for us.
And that brings us to the most ordinary and perhaps the most painful and challenging way of discerning God’s will, and that is in our ordinary life as faithful members of His Church! The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
Hence the laity, dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently born—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord. And so, worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God, everywhere offering worship by the holiness of their lives. (901)
Could it be clearer? Yes, you with your unique DNA, with that spouse and children, that occupation, that education from that town with those virtues and faults, with that good or bad health, that intelligence or lack thereof, with those likes and dislikes, are called to embrace all this as the will of God for you. He loves you unconditionally as His son or daughter. The only thing He does not like in you is your disobedience. But even then He loves you so much that He will forgive you immediately when you make an act of contrition or a sincere sacramental confession. And it is His will (if you want) for you to spend eternity with Him in inexpressible joy that “neither eye has seen nor ear has heard.” All this should make us the happiest persons on earth, even when He asks us at times to make up in our own suffering what is mysteriously lacking in the suffering of Christ.
If all this has not helped you enough in coming to know God’s will for you, pray daily the prayer of Bl. John Henry Newman:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Go and spread the Good News!