(Learn to Discern, Principle #14)
One of the most frequent issues that arises almost every time I talk about discernment is the role of personal desire in spiritual and practical discernment.
It might take the form of, “how do I know that this is what God wants and not just what I want?” or “I really want x, and so it’s probably not what I should do,” or, “I have always wanted to do y, but that’s irrelevant, right?”
Is personal desire something that belongs in discernment? Or is it the kind of thing that we should just disregard because it’s a massive distraction from what is really meant to be happening? How do I know if I can trust my desire?
These aren’t easy questions – mostly because there are so many different types of desire and so many different circumstances that might render different answers!
Here’s what is definitely true: God didn’t create us as robots. He made us as unique individuals with reason and free will, and wants us to discern as the kind of creatures that we actually are. However, we also live as creatures affected by sin – which means that our desires may not always lead us in the right direction. They need to be discerned.
That’s right: we’ve got to discern whether or not our desires can be trusted in the process of discernment! Sound challenging?
Here are some key principles to help you know whether or not you can trust your desire in the process of discernment.
Deep, personal desire – which is different from a passing emotion (however intense) – always happens in the context of your whole life. Do you generally lead a listening kind of life? The kind where God can speak and you can hear, regularly? If not, start there.
Is what you desire good, or neutral? If the object of your desire is wrong, it’s not something you want to pursue. If you’ve been feeding a long-standing desire to harm someone else, for example, it’s not a good desire. Don’t trust it, don’t follow it. God always wants good for our lives – not just that we do good, but also that we do the kinds of actions that shape us to become a better version of ourselves: to live with more integrity, more honesty, more kindness.
Is why you desire it good, or neutral? Sometimes we want something good, but we want it for the wrong reason. Maybe we want to help a friend in some good way, but really we want to do it because the way that she is currently living, which isn’t inherently bad, drives us crazy. Or maybe we want to be a doctor in order to help heal people… but really because we want the prestige that comes with such a role. Pay attention to the real motivation behind your desires.
Is the way in which you desire it good, or neutral? Or does your desire come from a place of anger, frustration, or dissatisfaction? These emotions can spark something in us (for instance, we can be angry at a certain injustice in the world, and seek to correct it), but if they consistently accompany the whole of our desire, we need to pause and consider what’s really going on.
Jacques Phillipe offers these wise words: “…we want only those things that are good, in conformity with the will of God. But, we want them in a manner that is still not ‘God’s way,’ that is to say, the way of the Holy Spirit, which is caring, peaceful, and patient. We want them in a human way, tense, hurried, and discouraged if we do not immediately achieve the desired goal.”
This leads to our next point: is the desire accompanied by peace? Again, we have to distinguish between deep peace and a surface-level sense of emotional happiness. True peace comes at a deeper, interior level: it is present even when we might feel some emotion like nervousness or fear. Peace brings what we might describe as a gut-sense of right-ness. It fits, it clicks, it satisfies – regardless of whether or not the thing “makes sense” on the outside. Peace gives us a sense of sturdiness, interior strength, even when we feel outwardly fragile. It gives us inner calm despite outward difficulty. If our desires bring interior tumult, if they leave us feeling deeply unsettled or if they make us unable to concentrate or be present to those around us, we need to question their origin and purpose.
Finally, is the desire, accompanied by peace, gently persistent? Deep desire should have our attention when it’s more than a passing phase or whim. Sometimes we can want something as a reaction to something else. Perhaps we encounter poverty and feel immediately that we need to increase our savings. Or perhaps we see someone in a professional role that makes us think, “I could do that.” Deep desires deserve our attention when they remain in us regardless of circumstances. Not sure whether or it’s deep desire or passing whim? Give it time. Wait and see whether and how it sits in you.
Good desires are, of course, only one aspect of the whole discernment process. We can pray about them, test them out, record them over time, and talk about them to someone who can offer wise guidance.
It’s also really crucial to know ourselves well. Some people have a tendency to enjoy “dwelling in possibility” – they enjoy the process of considering all kinds of options, without necessarily wanting to pursue any of them. If that’s you, start paying attention to when you’re just dreaming (and there’s nothing wrong with dreaming of good things), and when you actually sense a need to move in a particular direction. The more you’re aware of it, the easier it will become to distinguish.