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30 November, 1999

Decision making is often a process marked by fluctuations of mood and even by struggle. Change and new commitments stir up feelings – both of anxiety and self-doubt as well as enthusiasm and energy. These feelings lead self-awareness and can be the way God indicates where he wants to lead me. Fr Brian O’Leary explains.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are often described as offering a way of coming to a good decision on a major issue in a person’s life. For example, a person may be facing a choice about getting married, or entering religious life, or changing career. These are difficult decisions, not to be taken lightly, and they will affect many people besides the person making the choice.

But for a Christian, there is always something else to be taken into account, another dimension to the questioning and the pondering. A Christian will want to make such a decision in line with Christ’s teaching, using the criteria of gospel values.

More bluntly, a Christian will not simply be asking ‘What do I want to do?’ but ‘What does God want me to do?’ He or she will long to be able to say, like Jesus, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to complete his work’ (John.4:34).

Unconditional love
The question about what God wants of me can be experienced as oppressive and threatening unless I know in my heart and in my gut that God loves me unconditionally. ‘Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you’ (Is. 43:4); ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope’ (Jer.29:11).

What resonance do these words have for me? If I hear them as addressed to me personally, and can accept them as an assurance that the God who loves me will be with me, then I can proceed with confidence. I will know that what God wants of me is not only for my good, but will turn out to coincide with my own deepest desires.

Yet even with such assurance decision making is often a process marked by fluctuations of mood and even by struggle. Why might this be? It is because once I begin to face the prospect of a major decision in my life, one that will require a radical change and a deep personal commitment, all kinds of feelings can begin to surface. Some of them will carry me along happily enough, such as attraction, energy, generosity, enthusiasm, and hope. But others will disturb me and hold me back, such as anxiety, fear, apathy, self-doubt, and anger.

How I deal with these fluctuations, this emotional roller coaster, is at the heart of what is called discernment. All such feelings can bring self-awareness and self-knowledge, but they can also reveal the direction in which God is leading me. (Ignatius offers helpful guidelines in his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits in the Spiritual Exercises).

Furthermore, by acknowledging and facing these conflictmg feelings I am enabled to grow in freedom. The freedom at issue here is not the kind that safeguards me from outside pressures or coercion (such as political freedom, or freedom of worship). It is an inner freedom that allows me to see myself and the world around me objectively, to respond to what I see lovingly and to make my decision in the light of God’s invitation.

Test of freedom
Much of the Spiritual Exercises revolve around this issue of spiritual freedom, suggesting ways of attaining it under God’s grace. In the earlier parts of the Exercises the emphasis is more on a freedom from sin, the roots of sin, disorder, addictions, selfishness, and the baleful influence of those cultural values that are opposed to the gospel. But soon the emphasis is placed on a freedom for service, discipleship, loving relationships, ministry (in its broadest sense), and whatever I am discovering that God is asking of me. Do I want only what God wants? This is the test of my level of freedom.

The difficulty that I have in making important decisions can be caused by many factors. Sometimes it is due to the complexity of my life situation; at others it may be due to the number of imponderables that face me as I look to the future. Sometimes it seems that God is absent or silent, and not supplying me with any guidance; at others the problem is that the options in front of me all seem equally attractive.

But in numerous cases the difficulty is simply that I do not have sufficient inner freedom to make a good decision. It may not be immediately apparent that this is the block I am experiencing. I may not be conscious of what is really going on within me. Lack of inner freedom often has a way of concealing itself, or of seeming to be
something else. But when my lack of freedom becomes clear, then I will need to focus my desires and prayer on growing into freedom.

Once I have attained sufficient freedom it can be surprising how many things fall into place. Where matters formerly seemed confused they are now clear; where I had seemed trapped in apathy I now feel energized; where I was full of fear, I am now ready to decide with boldness.

Against the background of these reflections it is interesting to read how Ignatius described his Spiritual Exercises as ‘every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid herself of all disordered attachments, so that once rid of them one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the good of the soul’ (Ex. I).

Or in another paragraph, ‘Spiritual Exercises having as their purpose the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life on the basis of a decision made in freedom from any ill-ordered attachment’ (Ex.23).’

The language and tone are those of a sixteenth-century writer, but the content of Ignatius’ words resonates with our contemporary experience of struggling with decision making. The Spiritual Exercises continue to offer us a way forward, to help us grow into freedom as mature Christian disciples, and to use this freedom in the service of God and of God’s people: AMDG.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.