A time ago, I was speaking to a young woman about her attempts to discern God’s will in her life. She gave me permission to share her story.

She came to me because she felt paralyzed by the instability in her life. The last eight years had been marked by erratic, disconnected, short-term commitments. I asked her to share with me how she goes about trying to discern God’s will. After a few minutes of listening, it was clear to me her approach was dominated by emotional reasoning, a fear of long-term commitments, and a claim to immediate and infallible access to God’s mind and will. I especially noted how many of her references to “God said to me” were the very things leading her in circles, convincing her God was as chaotic and indecisive as she was.

We met a few times, and I tried to help her gain some stability by thinking very practically through some of her basic life decisions, and tried to convince her that her overreliance on the unfiltered claim to immediate mystical access to God’s voice was making her vulnerable to canonizing her whims and preferences. I also said, “Do you see that when you tell me, ‘God told me,’ or ‘the Lord put it on my heart to,’ it shuts me down. What could I possibly say in response to that? ‘No, I’m sorry, God’s wrong’?” We laughed.

We spent several meetings talking about discernment as integrating emotions with reason and good judgment informed by faith. We also talked about the longer term work of cultivating hard-nosed virtues that would help her sustain commitments for a longer time and face inevitable hardships courageously. This, I said, would help her avoid the trap she had fallen into of equating “this is hard” with “God is obviously leading me elsewhere.”

I also tried to convince her that her conception of God’s will was riddled with an erroneous view of predestination. She believed that God had picked out all the details of her life in advance, and so her terrifying job was to guess in each moment what those specific details were. She lived in a mortal fear of failure, which drove her deeper into the hyper-mystical path of seeking infallible access to God’s real-time “dictation” voice in every moment, i.e., “My daughter, do this; don’t do this.” I said,

Yes, sometimes God in extraordinary circumstances gives us mystical graces to communicate his will and bypasses the normal process of exercising common sense judgment. Those charismatic moments can be beautiful, though even they need to be tested. But ordinarily, God acts through careful thinking about how we can best love him and our neighbor in the moment; through praying for divine light, striving for purity of heart, making the maximal use of our gifts to better Church and world, relying on wise mentors for advice and correction, making our best judgments, and then going forward with a will to persevere and carry the cross; all the while open to correction along the way.

I also tried to help her discover in God’s will a wonderful freedom and fun, arguing that God allows us a spacious space in which to exercise a real creativity that positively contributes novelty to his plan. I said, “God is a Father, not a dictator; a lover, not a puppet master. He doesn’t give us freedom only to render it irrelevant. Yes, he wants us to have the heart of the child, but also the mind of an adult [1 Cor. 13:11].” I shared with her a quote from Peter Kreeft that she found liberating:

Take a specific instance where different choices are both equally good. Take married sex. As long as you stay within God’s law—no adultery, no cruelty, no egotism, no unnatural acts, as, for example, contraception—anything goes. Use your imagination. Is there one and only one way God wants you to make love to your spouse? What a silly question! Yet making love to your spouse is a great good, and God’s will. He wants you to decide to be tender or wild, moving or still, loud or quiet, so that your spouse knows it’s you, not anyone else, not some book who’s deciding.

At our last meeting, I gave her a quote from St. Augustine that I wrote out in a note card and told her, “This is the core of what I’ve tried to share with you. If we get this, we’ve got it all and can’t go wrong.” May we all embrace and live this unto God’s revolution.

Once for all, then, a short precept is given unto you: Love God, and do what you will. Whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare. In all things, let the root of love be within, for of this root can nothing spring but what is good.