Key Discernment Questions: Who am I & What do I want?

We continue to use the storytelling lens to reflect on the importance of coming to know ourselves and our motivations.

hand-534867_1280Our God-given identity is often expressed in our deepest desires and needs, as well as by our choices and actions. Knowing that we are made in the image of God as well as weak and sinful, it’s crucial that we come to know ourselves and our inner life well. This includes knowing our motivations, too. For example, if we are kind to someone, we can have any of the following motivations—or a mix of them—for that one act of kindness:

  • trying to please the person who is with us
  • hope to get something back from the person we are being kind to
  • a sense of duty
  • the genuine virtue of love

Many times, if we are honest with ourselves, our motivations will be mixed. No matter how simple or complex they are, when we know our motivations, we are better able to freely choose what will make us deeply happy.

* * *

Here is a rather extreme example. In the Middle Ages, sometimes women entered religious life because it seemed a path to greater independence in a time when women’s equality with men was not commonly understood or respected, especially married women. Circumstances often pushed women to seek the relative freedom of religious life even if they weren’t called. And a woman in such a situation might feel attracted to life in the convent. If she didn’t know herself well, she might have thought her attraction to the convent was a call from God rather then her own need to escape a loveless marriage or oppressive circumstances. Trapped in difficult situations, many women who weren’t called opted for religious life. As a result, some convents became quite lax because many of the sisters were not following a call from God but seeking escape.

Our deepest needs and desires—the ones that have been placed in us by God—will motivate us and shape our entire lives.

* * *

My own personality was and still is shaped by a deep need for meaning and purpose in my life. I think I’ve always been this way, and to this day, my need for purpose and meaning continues to be very important to me. I know that this need can even make me see, a bit more serious than other people—at least on the surface. When I visited the sisters as a teenager, I was drawn to them partly because I thought that living their apostolate of contemplative prayer and active mission would give my life more meaning.  (When I got home, I tried to live a little bit of a convent schedule, and ended up frustrated and discouraged!)

Ultimately, my need for meaning and purpose in life became one of my main motivations for entering religious life, and I think it continues to influence me—even in difficult moments— because I can find joy as long as I continue to feel that I’m living my life’s purpose—drawing closer to Christ and sharing his love with the world.


To Journal About

Think back on some of the major choices you’ve made in your life. If you can, pick three. For each one, reflect on the following questions:

* What was the driving factor or motivation in each decision that you made?

* What inner needs or desires were you seeking to fulfill by making that decision?


2 thoughts on “Key Discernment Questions: Who am I & What do I want?

  1. How does one know the difference between a worldly desire and a divine desire. It seems to me that not all of our urges come from divine sources, so there must be a way to tell. Also you talk about my ‘needs and desires,’ but I am hearing a calling that doesn’t feel like it’s something to fill a need or desire, at least not of mine. I desire to heed the will of God, so I suppose my last statement isn’t completely correct. But my call to the Diaconate surprised me and didn’t come from a desire of mine to be a Deacon but rather I believe from a call to God. I was very scared when I first realized the call, not because I was afraid to do it but because I feel unworthy. I understand that God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called. But I my theological knowledge is so weak. I pray multiple times daily for the will and intelligence to understand and fulfill His holy will. My final comment is that I am baffled at times. I am certain that I heard the call, it was unmistakeable. But since then He has placed, or left, obstacles in my path. It would seem to me that if He wants me to go He would give me work to do toward that path, not leave me floundering as I wait for the next step. At times I feel adrift…


  2. Dear John,
    Thanks for reading and for sharing your questions and insights! Sorry I’m a bit behind in answering the comments.

    I posted twice more about desires–today and Saturday–and that might offer some insights for you. Obviously, if we are discerning God’s will, the options we are considering are good things, because God would never will us to do anything bad. So our first evaluation of our desires should be according to our faith, which would be a moral judgment. By definition, it seems to me that “worldly desires” might masquerade as “doing good,” but the better we come to know ourselves, the more we start to realize that the reason we want something is not because of the good that could result from it, but the pleasure/prestige/ or other advantage to us.

    One question that can help to clarify if a desire is worldly is: will this bring me closer to the Lord? If the answer is yes, then it’s a choice or option I can bring to discernment.

    St. Ignatius has a detailed treatment of “the discernment of spirits” in his writings, and Father Timothy Gallagher has written a wonderful book that explains the rules that Ignatius developed out of his own experience. I highly recommend all of Father Gallagher’s books, but this one specifically answers your questions about looking for the source of our desires. Here’s a link to the book:

    About discerning your call to the diaconate: God speaks to us in many ways, not just through our desires. The call to serve or to a particular ministry, may not necessarily be manifest in your desires. I certainly did not desire to become a religious sister when I received my call… But after I received a strong hint that God might be inviting me to religious life, I discovered that there were aspects of religious life that could answer some of my deeper desires. This came after months of discerning…and overcoming my initial resistance.

    A lack of obstacles is NOT a clear sign that this particular path is willed by God. Often it’s the contrary. If God has genuinely called you to the diaconate, wouldn’t it make sense that the devil would put all kinds of obstacles in your way to prevent the good that you would do as a deacon? Or, sometimes my own fears become obstacles. If we look at the lives of the saints, we see that sometimes the greatest works of God face the greatest obstacles. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity are famous and respected now, but initially Mother Teresa wasn’t sure she was on the right path, and she worked in obscurity for many, many years. The prolific Founder of the Pauline Family, Blessed James Alberione, described God leading him forward in his great pastoral works as a “a half-blind man, who is being led; and in moving along he is enlightened from time to time, so that he can proceed further.” In other words, this great Founder sometimes couldn’t even see far enough ahead to take the next step two steps forward.

    My spiritual director told me once that the more closely I followed the will of God, the harder it would be–both to discern and to live.

    Taking into account the circumstances of our lives–which is important in discerning–is different than expecting the path to be clear–or fairly clear–of obstacles. And yes, it is a matter of discernment when to continue on and when obstacles might be an indication that God is calling us in a different direction. It really depends on multiple factors…all of which need to be brought before God in prayer.

    I cannot speak directly to someone’s specific situation without knowing all the particulars–that’s why it’s so important to have or find a spiritual director who can get to know you and accompany you on your journey. But I hope that some of my thoughts here are helpful to you… Feeling baffled is definitely a feeling I’m familiar with in discerning choices in my apostolate! Sometimes a time of praying for clarity, allowing our feelings or our situation to “settle” can be helpful. At other times, it seems God gives us just enough light to take one more step forward, and he wants us to trust him.

    You will be in my prayers, John, as you discern such a beautiful call.


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