Discerning God's Will

St. Francis de Sales

Here you find a few short texts from St. Francis de Sales on discernment of the will of God. Much more is available in the popular book Finding God's Will for You, a translation of the writing of St. Francis.

Treatise on the Love of God, Book 8, Chapter 14

S. Basil says that God's will shown to us by his ordinances or commandments, and then there is nothing to deliberate about, since we need simply to do what is ordained; but  for the rest we are free to choose what seems good to us, though we are not to do all that is lawful but only what is expedient, and again, to discern rightly what is expedient we should follow the advice of our spiritual father.

But, Theotimus, I warn you about a troublesome temptation which often comes to souls that have a great desire to always do what is most according to God's will. For the enemy at every turn puts them in doubt about whether it is God's will for them to do one thing rather than another; for example, whether it is God's will for them to eat with a friend, or for them not to eat with him, whether they should wear grey or black clothes, whether they should fast Friday or Saturday, whether they should take recreation or abstain from it; and in this they lose much time, and while they occupy themselves and are anxious to discern what is better, they unprofitably lose the time for doing many good things, the doing of which would be far more to God's glory, than this distinguishing between the good and the better, which has taken up their time.

It is not customary to weigh little money, but only valuable pieces: business would be too troublesome and would devour too much time, if we were to weigh pence, halfpence, farthings and half-farthings. So we should not weigh every little action to know whether it is of more value than others. Indeed there is a kind of superstition in trying to make this examination; for why should we puzzle about whether it would be better to hear Mass in one church than in another, to spin than to sew, to give alms to a man rather than a woman? It is not good service to a master to spend as much time in considering what is to be done, as in doing the things which are needful. We are to proportion our attention to the importance of what we undertake. It would be an ill-regulated carefulness to take as much trouble in deliberating about a day's journey as about one of three or four hundred leagues.

The choice of one's vocation, the planning of some matter of great consequence, of some work occupying much time, of some very great expense, the change of home, the choice of companions, and such things, we should seriously considered what is most according to the will of God. But in little daily matters, in which even a mistake is neither of much consequence nor irreparable, what need is there to make a business of them, to scrutinize them, or to importunately ask advice about them? To what end should I put myself out to learn whether God would prefer me to say the Rosary or Our Lady's Office, since there can be no such difference between them, that a great examination need be held; to go to visit the sick in the hospital rather than to Vespers, to go to a sermon rather than to a church where there is an indulgence? Generally there is no such noteworthy importance in the one more than the other that it is needful to make any great deliberation. We must walk in good faith and without minute consideration in such matters, and, as S. Basil says, freely choose what seems to us good, so as not to weary our spirit, lose time, and put ourselves in danger of disquiet, scruples, and superstition. But I mean always where there is no great disproportion between the two works, and where there is no considerable circumstance on one side more than on the other.

And even in matters of consequence we must be very humble, and not think to find  God's will by force of examination and subtlety of discourse; but having implored the light of the Holy Spirit, applied our consideration to the seeking of his good-pleasure, taken the counsel of our director, and if appropriate, of two or three other spiritual persons, we must resolve and determine in the name of God, and not afterwards revoke or doubt our choice, but devoutly, peacefully, and firmly pursue and keep to it. And although the difficulties, temptations and the various circumstances which occur in the course of executing our design, might cause us some doubt as to whether we had made a good choice, we must remain firm, and not regard such things, but consider that if we had made another choice we might have been a hundred times worse; to say nothing of our not knowing whether it be God's will that we should be exercised in consolation or desolation, in peace or war. Once the resolution has been holily taken, we must never doubt of the holiness of carrying it out; for unless we fail it cannot fail. To act in another manner is a mark of great self-love, or of childishness, weakness and silliness of spirit.

LETTER. (The less self-willed we are, the easier it will be to us to follow God’s will.)

We must recollect that there is no vocation without its wearinesses, its bitternesses, and its trials; and moreover (except in the case of those who are wholly resigned to the will of God,) each one would willingly change his condition with that of others. Those who are Ministers, would fain be otherwise. They who are married, would they were not. They who are not, would they were. From whence proceeds this general discontentedness, if it be not a certain rebellion against constraint, and an evil spirit in us that makes each one think another’s condition better than his own?

But it is all one; and whosoever is not entirely resigned, but keeps on turning this way and that, never will find peace. When a person has a fever, he finds no place comfortable; he has not remained in one bed a quarter of an hour, before he wishes to be in another. It is not the bed which is in fault, but the fever, which torments him everywhere. And so a person who has not the fever of self-will, is contented everywhere and in all things, provided God be glorified. He cares not in what capacity God employs him, provided he can do therein His Divine will.

But this is not all. We must not only do the will of God, but to be really devout, we must do it cheerfully, nay, joyfully. If I were not a Bishop, perhaps, knowing what I now do, I might wish not to be one. But being one, not only am I obliged to do all that this difficult vocation requires, but I must do it joyfully, and make it agreeable to myself to do it. This is what St. Paul means when he says, “Let every man in the vocation in which he is called, therein abide with God.”1

We cannot bear the crosses of others, but each one must bear his own; and that we may each bear our own, our Lord would that each should renounce himself; that is to say, his own will. “I wish this or that” I should be better here or there.” These are temptations. Our Lord knows best what is best for each one of us; let us do what He wills, and remain where He has placed us.

But you have asked me to give you a few practical rules for your guidance. Besides all I have told you above, you should, First, meditate every day, either in the morning or before dinner or supper, and especially on the Life and Death of our Lord, and you can make use of any book that may assist you. Your meditation should never last above half-an-hour; at the end of each always add a consideration of the obedience which our Lord exercised towards God His Father: for you will see that all He did was done in obedience to the will of God; and considering this will rouse you more earnestly to strive to learn His will yourself. Secondly, before you do or prepare to do any of those duties of your calling which are apt to irritate you, think of the saints of old, who joyfully endured great and grievous things,—some suffering martyrdom, some dishonor in this world; some binding up ulcers and fearful sores; some banishing themselves into the desert; some working among slaves in the galleys: and each and all to do something pleasing in the sight of God. And what are we called upon to do, approaching to such trials as these?

Thirdly, Often think that the real value of whatever we do, is proportioned by the conformity with which we do it to the will of God. If in merely eating or drinking I do it because it is the will of God that I should, I am doing what is more agreeable to Him, than if I were to do what should even cost me my life, without any such Divine intention.

Fourthly, I would advise you often during the day, beseech God that He would inspire you with a real love of your vocation, and that you should say, like St. Paul, when he was converted, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?2 Wouldest Thou that I should serve Thee in the lowest office in Thy house? I will reckon myself here, too blest. Provided that I serve Thee, I care not in what capacity.” And coming more particularly to what is vexing you, say, “Wouldest Thou that I should do such-and-such a thing? Alas! O Lord, though I am not worthy, willingly will I do it:” and by these means you may greatly humble yourself; and oh, what a treasure you will obtain! Far, far greater, doubtless, than you can ever estimate!

Fifthly, I would wish that you should consider how many saints have been in your position of life and vocation, and how they all accommodated themselves to it with great meekness and resignation; as many in the Old Testament as in the New,—Sara, and Rebecca, and Elizabeth, and the holy Anna, and St. Paul, and hundreds of others; and let their example encourage you. We must love what God loves; and if He loves our vocation, let us love it also; and let us not amuse ourselves, by placing ourselves in the position of others. Let us diligently do our business. For each his own cross is not too much. Gently mingle the office of Martha with that of Mary, diligently doing the duties of your calling, often recollecting yourself, and placing yourself in spirit at the foot of the Cross, and saying, “My Lord, whether I run, or whether I stand still, or whatever I do, I am Thine, and Thou art mine. Thou art my first Love, my Spouse, and all that I do, it is for Thee, whatsoever it be.”

Further, every evening examine yourself, and throughout the day constantly raise ejaculatory prayers to God. I recommend, for your reading, the “Spiritual Combat.” Communicate, if possible, every week, and regularly attend the services of the Church on Sundays and Festivals. Remember also what I have often told you,—be just to yourself in the devoted life you are leading; I mean, let others, and especially those of your own family, see its blessed effects in yourself, and be led to honor it accordingly. We must always be careful not to make our devotion annoying to others. What we cannot do without annoyance, especially to those placed over us, we should leave undone: and believe me this spiritual self-denial and privation, so far from being displeasing to God, will be accepted by Him as such, and turn to your own profit. Deny yourself willingly; and in proportion as you are hindered from doing the good you desire, strive so much the more zealously to do what you do not desire. Perhaps it is difficult for you to resign yourself patiently and gladly to these privations, but in doing so, you will gain for yourself real benefit. In all commit your cares and trials, and contradictions, and whatever befalls you to God, comforting yourself in the thought, that He blesses those who are holy, or those who are striving to become so. Keep your heart ready to bear every sort of cross and disappointment with resignation, for the sake of Him Who has borne so much for us: and may He fill thy heart and be thy guide through life!

11 Cor 7:24.

2Acts 9:6.

LETTER. (Recognizing God’s Will in our most trifling actions, gives them great value. We must love nothing too ardently, not even virtues.)

Never regard the actual value of anything you do, but think only to Whose honor it is done: it is permitted by God’s wisdom; and if it is pleasing to Him, it little matters if it seems despicable in the eyes of others.

Strive day by day to become more pure in heart. Now this purity consists in estimating everything, and weighing everything in the balance of the sanctuary, which really is no other than the will of God.

Love nothing too passionately, I beseech you, not even virtue, which one overreaches sometimes by passing the limits of moderation. I do not know whether you understand me, but I think you do; I am speaking of your overeager desires and zeal.

It is not the especial property of roses to be white. Pink or red ones are sweeter and more beautiful; but it is the especial property of the lily. So, in like manner, let us be what we are, and let us, as we live, do the best we can to honor Him Whose workmanship we are.

One would laugh at a painter, who, wishing to draw a horse, should draw a bull; the work in itself might be perfect, but it would do little honor to the skill of the artist, who, intending one design, produced, unintentionally, a very different one. So let us be what God wills, provided that in our calling we are devoted to Him, and not striving to follow out of that calling what He has not appointed as our work; for if we were the most excellent creatures under heaven, what would it profit us, if it were in our own way to the neglect of that appointed us by God?

Other Letters of St. Francis de Sales