Do you feel, at times, that you just have too much to do? Is it getting harder and harder to keep your commitments to prayer and spiritual reading? If so, perhaps the evil one has led you down the wrong path. You may be thinking, “…but my time is devoted to necessary work activities and to wonderful works of mercy—how could that be? After all, I have been discerning, through my prayer, that I should be doing all of these things.”
Discerning – Different Strokes for Different Folks
St. Ignatius of Loyola has given us rules for discerning what to do in such matters. These particular rules are for people who have been able, through God’s grace, and their cooperation with His grace, to develop an increasingly closer relationship with Him. They’ve moved to a state where they avoid mortal sin and constantly work at avoiding venial sin as well. That includes weekly, or more often, Mass attendance and reception of Holy Communion, together with at least monthly, if not biweekly or weekly, Confession. They are practicing daily Lectio Divina, together with a daily examen, as they work at building their virtues. Spiritually speaking, they are not lightweights, although as with any of us, they are works in progress.
Others of us may still be in the stage where we are building such spiritual habits. In that case, St. Ignatius has provided a different set of rules of discernment. However, if one has progressed to the stage described above, he or she won’t as easily succumb to the devil’s typical temptations. And the devil is smart enough to know that. Therefore, he uses a more subtle approach. He watches us to find our weaknesses. He then will use our weaknesses to try to lure us into traps. These traps can wreak havoc in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Problems with Inadequate Discernment
The problem with these subtle temptations is that we may not even notice them while they are occurring. We just go along, doing what seems right. At some point, we wake up and find out that what we thought was “right” was anything but. We may look back on missed opportunities in our apostolates because we devoted our time to less important matters. Even worse, the path we took may have led to a downward spiritual spiral for us and perhaps for many others. These outcomes could have been avoided by more carefully discerning our choices.
Discerning People Would Want to Know
Let’s consider some examples where more astute discernment could have far reaching, salutary effects. In this day and age, everyone is trying to do more with less. This can be true in both the employment-for-pay and the volunteer roles that we assume. At work, management may give us an opportunity to put in more hours or to take on some additional duties. In either case, this reflects a good thing. We are performing our jobs well enough that our boss would consider us for the additional work. Adding these responsibilities to our plates will generate a better income for us. It can help make ends meet or build a little nest egg, and so on—fill in the blank. So far, so good. But what effects will it have on our relationships with our family, with those in our apostolates who depend on us, and with Our Lord and Savior?
Another common example involves volunteer activities. Some good and faithful Christians volunteer their time and charisms to help others and build up the Body of Christ. More than a few belong to multiple organizations and actively participate in many or all of them. It’s easy to participate in these charitable activities. There always are far more needs, it seems, than there are people to accommodate them. But where does one draw the line? Will partaking in the next volunteer activity bring us closer to God or take us farther away? What time demands will joining another charitable group place on us? Discerning wisely can really help here.
Our Image of God and Its Impact
We ought also to discern our image of God and our resulting self-image. The late Fr. Karl Frielingsdorf, a professor of pastoral psychology, noted that subconscious, false images of God can drive some very dysfunctional behaviors. According to him, our image of God is formed during our first couple of years of life and influenced by the environment in which we grow up. Often we form false images of God as a harsh judge, a bookkeeper tracking our sins, or a difficult taskmaster, for example. These images of God affect our self-image and the way we behave. The false image of God as the taskmaster can directly encourage us to try to do too much, even though what we attempt to do is inherently good. Under the taskmaster view of God, achievement is the end goal. Self-esteem, under this false image of God, is tied to our achievements and success.
If we were raised as achievers, we may transfer onto God these expectations of high achievement. Fr. Frielingsdorf tells us that this false image of God is of one who just keeps asking us for more and more in performance. Therefore, we work even harder at doing more and more, looking for acknowledgement by, and approval of, others. Thus, even though we see our efforts as self-sacrificing works of charity, they really are out of alignment with God’s will for us. This ultimately leads to burnout if we are not careful. We must love our neighbor as ourselves—but we really must love ourselves as well. Fr. Frielingsdorf makes a key point: “…the only human beings capable of being selfless are those whose self does indeed exist…” If we’re not careful, this false image of God can harm us under the guise of doing charitable works.
Downside of Discernment Disasters
Consider also the many possible effects of giving away so much of our time in various pursuits. It can distract us from our primary responsibilities in our state of life. For example, if one is married, does taking on something that is a seemingly good cause result in neglect of spouse or family? Where are we when our family needs us? For those in pastoral ministry, does adding another layer of responsibilities get in the way of actually performing pastoral duties for one’s flock? Can the sheep even find the shepherds when they need them?
God has given us each a unique mission in life. Do opportunities for further involvement, that we believe are from God, facilitate that mission? Or do they create dissipation and throw us off the path? In other words, are they leading us away from our primary mission to something of less relative value in the final analysis? Admittedly, we should not be burying our talents, but are we making the most of them? Are we working at discerning where the best use of those talents lies? Even if one added activity doesn’t cause a problem, where do we draw the line with subsequent tugs on our time? We all have only so much bandwidth. Are we using it wisely, with magnanimity, for the greater glory of God?
A Caveat for Anyone Seeking Christ
It should be clear that the evil one will work in a subtle way to trap the faithful who are well on their way to strong interior lives. Yet the same temptations to busyness—to overdoing activities—will plague anyone, no matter how advanced they are in their prayer life. By keeping us constantly on the go, the enemy of God keeps us from God. The more time we spend in “doing,” the less time we can spend in “being” in the presence of God, in listening to Him, loving Him. We will be not be exempt from the enemy’s attempts, even if we are praying daily. All the more reason, in fact, for the enemy to pour on the heat and keep a person from ever getting closer to God through a deep prayer life. Regardless of where we are in our spiritual life, discerning what God really wants us to do is key.
The Bottom Line
No matter what our vocation in life is, we all need to discern what effect any new activities may have on our prayer life. We need to guard our regular, daily prayer time with God. Prayer time is often the first to go when we get busy. The evil one wants it that way because regular mental prayer helps us grow in, and maintain, our relationship with God. Furthermore, through this relationship we can, with assistance from our confessor or spiritual director, better discern what God really wants us to do. We can discern how He wants us to use those gifts He’s given us, that are unique to each of us.
Without a spiritual guide and proper discernment, it is easy for the devil to appeal to our weaknesses with a subtlety that we might miss. His appeals to our pride and our vanity, to our needs for achievement, affirmation and approbation, to our need for control—you name it—can lead us into decisions that we will regret later. The decisions may seem right initially, but the fruits will tell us otherwise. Discerning that up front is far better than discerning it after the fact.
We may believe that we’ve received a sense from God that, together with our existing volunteer activities, we need to join that next new ministry, or that we need to sign up for the next volunteer activity. Or, it may seem that we should take on more responsibility in some existing pursuit. The point is, though, that the inspiration we think we received may not have been from God at all:
“…for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light.” 2 Cor 11:14
Discern wisely then, with good counsel—this life is short—make the most of it through Him, with Him, and in Him.