Discerning in Times of Desolation and Change

sunset-cloudsWhen we are going through a midlife transition or another big change in our lives—a change that means a long transition and many days of desolation and darkness—we often feel a sense of urgency to discern God’s will for us because so many things in our lives are changing and we need to make decisions about how to move forward with our lives. Yet, how do we discern God’s will for us in the midst of a big transition when it is accompanied by a sense of confusion, loss, darkness, and even desolation (as big transitions often are)?

Ignatius of Loyola, along with other saints such as Francis de Sales, counsel that in times of desolation, we should stay with our good resolutions that we made before we entered such a time of desolation. In times of great distress it is easy to give in to feelings of discouragement, to give up. It can even be easy to impulsively decide to radically change the direction of our lives because everything feels different or overwhelming.

* * *

When we pursue anything new that requires commitment, we will face multiple crises when we will reevaluate whether it’s worth pursuing. One of our culture’s most frequently used metaphors about perseverance through difficulty is sports movies. Sports films illustrate well the importance of persevering through a particular moment of failure and desolation. (The film Rudy is one of my favorites in this regard.)  As the protagonist goes through their biggest moments of crises and discouragement, we root for them to continue on, because we know that the crisis is temporary, and the person can only make a good decision (discernment) when they base their decision on the entire experience, not just the discouragement and desolation they feel now.

FreedomWritersPosterIn the film Freedom Writers (2007), first-time teacher Erin Gruwell (portrayed by Hilary Swank) chooses to teach in a tough, gang-infested school because she wants to make a real difference in the lives of troubled teens. At first, the kids in her classes ignore her entirely, the other teachers discourage her and even make it more difficult, her father pressures her to teach at a school in a safer neighborhood, and her husband wants her to spend less time with the kids and more time at home. At a certain point, it seems that Erin’s big heart and belief in these kids isn’t enough. She has to face the truth that what she’s doing in the classroom isn’t working. The temptation comes, of course, for her to give up teaching at that school, and perhaps to give up teaching altogether.

Instead, Erin digs deep. As she creatively confronts each obstacle, we cheer her on, because she doesn’t allow failure, isolation, discouragement, and desolation to overwhelm her. Although she has to adjust her attitudes and how she teaches,  she doesn’t give up on these kids nor on her original purpose.

Letting Go of Discernment Anxiety

imag0266Our discernments can start to go offtrack when we allow anxiety to take over. But if we are at a turning point in our lives where we might be changing directions or where we cannot see the future, it can be easy to start worrying about the uncertainty of the unknown.

One young woman who was discerning her vocation told me. “Discerning is hard. It’s like I’m trying to predict the future.”

Discernment isn’t easy, but not because it’s predicting the future. Discernment is about seeking God’s call in the present moment. While it’s true that whatever choices we make today will affect our future, the way to live in discernment is to seek to faithfully live God’s call in the present moment, taking it moment by moment.

So why do most of us, at some points in our discernment, become anxious? Why is discernment so hard?

Discernment can be hard because it requires us to trust God in a very personal way. Discernment calls us to trust…

  • That God loves us
  • That God has a plan for us
  • That God is revealing or will reveal his plan to us
  • That God is at work in our lives today, in ways that we often cannot see or recognize
  • That ultimately, we have a lot less control over our own lives than we’d like to think. (We have free will, can make choices, and are responsible for our own behavior, but so many parts of our lives and the situations we find ourselves in are beyond our control. When we are not in control of these things, anxiety about them can give us a sense that we have some control. Then it can become even harder to entrust them to God’s loving providence.)

We may think that we trust in God because we can recite an Act of Faith or the Creed. But sometimes the truths of our faith can seem theoretical or far away from us personally, even though they are not. Yes, we believe in the Incarnation. Yes, we believe in Jesus’ most holy Presence in the Eucharist. Our faith sometimes seems more like a checklist.

But do we believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist not just for everyone else, but for me, personally? Do we believe that God will act in our lives, right here and right now, when we need him to? For many of us, that kind of trust in God has to be learned experientially.

Sometimes the best thing to do when we struggle with trusting God, especially when we feel anxious about the uncertainty of the future, is to turn our prayer into surrender, entrusting even our fears to God’s loving hands. We can more easily do this if we can focus on living the present moment. We can almost always entrust this moment and whatever we are going through to God.

The Bible is full of wonderful passages that express and help us grow in trust in God. Some of my favorites are:

  • Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd
  • Jeremiah 17:7-8 Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.
  • Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord, not in your own understanding
  • Matthew 6:25-34 Jesus tells us not to worry
  • Philippians 4:4-20 God will meet all our needs
  • 1 John 4:7-21 Rely on God’s love for us

If you have a favorite Scripture passage that encourages you to trust in the Lord, I’d love for you to share it below. In my next post, I’ll share a favorite psalm that is an oft-repeated prayer in my life.