Sometimes, doing God’s will is hard… and others it’s just hard to know it! For that, we need to listen to Him. To listen to Him, we need to talk with Him (that is, to pray). But, how do we distinguish His voice from other voices, including ours?
My wallops trying to listen to God
From the moment God led me into conversion, I kept in mind the notion of having been saved, freed from the doom I was heading towards. That made me understand that I had to answer with all my being, and that the Lord had a special mission for me. However, the devil took advantage of that to twist it, making me think it was equivalent to a “peculiar way of asceticism” expressed mainly through my eating disorder (ED).
As time went by, I mixed the ED voice with God’s voice so much that they became indistinguishable, one and the same. In fact, what was happening is that the former was so strong that it prevented me from listening the whisper of the latter in the depths of my heart. Unlike Elijah, I failed in the test of waiting for the wind, the earthquake and the fire to pass in order to then discover God in the light silent sound (1 Kings 19:11-14).
Choosing the worse
Although it wasn’t only that. In general, the worse thing had to be what God was commanding me, and if I didn’t want it I was selfish. One example is what happened to me when I had to choose a degree. For several years, I’d been sure I wanted to study Journalism. However, the summer just before starting I did a summer course offered by the university… and realized I didn’t like it at all.
My reaction? Instead of seeing it wasn’t there where God was calling me to be and that I should look for other way… I felt awful because “I didn’t like what God wanted”. I resigned, and I thought once again I was being asked to choose a mortification and not a delight. Thankfully I had some help and could finally choose well (History and Art History, in case you were wondering).
All of this doesn’t mean that I never did things I enjoyed or were fun: I did a lot of those. The key is that they weren’t justified by themselves, but as prizes or compensations for my life of penance. I could allow myself to do them because I had already sacrificed the fundamental part of my life.
Weakness or strength?
That’s why the big problem came when, after starting recovery, that justification disappeared. Despite of the fact that objectively the sacrifice was much greater now (not to mention this time it was the good and right one), in my mind it didn’t count. For quite a lot of time I kept feeling so bad, like I was betraying God, turning my back on Him to pursue my whims. That was the hardest thing of my recovery.
Even if at a certain moment I’d seen things clearly, and despite my spiritual director repeating it to me again and again… I felt like I was doing everything wrong, failing God, because I was a coward that hadn’t been able to follow through. I had given up the way only to satisfy my own cravings. I thought I was weak because I was giving in, until I’ve realized that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Because now my source of life was grace and not my own achievements.
Time of confusion
But, going back to my previous logic, yet another problem came up. Now the terms had to change: since I wasn’t subjecting myself to pain and deprivation in that area of my life… I should do that in the rest of them. That was another toxic and complicated part of my recovery journey, although ultimately it consisted in learning to let myself be loved by God in His own way and not in the one I had assigned Him.
I felt as if my own likings and wishes weren’t but a test, something I had to resist and beat. But the truth is that the only thing I had to do was to set them straight. In its rough state, those likings and wishes had been placed by God in me, but maybe they’d been contaminated and showed wrong. I had to see how God wanted me to use that material, not to destroy that material and try to base my decisions on an abstract concept of duty.
It happened to me that I wasn’t able to trust myself at all. It seemed to me as if I’d lost the faculty of knowing what God wants, since I’d been wrong in something as big as anorexia. And that made me spend my days in anguish, thinking that everything I believed God wanted was probably false. Therefore, I supposed He was going to give me just the opposite and I felt great disgust towards it, getting frightened that it could be His will.
How to listen then, in the midst of so much confusion, the true voice of God?
The wrong method
I’m quite embarrassed to confess —even if back then I believed blindly in it— the method I used to use in order to resolve whether God wanted or not something from me: I went to pray, I asked about it and I waited in silence… for my head to “move” affirmatively or negatively. Obviously, it wasn’t a very precise method. What were my reasons to believe it could work? There were two:
-My alleged “special relationship” with God.
-The fact that all the results were coherent with what back then I considered my essential truth (what I’ve said before).
I don’t think many people use this specific method, but they do use the fundamental parts of it: first they know the answer they want to hear, and then they pray only with their lips in order to feel God telling them yes so they can shut their conscience up. Many times, without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. Because they don’t know how to do it better.
The right method: discernment
The first thing that needs to be made clear is that discernment must be between things that, in principle, are good, but that may or may not be suitable for us (like the different vocations). Objectively wrong things must be left out of the process from minute 1. But, how do we recognize those?
If you want to make sure you’re listening to God, there’s a first method that’s very simple: going to the words He Himself wanted to leave us written in the Bible. Unlike the things you may hear in your mind, those has a total guarantee of truth.
Of course, had I read correctly what the Bible says, I wouldn’t have thought my ED was something God wanted. The problem is that the words can be interpreted distortedly. In fact, it’s been like that through History: hence the heresies. So, what’s the definitive test?
Providentially, in order to prevent the temptation of adapting the Scripture to what we want to hear —even if we aren’t always conscious of that intention— we have the teachings, the magisterium of the Church. St. Ignatius of Loyola said in his Spiritual exercises: “If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines” (365). That’s the great lesson in humility that allows us to avoid considering ourselves above right and wrong, visionaries, prophets, the enlightened ones.
This is the point I failed at, and the one many people fail at; people that otherwise would seem good Christians.
It deserves a section of its own and in addition it’s a hinge between the last point, being one of the best manifestations of it, and the next ones, in which counting on this resource will prove immensely helpful. Having a good (!!) spiritual director and listening to him is a very accurate way to listen to God Himself. I of course will never cease to be grateful for it, and it’s what I can advise most to others.
St. Faustina Kowalska insists repeatedly on the importance of the director. For example, she says: “Oh, how great a grace it is to have a spiritual director! One makes more rapid progress in virtue, sees the will of God more clearly, fulfills it more faithfully, and follows a road that is sure and free of dangers. The director knows how to avoid the rocks against which the soul could be shattered” (Diary, 331). It would be a pity to lose out on this opportunity the Church offers to us!
Interpreting the signs
Sometimes we may think God is silent because we don’t hear a clear answer with words. But He’s always expressing Himself through the things that happen inside and outside ourselves. We have to look at them searching for those signs. As St. John Paul II says:
The Magi reached Bethlehem because they had obediently allowed themselves to be guided by the star. Indeed, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Mt 2:10). It is important, my dear friends, to learn to observe the signs with which God is calling us and guiding us. When we are conscious of being led by Him, our heart experiences authentic and deep joy as well as a powerful desire to meet Him and a persevering strength to follow Him obediently.
We need to look for the signs of God, His lights, His stars, and hit the road and follow them with thrill: we need to make decisions. You can’t be always waiting to be sure, doubting whether it’s God, it’s you or it’s the devil. Yes, ask the spiritual director, discern, pray, do your research well… but in the end you must act. And we shouldn’t be afraid that if something’s beautiful, good, desirable, etc., it can’t be from God, rather the opposite. Indeed the devil can tempt us, but if we discern well and with the right help, we can achieve a reasonable certainty.
Consolation and desolation
The signs in our soul would be what St. Ignatius calls consolations and desolations. It would be a topic for several posts, so for now I’ll just say this: the devil shows himself as an angel of light… but we can recognize what’s from God and what’s from the devil for its fruits in the soul: peace and light versus confusion and darkness. What raises you up, and what wears you out. And follow the advice from the saint: “In time of desolation we should never make any change” (Spiritual exercises 318).
Pray without fear, act without fear and give yourself into it… without fear
Thinking about something isn’t going to make God suddenly consider it and say “oh, so he/she doesn’t like it, well then that’s what I’m going to command him/her”. We mustn’t be afraid of thinking and discerning. At the same time, there comes a moment we have to stop and make a decision: you aren’t being closed, you’re being faithful to your vocation. One needs to have certainties in their vocation in order to make new decisions, and that doesn’t mean limiting the Lord but obeying Him.
I thought “spiritual indifference” should consist in putting a poker face, staying neutral before every situation and fulfill my duty in each moment without rejoicing or enjoying it too much, lest I became attached to it. Obviously, that didn’t fit too well with my temperament, since I’m a person of big passions and ideals.
Fortunately, in the end I found out that neither did it fit with God: indifference doesn’t mean lack of passion, but asking God to want, look for and understand what pleases Him… and the passion for it! St. Augustine prays like this: ““give what You command, and command what You will” (Confessions X, XXIX); this includes the liking for those things the Lord wants and commands.
God doesn’t like playing mind games with you. He’s looking forward to talking to you and, if you seek answers, you’ll find them (Matthew 7:8). Follow the right path, and learn to tell apart the voice of the Shepherd (John 10:27) from the voice of the wolves. And trust that the answer will be the beginning of a wonderful adventure!