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How can I know the will of God in my life? – Part I of II

June 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, God's Will

Dear Father John, 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.

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).

With these basic ideas in place, in our next post we will summarize these principals and then apply them specifically to your question.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • Anonymous

    Great post!

    In particular, the part about accepting our daily trials, frustrations, and irritations, without complaining resonates in my heart. 

    While there are some situations in our lives that we do need to discuss with another, in order to find a solution to a problem, by-and-large the majority of our complaining or ‘venting’ is what St. Teresa of Avila defines as ‘idle chatter’ and is not good for our soul.

    There is a lot wrong in the world – we all know that – but God has allowed it to happen.  We are better served and make more progress on the spiritual journey when we accept what God allows (even if we don’t particularly like it), and pray for understanding of what He is trying to teach us through the experience, rather than complaining about every little thing……..most of which has to do with our neighbors…….and we have no power, save prayer, to change them anyway!!

    When we ‘offer up’ these little sufferings and ask Jesus to join them to His, we grow stronger in the virtue of patience and will likely be surprised one day to find that these problems no longer bother us.

    • faithful123

      Becky has the thought: We are better served and make more progress on the spiritual journey when we accept what God allows To that I give the serenity prayer that goes God grant me the serenity
      to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I
      can;and wisdom to know the difference. God permits human free will; to accept His ways or reject His ways. What we accept or reject, will bring us abundance or suffering on this earth.We do not just ‘accept’ because God ‘permitted it’ … God expects us of faith ‘to stand up against’ what is objectively wrong. (alternative lifestyles,abortion, contraception, euthanasia, illegal drugs, fornication (living without commited relationship) God’s sovereign will does not want any of this stuff in His world; and we – in faith in Him – are not better served by just going along with it – for our own ‘subjective peace with others.’ I do hope this comment will be allowed.  I just feel the need to clarify.

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  • Maria Manos

    Fantastic.  It really makes sense.

  • Mary@42

    This is a wonderful Post.

    The way to Salvation is through the Cross.  When I am at a point of complaining about one little thing or another – as my Spiritual Director advised me – I first pause and send a short prayer to Jesus or Our Lady before I proceed, and remember the words of my first Sentence on this paragraph. 

    It is not easy to accept  or understand suffering, particularly physical suffering especially when it is  a life-long condition, but offering it to God with serenity and with humility and accepting the Cross, brings one peace of mind and strength to endure the condition.

    Also, this is where God’s Gift of long life is of enormous help.  When one reviews one’s life and remembers some the hardships, painful and adverse situations one faced and which made one almost feel as if God had forgotten one, one comes to realize – year’s later – just how God actually pulled one away from either a Spiritually dangerous situation or effected Spiritual maturity and a realistic realization of what was essential in one’s life.  When one recalls these Merciful God’s interventions in one’s life,  one is filled with thanksgiving to such a loving, caring God.

    Reading the life of St. Faustina Kowalska, the Eucharistic Apostle and Secretary of the Divine Mercy, and other great Saints, makes one begin to appreciate the Divine Role human suffering plays in God’s Salvation Mystery

  • riffer791

    Thanks for your good advice, iv been asking that same question myself lately.
    im looking forward to reading your next post.

  • Christophermoran2000

    For what it’s worth: A few years back, I made a list of 10 things I needed desperately and started a novena. I put this list in an envelope, sealed it, and then lost the list after my novena was complete… this was just prior to Christmas of that year. I found the list the following spring. When I opened the envelope and read the list of needs, I realized that every single prayer had been answered, not one had gone unanswered. My immediate thought was: how often do we pray, and then forget what we prayed for because it was not answered immediately, i.e., within our time frame. Then… how often do prayers answered go without so much as a thank you (unintentionally) because so much time passes…we forget or figure that God’s answer was no. Be that as it may…
    Suffering can have great purpose. If you look at the arts, music… most inspiration comes from a bad time, not a good one. However, what I have learned from my own suffering is to remain in the present, “sufficient unto the day…” it’s easier to carry some how. We can not live in future, the past is gone, sealed for all time, all any of us have is NOW, and this is what I believe Jesus was saying, i.e., “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” i.e., NOW. All takes place in the present.
    I know, for sure, without any reservations or doubt at all, that I could not have survived the many tragedies I have experienced in this life to date, were it not for Jesus and prayer. During adoration many moons ago, during another very difficult time in my life, The Spirit shared this with me: “Faith without works, is like prayer without trust, is like love without respect, is like conversion without repentance… that any one of these is not complete without the other.” So now when I pray I try to remember to include trust, that prayer will be answered at the perfect time, God’s time… Thy Will be done.
    I’m looking forward to reading the next post, I’m liking this Catholic Spiritual Direction. What an awesome purpose it has.   :)

  • Jgeneroso3

    I am a senior citizen and comparing my journey in life to a basketball game, I have reached the final quarter, maybe nearing the final two minutes. The younger years in my life were focused on my career trying to build up my material possessions and trying to get the most pleasures the world can offer. I have partly achieved the latter and completely failed in the former. Recollecting my life, especially when I feel distressed and ready to give up, I am reminded that my present suffering is jus a consequence of the evil things I did in the past and that in His goodness, God allows my purification to start here on earth. If I can give glory to God by my sufferings, then by all means I pray I continue to suffer.     

    • Anonymous

      Profound and appreciated

    • faithful123

      I don’t necessarily think all who suffer – suffer because of ‘their own evil’
      (that of course is a subjective matter of individual reflection) Remember,
      in our Catholic faith; with access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; once forgiven – we are forgiven; all we need do is live that forgiveness. Not all who suffer in the flesh; are suffering by direct sin. (consider the book of Job) Job did nothing to offend God; he was a righteous person. Job’s neighbors told Job he had sinned and should repent; Job insisted “no no;
      I have not done any wrong.”  Of course ‘all of us’ have sinned – so in that sense we are all ‘sinners’ (not perfect) and as it is said in general we all have a ‘cross’ to bear in this broken world we dwell in.

      Instead of thinking your suffering is because of the evil you did in the past;
      maybe…God loves you so much for the good person you are; that he is
      allowing you to ‘share’ in his cross; like that of a Father who buys his
      young son a toy lawn mower so as to help dad with the work of cutting
      the lawn. God shares the glory of His work, with those who can handle
      it. (*ie can you drink of the cup I drink; in order to sit at my right and left?)

      In whatever you are suffering; remember God is there holding you up.

      and yes; I will pray you grow stronger by it all.

      • Jgeneroso3

        Thank you faithful 123, I like what you said. But you know, this prayer of recollection comes to me even while I am busy doing other things like driving, reading, etc. then the bad things I did in the past will flash in my mind and suddenly I will feel remorse, true sorrow for those sins. I can’t exactly explain why this is happening but I know it comes without my wanting or thinking about it. Thanks again for your reflections on the matter.   

        • Anonymous

          Dear Friend – as taught by the Church, sometimes this is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The key is, how we respond. If it drives us to dispair, then we are off track. If the memory drives us to ask for forgiveness and then rejoice in that forgiveness, then the entire engagement results in glory to God and grace to us. Blessings!

          • faithful123

            Thank you for this reminder. Unless The Spirit is prompting us to be different than we are; we don’t necessarily need to go ‘confess’ sins. This is why it is important to examine conscience at the end of our day before retiring. Many times I hear folks declare in general conversation of having taken ‘offense’ at the words someone spoke and having also heard that
            person’s words – there were no offensive words (no cursing, no anger,
            nothing ‘bad’)  The one who took offense – very likely – had the ‘guilt’ in
            them ‘poked’ — that up to this point was ‘nicely covered over by their
            own hand.  Only children are ‘offended’ by words. nyaaaaaaaaa
            nyaaaaa your ugly!!! your stupid!!! you can’t do anything!!!  Children
            who are insecure take such words to heart; mature spirits take it from
            whence it came (spoken by someone concerned of their looks, their
            ability to study and think, their own lack in ability) If the words ‘poke’
            something…the adult will look at their life and take it to the one who
            can ‘change the feeling’ / the immature defend who they are to one like
            them; who care little of who they are.

            Real friends ‘correct’ us with a gentle spirit.

    • Anonymous

      this encourages me!

  • Hannah K.

    I loved this!  I just got  back from a Stuebanville Conference this Sunday and God helped me out with my life and vocational calling.  So when I saw this post I was really happy; more uplifting and helpful information :0)  Can’t wait till part 2!

  • Joannlconover

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and talent for teaching.  Once again you have explained a difficult concept in such an attainable way.

  • Lyonsjoan

    St Augustines’ short answer that “if God permits evil to effect us, it is only because he knows that he can use it to bring about a greater good,” is pure grace.  The shadow of Christ’s cross is trumped by Christ’s resurrrection and manifests eternal life for us all for all time.  Now how wonderful is that?

  • Stephenleebennett

    This is a short letter of St.Francis de Sales,apparently to a lady who was not only suffering in sickness,but had also just recently lost her house in a fire:

    “Fire on all sides,my dearest child!The fire of fever consuming your body,and the fever of fire consuming your house! But I hope that your heart is so filled with the fire of heavenly love as to be able to say amid all these troubles,’The Lord gave health and home,the Lord hath taken them away,the Lord’s Holy Name be praised.’”

    “True,you say,but nevertheless we are grievously impoverished and discomforted. Doubtless,my dear child,but ‘ blessed are the poor,for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Dwell upon the troubles and the patience of Job; meditate upon him,prince as he was,sitting on a dunghill. He endured patiently,and God gave him more abundantly than before of all temporal blessings,together with tenfold of such as are eternal.”

    ” You are the child of Christ crucified; what wonder then if you have to carry His Cross? ‘ I was dumb and I opened not my mouth,for it was Thy doing,’ David says. We reach eternal life through many a stormy wave and wind. Cast all your care upon God,and He will nourish you,and stretch forth His Right Hand to shield you. I pray Him to do so,and also that,in proportion to the trials He sends you,He may abundantly strengthen you with His Holy Grace.”

    St. Francis de Sales to a lady in illness,Feb.8,1601; from The Spiritual Letters of St. Francis de Sales,London,1895

  • faithful123

    The serenity prayer–

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference

    I got to thinking about those words myself; sometimes we say or hear
    words and we say a quick uh huh, that’s nice…but never give it thought.

    So I asked myself: What are some of the things that I cannot change?
    I will mention ‘a few things here’ but I would love to also see the words
    of others of what they know can’t be changed and what can.
    – off the top of head: first thing that came to mind; what one doesn’t thinkcan happen when youthful: getting old-er and having the physical bodyslow down; maybe have some physical aches and pains. Age can’t bechanged. – another aspect of life we can’t change; our family that God gave to us,we didn’t choose them; God gave us ‘the family’ we were born into; andsome are different personality wise from us. — our physical looks; if we are tall; we can’t become shorter and if shorter we can’t become taller. If brown eyed; we can’t be blue eyedand if big boned in structure we aren’t going to become small and petite– I can’t get a neighbor to think as I think. (nope; not really) What, with courage, can I change?– knowing that I will one day be old, I can work ‘with God’ to keep the’damage’ to a minimal perhaps. Watch the diet, be physically active,stretch the muscles and the brain cells by being intellectually active.(curious to keep learning) ie: enjoy life.- I can love the family God gave to me ‘as is’  – showing thoughtfulnessto attend to their hopes and dreams by cheering them on, giving thema kind ‘push’ when discouraged, or some physical help to reach whatgoal they have (if they are going to college; giving them time alone tostudy without distraction, if older members; remembering them and letting them know they are important; by calling them, if family are sometimes ‘ornery’ … seeking to understand rather than be understood.– if concerned with physical looks; this is as Becky stated what we needto bring to God to ask why we are. Are we judging our looks by someoneelse’s? Are we failing to see the blessing God gave us – when he made usas we are? — While I can’t change how others are personality wise or their ideasthey came to; I can listen to them and ask them questions that makethem have to ‘give reason’ for that belief; how their ideas relate to a common good philosophy. (if God isn’t specifically mentioned) I canavoid arguing with them, which fuels their pre-judgments of me, I canact in such ‘good way’ … they have to begin doubting the ideas they hold. — if born into poverty; we can become ‘rich’ simply by hard work. Hardwork in making effort to learn how to do something, that others will payus for, hard and honest work – doing physical labor that some don’t wantto do. (and using the dollar resources prudently) We can definitely become’less poor’ … with God’s help and guidance. Hard work this is thinking of what can be changed and what can’t be changed; how about helping me out everyone? give just one exampleof what can be changed and what can’t be?

  • faithful123

    Endure patiently; and God gave him more abundantly than before of all the temporal blessings ‘together’ with tenfold of such as are eternal.

    So; basically; we should be concerned if life on this earth does go ‘perfectly’ – if such is the case; we are ‘stagnating’ and not growing in faith of the one who is ‘all perfect.’  

    It’s not easy but I understand; money and ‘stuff’ comes back; even work
    of the hands comes back; but to lose God; is to lose EVERYTHING.

    Read this joke recently: I started out with nothing; and I’m happy to
    report that I still have most of it.

    Stuff is nice; in conjunction with enjoying it with loved ones, in good
    health, and with a peace surpassing all understanding that we are
    working for a purpose other than to acquire ‘stuff.’  Stuff is nice…but
    GOD is GOOD.

  • Anonymous

    Faithful,

    Did you even read my whole comment?

    Once again you have taken a small part of my thought, added some of your own, and twisted it around to the point that it no longer resembles what I said.  This is not charitable.

    If you have questions, or are uncertain about the meaning of words in my comments, I would be grateful for your doing me the courtesy of asking the question, (or providing your paraphrased understanding of what I have said……”Are you saying…?”), and allow me to provide clarification of my own thoughts rather than  presuming to do so for me!

    This post is about knowing the will of God in our life.  Fr. John mentions some of the daily struggles and ‘crosses’ we all encounter.  It is to these trials and small sufferings that I addressed my comment – and I believe that this is very clear.

    You have used only a small part of my thought; completely ignoring the main point, which is to “pray for understanding of what He is trying to teach us”, and have concluded that I support, or approve of, or condone horrific evil.  (Your words.)”alternative lifestyles,abortion, contraception, euthanasia, illegal drugs, fornication (living without committed relationship)  ……… - “by just going along with it – for our own ‘subjective peace with others’.”(your words again.)

    Kindly point out to me where I say, or even hint at this, because I don’t see it………….I certainly did not mean this, and from my point of view you took a huge leap from “accepting our daily crosses” to “fighting what is objectively wrong.”

    Acceptance of what God allows to happen is NOT synonymous with approving of it!!!

    In another post Fr. John had some great advice about accepting reality, which is things as they are right now in this moment……as God has allowed:

    A: I sense frustration in your question. Watch out! Frustration doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit. Frustration is a function of expectations. When we expect reality to be different than it is, we become frustrated. As soon as we become aware of that frustration, we have to make an act of humility and turn our natural (and sometimes reasonable) complaints into fruitful actions and faith-drenched crosses. In the face of frustration, we have to ask ourselves: Can I do anything (within reason) to change the situation? If so, make a decent effort to do it. If not, however, we have to let go, not allowing it to drain emotional and spiritual energy. One of the devil’s favorite tactics is to keep us focused on things we can’t change, so as to keep us from changing what we can.

    My words are merely a reflection of what I have learned from reading what the saints and the Church teach.  I have found this practice to be very effective in my own life and offered it for any help it may be to others.

    So……………….if my understanding of your words (italicized above), is incorrect, would you please clarify?  I would also be interested to know exactly what, from my original comment, you felt was unclear.

    God Bless!

    • faithful123

      My apologies if you somehow took my added thought to your idea wrong. I merely provided the thought to all readers to give thought to the words of the Serenity Prayer; as it seems to fit well into your thought. As you stated, we should take it to prayer as to what God wants to teach us.

      I think what God wants to teach is best summed up in the words of that
      simple prayer. The serenity to accept the things I can’t change and the
      wisdom to know the difference. ie: Some matters can be changed, with
      the courage ‘that comes from God’

      and Becky, I never concluded nor intimated that you support any of the things of the world that are against God. But if you read it as such; my apologies for misunderstanding.

      You might want to read my post on my reflective thoughts on what the
      Serenity Prayer made me think about. Peace to you “sister in Christ”

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  • Anonymous

    I have read your post several times over; prayerfully, to make sure I wasn’t jumping to conclusions.

    Would you please clarify what you mean by this?

    “God’s sovereign will does not want any of this stuff in His world; and we – in faith in Him – are not better served by just going along with it – for our own ‘subjective peace with others.”

    By ‘It’ you refer to all the ‘stuff’ you previously listed, which are evils.

    If you had left off with the serenity prayer I would have no cuase to take exception to your comment.  But you didn’t!

    This is what I said – “We are better served and make more progress on the spiritual journey when we accept what God allows (even if we don’t particularly like it), and pray for understanding of what He is trying to teach us through the experience, rather than complaining about every little thing.”How do you get from this that I am saying to ‘go along with’ ……IT….for our own subjective peace.

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