*Editor’s note: This post was first published here on June 20, 2011.
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. It 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 principles and then apply them specifically to your question.